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What Is the Difference Between Praise and Encouragement?

Kelly Gfroerer, PhD, LPC

December 11, 2020

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Question

What is the difference between praise and encouragement?

Answer

We are a praise-focused culture. Praise is like candy. A little goes a long way, and too much can be unhealthy. It is almost an automatic reflex for adults to praise young children. Knowing the difference between what encouragement versus praise can do for children is so important. 

Praise can teach dependency on others, while encouragement focuses on capability. I want you to work over the next week to catch yourself when you praise because you always will. See if you can turn it around to an encouragement statement that focuses on something specific, the effort the child is making, or even the emotion you see on their face. It is harder than you think. I do not want you to be discouraged by trying to shift from praise to encouragement, but it is really important, because it helps influence our children's development of grit, and the statements they say in their head to themselves.
 
Remember, encouragement will invite self-evaluation while praise invites children to become approval junkies and come back for more and more. One of my peers in graduate school gave an example that I really felt helped capture this concept. If you put the spotlight on a child with praise, then when you walk away you take that spotlight with you. However, when you use encouragement, and that is the spotlight, it goes deep and it sticks. When you walk away, the encouragement stays with the child. This is a simple shift of words. Here are some examples of that shift.
 
Praise: I am so proud of you."
Encouragement: "You worked hard. You must be so proud of yourself."
 
Praise: "I liked your picture."
Encouragement: "Look at all the colors you used. Tell me about your picture."
 
If you are working with children, you will catch yourselves many times a day using praise statements. Just simply catching yourself and following up with focus on effort or process or specificity can help.
 
I am going to tell you a story about myself. As an Adlerian play therapy student, I was in a classroom with a one-way mirror where my whole job was just to practice encouragement and get feedback from my professor and peers. I did a great job. At the time I was a mother of young children. When I was through I went to pick up my own children from preschool. My son put a beautiful picture in my hands, and I quickly caught myself saying, "Oh Bryce, I love it." I caught myself and followed up and asked, "Tell me the colors you used, how did you decide?" and "Tell me what you like about your picture?" That shifted the conversation so it would go deeper. Praise is not bad. Again, it is like candy. It is just shifting to a little bit different language where we are focusing on effort and what the child is experiencing rather than our adult approval.
 
Carol Dweck's research is fascinating to me. She was at Columbia and is now at Stanford. She has done decades of research with preschoolers, all the way through working with her graduate students. She has focused on the impact of praise on students and found that students who were praised for being smart when they accomplished a task later chose easier tasks. These students did not want to risk making mistakes. On the other hand, children who were encouraged for their efforts chose more challenging tasks when given a choice. To me, this has such an impactful message for educators, especially early childhood educators, about what a simple shift in language can do in terms of motivating students. Encouragement that focuses on the student's effort provides a variable the student can control. Students come to see themselves in control of their success.  To encourage others, focus on effort, improvements, contribution, enjoyment, and confidence.
 
I am always asked, how do you remember to use these important words? One thing that helps me is to shift from, "I like," to "I notice." This makes it more neutral, and again, it causes the child to draw forth inside, just like asking versus telling does. When you focus on effort, improvements, contribution, enjoyment, and confidence for the child's experience, that helps you to use encouraging words.
 
One thing that also has helped teachers as I have worked with them over the years is just to practice changing some simple statements. The following statements are all praise statements.
  • I like your picture.
  • I am proud of you.
  • You are a great helper.
  • You are so smart.
  • I like the way you are always on time.
Take a moment to see if you can shift these five praise statements to statements of encouragement.
 
Below are some examples of how you might change the praise statements to statements of encouragement. The more you can point out how a young child is influencing the group in a positive way, the better. Some of these are tiny shifts in how things are worded.
 
Praise StatementsStatements of Encouragement
I like your picture.Tell me about your picture.
I am so proud of you.You must be so proud of yourself. OR Tell me how you did it.
You are a great helper.The way you helped pick up all the blocks helped the group get to circle time quicker.
You are so smart.Wow, I see you working really hard. You finally got it. That must feel good.
I like the way you are always on time.I notice you are always on time. OR It really helps the group when you are on time.

 

Here are more examples of encouragement.

  • You figured out how to do that. 
  • Wow, you did it! 
  • You are learning how to tie that shoelace. Last week you had trouble getting it tied, but this week you did it without a problem. 
  • Tell me how you did it. 
  • I see that you are working hard. 
  • This is hard for you, but you are sticking with it. 
  • You searched your mind and came up with something new.

This Ask the Expert is an edited excerpt from the course, Positive Discipline Tools for Teachers: Alternatives to Rewards and Punishmentpresented by Kelly Gfroerer, PhD, LPC.


kelly gfroerer

Kelly Gfroerer, PhD, LPC

Executive Director

Kelly Gfroerer, PhD, is Executive Director of the Positive Discipline Association. She has worked as a teacher, school counselor, and educational consultant in early childhood education for over two decades. She has a wide variety of work experience in preschool and early childhood settings including implementing Positive Discipline and specifically class meetings as a counselor and consultant in early childhood programs. Kelly is a frequent speaker on Positive Discipline and a Positive Discipline Certified Trainer. Kelly is the co-author of the book, Positive Discipline Tools for Teachers, and Positive Discipline in the Classroom Tool Cards. Both of these publications include practical, easy to implement classroom management tools that teach social and emotional life skills to young children.


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