Praise – Why do we get blank stares?
Every child wants to be loved for who she or he is. At the same time, we want to see children thrive. When it comes to learning, we need to be aware of it. Praise can work magic if expressed well but sometimes, we choose well-meaning ‘encouragement’ like, ‘Hey, see, you managed to do that, in the end!’, blissfully unaware that it can sound patronising rather than encouraging.
I asked some of my students to tell me examples of effective and ineffective praise. ‘Which words work for you when you are praised?’ I asked. They mostly couldn’t come up with anything specific. As long as it’s nice, it makes no difference, they opined.
However, experts beg to differ, believing that some style of praising, even if well meant, can be harmful. Praising is an art and one has to be inventive, trying to say something different from the usual ‘good job’ from time to time. I personally found out those children appreciated humour. Being mindful when praising seems to be the way forward.
According to Carol Dweck, a pioneering researcher in the field of motivation, children value when we say something like: ‘I can see your understanding of this topic is growing. You understand now how division works.’ Dweck emphasises that we should praise the effort that led to the outcome or learning process:
‘You stuck with this and now you really understand it.’
‘Don’t worry if you don’t understand it right away. Focus on your next step. What should it be?’
‘You tried different strategies and your worked out how to solve this problem.’
So, is the ordinary ‘Well done’ outdated? When do we get smiles and when just blank stares?
Once, I wanted to give my student, Ella, encouragement, to boost her confidence, to see her proud smile. She looked at me and I couldn’t see any trace of pride, not even a little satisfaction. Just confusion – and a blank stare.
Later on, I learnt that children lacking self-confidence in their abilities would not accept praise of this kind because they simply don’t believe it. They feel like impostors. Or they will feel betrayed once they come to realise their true level of attainment alongside the meagre expectations of parents and teachers.
It took time to build trust with Ella and find an effective way to respond to her success. I realised I must proceed slowly, to address all those hidden fears associated with failure. I used the motivational techniques, as mentioned above, while carefully selecting appropriate learning objectives. After some time, Ella could see herself differently somehow: more aware, more confident, more capable. Now, I see her bloom and her parents too.
‘Thank you so much for your wonderful tutoring. You helped E. grow in confidence in many ways.’
‘With your help I have dramatically improved.’
For more information about our programmes, please go to www.outoftheboxteaching.co.uk or call 07786 628820 to discuss your child’s learning needs.