Praise: what it is and how it works
Praise is when you tell your child that you like what they’re doing or how they’re behaving – for example, ‘Great job, Riley’, ‘Well done, Jo’ or ‘That’s awesome, AB’.
Praise nurtures your child’s confidence and sense of self.
By using praise, you’re showing your child how to think and talk positively about themselves. You’re helping your child learn how to recognise when they do well and feel proud of themselves.
You can praise children of different ages for different things. You might praise a younger child for sharing or for leaving the park when asked. You can praise a teenage child for coming home at an agreed time, or for starting homework without being reminded.
Descriptive praise is when you tell your child exactly what it is that you like. For example, ‘I like the way you’ve found a spot for everything in your room’. This helps your child understand exactly what it is that they’ve done well. It’s also more genuine than non-specific praise like ‘You’re a good boy’.
Encouragement: praise for effort
Encouragement is praise for effort – for example, ‘You worked hard on that maths homework – well done’. Praising effort can motivate your child and encourage them to try hard in the future.
You can also use encouragement before your child does something. For example, ‘Show me how well you can put your toys away’ or ‘I know you’re nervous about the test, but you’ve studied hard. No matter how it turns out, you’ve done your best’.
Some children, especially those who are less confident than others, need more encouragement than others. When praise is focused on effort, children are more likely to see trying hard as a good thing in itself. They’re also more likely to keep trying and to be optimistic when they face challenges.
Rewards: what they are
A reward is a consequence of good behaviour. It’s a way of saying ‘Well done’ after your child has done something good or behaved well. It could be a treat, a surprise or an extra privilege. For example, as a reward for keeping their room tidy, you might let your child choose what’s for dinner.
Using praise, encouragement and rewards to change behaviour
Children are more likely to repeat behaviour that earns praise or encouragement. This means you can use praise and encouragement to change difficult behaviour and replace it with desirable behaviour.
The first step is to watch for times when your child behaves in positive ways, or makes an effort. When you see this, immediately get your child’s attention and tell your child exactly what you liked – for example, ‘Noor, I liked how you waited your turn to play with that toy. Well done’ or ‘You’re working so hard at your practice. I think you’ll be great in the tryouts!’
At first, you can praise every time you see the behaviour or effort. When it happens more often, you can praise or encourage it less.
Rewards can make praise and encouragement work better. So when you praise or encourage your child’s behaviour and then reward it, the behaviour is more likely to happen again.
It’s best not to overuse rewards. If you need to use them a lot, it might help to rethink the situation. Are there any other strategies that you could try to encourage the behaviour you want? Or is the task or behaviour too hard for your child right now?
Sometimes it’s easier to notice difficult behaviours than positive behaviours. But look for the times when your child is behaving in positive ways, and praise your child’s behaviour. Your child will feel good, and focusing on positive things will help you feel good too.
Tips for using praise, encouragement and rewards
Help your child recognise when they’ve done well and encourage good behaviour with these tips:
- When you feel good about your child, say so. See whether you can give your child some words of encouragement every day. The small things you say can build up over time to have a big effect on your child.
- Look for nonverbal ways to praise or encourage your child. A thumbs up, smile or high five can be powerful ways to show your child you’re impressed by their behaviour or efforts.
- Surprise your child with a reward for good behaviour. For example, ‘Thanks for picking up the toys – let’s go to the park to celebrate’.
- Look for little changes and successes. Rather than waiting until your child has done something perfectly to give a compliment, try to praise any effort or improvement.
- Try to praise more than you criticise. As a guide, try to praise your child five times for every one time you say something negative.
- Praise your child for their strengths and encourage your child to feel excited about their own interests. This will help your child develop a sense of pride and self-confidence.
- Try to make your praise appropriate to the behaviour. If your praise is exaggerated, your child might not believe it.
- Use praise and rewards in age-appropriate ways. For example, teenagers might not want to be praised publicly for their efforts, whereas toddlers might love being singled out for praise.
For more ideas and strategies, you might like to read our articles on encouraging good behaviour in children and encouraging good behaviour in teenagers.