Less praise, More encouragement

11 02 2012

Two Saturdays a month I travel to a neighboring town where I meet with my M.Ed. cohort for the day. We’re more than halfway through our requirements and it’s really a pleasure to meet with my “study family”. More often that not, the discussions are rich and the learning is deep. The conversations on the ride home aren’t so bad either.

     We had our pedagogical worlds rocked last week when our instructor challenged us to “encourage more and praise less.” We were all quiet after that one. “What’s the difference?” somebody asked. “They are worlds apart” came the reply. “Many good meaning teachers confuse the two and unknowingly contribute to many of the classroom behavior issues they seek to stamp out.” Collectively, the wheels were grinding in our heads. I’d known about the word praise from Sunday School classes when I was young, and I’ve received lots of praise from my parents and teachers growing up. In my Teacher Ed. program we talked about Authentic Praise and Specific Praise, (“good job!” vs. “you’re got great printing!”) and I’ve found myself intentionally noticing things about a student’s behavior that deserved a compliment from time to time. In light of the new information my brain just absorbed, was that alright? Have I been doing it all wrong?

As we discussed the two approaches and the role of a teacher with respect to them, it became apparent that there was a definite line (although quite subtle) between the two terms. My intentions didn’t need to change, but my choice of phrases and the way I expressed those thoughts did.

      Praise (in the school setting) happens when a teacher expresses a favorable judgement and gives approval. It addresses the doer and can be quite patronizing (“You are such a good boy”, “I’m so proud of you”, “I like the amount of blue you used in your picture”). A feeling of worth is given only when others approve. At first, this seems okay, right? But say you were the student sitting next to the artist that got the “I like the amount of blue you used” praise, how would you feel if you looked at your own picture and saw oranges and reds, but no blue? There is a certain dependance on others for approval that is created when these types of phrases are used.

Contrast that with encouragement: to put courage in or to inspire with courage. Encouragement addresses the deed, not the doer (“Thank you for helping”, “Who can show me the proper way to sit in their desk?”). Encouragement asks questions (“What is an appropriate level of noise in the library?) while Praise gives way to should statements (“You should be quiet like my last class”). Perhaps the most important contrast is found with respect to evaluation: Encouragement gives way to self evaluation (“Tell me about your painting”) while praise gives way to evaluation from others (“I like it”).

See the difference? It’s taken me a while to figure out, so here are some questions for you and I to consider:

a) Am I being respectful to students (E) or patronizing to them? (P)

b) Am I helping students discover how to act (E) or am I trying to manipulate behavior (P)?

c) Am I seeing the child’s point of view or my own?

d) Am I inspiring self evaluation (E) or dependence on the evaluation of others (P)?

Master teachers are encouragement artists and their methods create an atmosphere where people feel worthwhile without the approval of others. A subtle shift in the way a teacher phrases these thoughts will increase confidence, and esteem in the classroom setting.

Our Introduction to Counseling Instructor, Jim Skinner, gave us a list of several Methods of Encouragement that I’ll be seeking to integrate into my own practice. He also gave us some sample sentence starters that would be effective ways to encourage others – especially English as a Second Dialect learners. I’ve included some of these below. If this is helpful to you, use them. (If not, I’ve got some blogs from previous months that you may enjoy ;o) Here’s a brief list:

a. Place value on the person as they are, not on what they should have done or should become.

b. Give recognition for effort and improvement, focus on strengths and assets.

c. Be a non-judgemental listener. (Hard to do! Listening without “fixing” or offering advice is difficult!)

d. Look for the logic behind the mistakes.

e. Avoid bribery & other methods of rewarding to control

1. “I like the way you . . .”

2. “I can tell a lot of work went into that.”

3. “Tell me more about it.”

4.  “Since you don’t seem to be happy with that, what will you do differently?”

5. “Knowing you, I’m sure you’ll do a good job.”

6. “I appreciate your help.”

7. “I think I understand. Can you tell me more?”

I believe that most teachers are quite good at giving compliments and recognizing goodness in the students around them. Some may think that the Praise vs. Encouragement debate may in fact be a debate of semantics. But armed with my new knowledge I’m going to try to implement the subtle shift in my language and see what results. When we have the opportunity to improve our ability to inspire others, I feel this is always a worthwhile shift that I’d be willing to make.

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