The Art (and Science) of Using Praise for Improvement
In addition to improving relationships, praise from teachers can boost students’ confidence and self-esteem.
Praise is a powerful expression of gratitude that can nurture relationships, improve well-being, and activate learning. Being intentional in how we use praise versus corrections/constructive feedback can make all the difference (both personally and professionally).
Here’s a thought exercise I offer in the book Evolving with Gratitude: “Think about a learning environment that you have been in recently. It can be your own classroom or one that you visited as an instructional coach, administrator, etc. Scan the space, and see all of those wonderful faces. Think about all the things you can thank them for: actively engaging in learning, offering a warm smile, helping others, and so much more. You continue scanning the room, and then you get to that one kid. This kid challenges you. Maybe they can’t sit still, they can’t stop talking, they show up late, they don’t turn in assignments, or all of the above.”
Behavior is communication, and what if this individual needs your praise more than you can imagine? What if this is someone who really needs to feel seen, heard, and genuinely appreciated? Often, the kids (and adults) who challenge us the most are the ones who need us the most.
Earning my psychology degree, I was taught that we should acknowledge positive behavior six times more than we acknowledge negative behavior. That’s a lot of positive reinforcement! Experts don’t always agree on the exact ratio, but regardless of the context—business, romantic relationships, or learning communities—experts do agree that we want to overwhelmingly spotlight the good. So, why don’t we do this naturally?
BARRIERS TO OFFERING MORE PRAISE
We have negativity bias. As humans, we are wired with a negativity bias, meaning that even in the best of times, we notice the negative exponentially more than the positive. Considered an adaptive evolutionary function, negativity bias served a critical purpose thousands of years ago, helping our ancestors make choices to survive. Negative emotions also serve a purpose and can help keep us safe, but negativity bias can have us overwhelmingly focused on the negative in unproductive ways.
We have a tendency to miss the quiet people among us. What about those who keep their heads down and are (sadly) easy to overlook? When we gather in groups, there are often people (kids and adults) who tend to fly under the radar. They don’t cause a problem, and they quietly go about their business (even though they have plenty to offer to others). How often do they hear their names called? How often do these individuals feel seen, heard, and genuinely appreciated?
Our jobs involve helping others improve. Another thing that could be holding us back is something that I consider an occupational hazard. Given our profound role as educators, we are dedicated to continuous improvement. No matter what our role is, teacher, principal, or superintendent, we want everything to be the best it can be, so naturally, with the best of intentions, we want to point out room for improvement.
As tempting as it is to share every opportunity for growth, it’s important to remember that a little constructive feedback can go a long way, and positive feedback is what motivates us to continue to improve. Easier said than done. Even when we are being intentional about seeing the good in others, it can be tough, but we all have strengths. Shining a light on those strengths and doing it often can make all the difference.
TIPS FOR HIGHLIGHTING THE POSITIVES AND PROMOTING GROWTH
So what would this look like for academics? Let’s look at writing as an example. Raise your hand if you can remember being a student and getting a piece of your writing returned with massive mark-ups, possibly even in the dreaded red marker! Here are some tips you may want to try:
- Teach everyone the importance of positive feedback. Don’t keep it a secret, model it, and gently hold each other accountable (kids and adults).
- Teach learners to give peer feedback, both positive and constructive. Use rubrics, checklists, and sentence stems so that everyone can provide timely, high-quality feedback.
- Leverage a workshop model to celebrate successes in the moment and give real-time feedback.
- Don’t correct everything. (I know—yikes!) Instead, provide targeted, actionable feedback on what’s most important for the current learning goal(s). Bonus: Once high-quality peer review is in place, fellow learners tend to catch mistakes, which saves us time.
Is focusing on the good easy? For most, myself included, no, at least not at first. Is this highly effective and worth it? Absolutely!
If increasing praise for your entire class or team seems overwhelming, start small and build up to it. Pick one person who is struggling or goes unnoticed, and focus on acknowledging their successes more (social behavior and academic performance). There is no one way to do this, which is why this is an art informed by science.
Note to self: Be aware of unconscious negatives. Yes, nasty glare and eye rolling, I’m talking about you.
Honestly, are all the relationships in my life perfect all the time? No! But being intentional in focusing on authentic, heartfelt, and specific positive feedback has improved every relationship in my life. And when things get tough, personally or professionally, I remind myself, the best way to change someone else’s behavior is to change my own behavior first.