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What is the impact of praise and recognition on children?

With the need for more positive reinforcement while children adapt to a new remote learning routine, we explored the key educational studies to understand the impact that recognising achievements has on young learners, including the ‘do’s and dont’s’ of praise for schools to be aware of...

Staff profile picture Team epraise May 12  -  4 minute read

What the experts say...

According to Otero, Tiffany L. Otero and Haunt, Jillian M. Haunt’s study on the Differential Effects of Reinforcement on the Self-Monitoring of On-Task Behavior:

Academic engagement is a strong predictor of academic performance. The more students are engaged in the instruction, the more students will further their success. It is a well-known fact that academic engagement is linked to better study skills, academic productivity, and essential behavior for a functioning classroom.
One way to ensure the best learning environment outcome is to encourage our learners through positive reinforcement. Students learn to self monitor themselves, manage their time, set goals, and self-evaluate through the reinforcement of the teacher(s).

Happy classroom

An example of encouraging learners through positive reinforcement can be found in the US study led by Dr. Paul Caldarella. Here, a research team from Brigham Young University spent three years observing 2,536 students (aged 5 to 12-years-old) from 151 classes, across 19 schools in three different states. The data collected from the study showed that children focused on tasks by up to 30% more when teachers used statements of praise.

The effects of positively recognising achievements at school - for entire classes and individuals - are further outlined by the Department for Education and Skills. In their Key Stage 3 National Strategy Behaviour and Attendance Strand Rewards Toolkit, which focuses on the everyday policies of rewards and sanctions to promote positive behaviour, it states:

Positive consequences are likely to encourage pupils to repeat the associated behaviour. Systems that emphasise praise for positive behaviour or regular attendance are more effective in motivating pupils to make appropriate choices. These appropriate choices contribute to a positive ethos in the school thereby creating an environment for effective teaching and learning.
Rewards contribute to the overall policy on behaviour and attendance because they help to build and maintain positive relationships between staff and pupils and between all pupils; make the school experience more enjoyable for pupils and all staff; encourage pupils to repeat the desirable behaviours that earned the rewards; contribute to pupils’ self-esteem and confidence in the system.

Happy classroom

An important factor to consider is that the impact of recognising achievements is dependent on the kind of praise children are receiving. The School Run highlights one study concerning two groups of children that were given problem solving tasks, as discussed by Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success: How We Can Learn to Fulfill Our Potential:

On completion, one group was told they must be very clever, the other group that they had worked very hard. The kids who had been told they had worked hard were happy to try another puzzle, the other group weren’t. There was too much to lose if they didn’t do so well. So it is how we praise and reward that is important.

Happy classroom

The results appear to be dependant on how praise and rewards are positioned in an intrinsic context - which is presented in the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) ‘Improving Education in Schools - Guidance Report’ :

Teachers can use tangible techniques such as rewards and sanctions, or less tangible strategies such as praise and criticism, to improve motivation, behaviour, and learning. However, it is intrinsic motivation, or self-motivation, that is crucial to improving resilience, achieving goals, and ultimately is the key determiner to success. Children who are intrinsically motivated achieve better and are less likely to misbehave.

Happy classroom

Schools can involve parents, guardians and caregivers too. This is a highly beneficial approach to improve student wellbeing during remote learning situations. The EEF Guidance Report also refers to bridging the gap between school and home to strengthen praise and positive recognition:

Promising approaches involve parents and teachers setting goals for their child, agreeing and implementing specific strategies that can be implemented at home and school to help their child’s behaviour, responding consistently to children’s behaviour, and gathering information to assess their child’s progress.

Happy classroom

The Do’s and Dont’s of Praise

The advice from Mindset Kit is that it’s all about the language you choose. Children should be recognised for their efforts and praised for the process of their achievement - as opposed to concentrating on the person. (Just like showing your calculations to work out a sum instead of just writing the answer...)

Process Person
That’s a great piece of work! I can tell you put a lot of effort into it. Great work. You’re very knowledgeable.
Outstanding coursework! I really like the title and the references you used to support your hypothesis. Outstanding coursework. You are an A student.
Well done on the Maths test! I can see clear improvement with the level of detail in your working out. Good job. You are a great test taker.
This is a high-quality essay. I can see that you’ve really listened in class and understood the subject material. Great essay! I knew you could do it!
Process
That’s a great piece of work! I can tell you put a lot of effort into it.
Outstanding coursework! I really like the title and the references you used to support your hypothesis.
Well done on the Maths test! I can see clear improvement with the level of detail in your working out.
This is a high-quality essay. I can see that you’ve really listened in class and understood the subject material.
Person
Great work. You’re very knowledgeable.
Outstanding coursework. You are an A student.
Good job. You are a great test taker.
Great essay! I knew you could do it!

Be Specific → It’s important that the student being praised is aware of what they’re being acknowledged for. When teachers add descriptions and expand on the positive feedback, this gives the child a direction of where they should be focusing their attention for learning.

Be Personal → To reflect the “process” method of praise above, the child should be recognised for their individual talent. Examples like, “That’s a great piece of work! I can tell you put a lot of effort into it” or “This is a high-quality essay. I can see that you’ve really listened in class and understood the subject material”, add a significant value to the recognition by personalising - not generalising.

Don’t Be Focused on Ability → Remember to focus on effort rather than ability. If a student fails at a task or piece of work and has received ability focused praise, there is a higher risk that they may give up instead of trying harder next time. As we know, children with a fixed concept about their ability don’t always believe they can do any better.

Don’t Be Too Critical → Avoid mixing praise with criticism. For example: “Well done on that test - but you need to write your answers more clearly next time” or “Your handwriting is really neat - but you need to practice your spelling more”. See? The positive message will be lost. These are harmful to the child’s self-esteem.

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