Praise or 'P.R.A.I.S.E'

The value of P.R.A.I.S.E

As a Montessori educator I am often asked to explain what distinguishes my chosen pedagogy from more common educational approaches. The comprehensive answer used to be a very long one, as Montessori is such a rich and intricate method, but luckily the list of differences seems to be getting shorter. As attitudes towards education, and particularly early learning, evolve and progress it seems that the “mainstream” approach is starting to have much more in common with Montessori principles. One area where this movement is quite evident is the subject of motivation. The Montessori philosophy has always emphasised the importance of intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivation. This used to be a completely unique and often quite shocking point of difference. Now this attitude is starting to become more commonplace as an increasing number of educators and parents become concerned by the downsides of praise and rewards in promoting a "fixed mindset" and eroding innate motivation. So let's look at why Montessori avoids traditional 'praise' and look at some alternatives to empower parents or teachers who are trying to step away from this habit. 

In the Montessori environment you will not hear “Good job!” or see those words printed alongside a star on a brightly coloured sticker or stamp. The Montessori educator has not forgotten to utter these words or offer these brandings but is instead choosing to avoid them at all costs because of the damage that they can do to a child’s natural, healthy process of development. 

When adults offer empty or endless praise - “great job, good girl, that’s super, wow!” – children can become accustomed, even addicted, to this external acknowledgement. This can lead the child to lose a sense of perspective and to fail to acquire an ability to engage in self-correction or self-assessment. Without an adult available to provide validation there can be neither pride nor progression for the child. Children can also start to fear the absence of praise, and this can lead to avoidance, apathy or anxiety about tasks that don’t elicit acclaim.

The addiction to praise, and fear of its absence, may manifest differently for each child. One might overachieve to the point of exhaustion to get more and more of that precious substance. Another might stop trying entirely to assert control because it feels more empowering to consciously choose disappointment than to encounter it accidentally. After all, when an effortful attempt results in silence from the usually admiring adults then an unintended message is loudly implied: “this time you did not do a good job, you are not good at this and you are not good.” It makes sense that a child might prefer to tell himself (or herself) “I only failed because I didn’t try, not because I’m not good enough.” 

Even less dramatic examples might see a child simply start to wonder “what is the point…?” of being nice or doing a good job if there is not an adult there to see it. As the child progresses through school it might become increasingly attractive to choose the easy option in assignments or classes. It is logical that once we condition children to relish applause it might seem more appealing to be praised for high achievement in a simple subject than face a less impressive result in a more challenging extension. What starts with stickers and stamps translates into grades and exams, and before long we have human beings who know nothing other than relying on a source outside of himself (or herself) to validate and motivate. We can hardly be surprised when employers of adults start wondering why their new recruits lack initiative and seem to seek constant direction and affirmation.

So if we recognize these risks and choose not to “praise”, what do we do instead? The Montessori educator does not leave an empty abyss where praise would otherwise fit. There is simply no space for praise within the full bounty of opportunities for a child to acquire meaningful experiences and abilities in order to develop self-respect, positive (and productively critical) self-reflection and self-motivation. This is a goal that can be shared by any parent or educator, regardless of affiliation or attachment to any particular pedagogy. Yet there are still times when even the most conscientious adult might find themselves beginning to articulate a familiar phrase of praise. When “Good girl” or “Good boy” is our default setting it sometimes seems to just tumble out before we have the chance to think. Yet we have a responsibility to the child to retrain our brains to articulate our observations in a less judgmental manner. So if we wish to aid children to develop a strong sense of ‘self’, but we feel overwhelmed by the urge to ‘praise’, then perhaps we should turn this word around and think instead of how we can P.R.A.I.S.E -

Participate
Respect
Appreciate
Inspire
Share
Engage

  

We can transform our approach from ‘praise’ to ‘P.R.A.I.S.E’ by becoming committed to participating in a child’s experience by being truly present and involved, by having a fundamental respect for the child’s rights, by appreciating the child as a fellow human being, by helping to inspire and ignite a child’s interest in the world, by sharing the joy and meaning of discovery and by engaging with the unique individual in front of us. Our words play an enormously important and impactful role in whether the child feels that we are offering ‘praise’ or ‘P.R.A.I.S.E’ so this process of evolution may need to begin with a careful look at how we express ourselves to children. We will need to consider how to communicate our participation, our respect and our appreciation. We will need to think about which words might inspire the child. We will need to contemplate how to convey that we are sharing and engaging in the moment.

Each parent, carer and educator will find unique ways to express these messages and I would not attempt to dictate a ‘right way’ to do this. I can, however, offer some practical tips and phrases that may act as inspiration for that process of transforming from communicating ‘praise’ to communicating ‘P.R.A.I.S.E’; 

My Top 5 tips to express your “P.R.A.I.S.E”

  1. Ask questions rather than making statements. “How do you feel about the picture you drew?” rather than “You drew a great picture!”
  1. Focus on the valuing the process not evaluating the product. “It looks like you spent a lot of time working on that” rather than “Good work”.
  1. Imagine you are talking to another adult that you care about – a close friend or a relative – and then use a sentence that would feel polite and appropriate to say to that adult. “I had so much fun with you today” rather than “you’re a fun girl!” or “thanks for passing the salt” rather than “great job passing the salt!”
  1. When you feel you must give some input, use “I” statements so that you are expressing opinion rather than passing judgement. “I enjoyed the taste of the food you made” rather than “you make great food!”.
  1. Learn to feel comfortable with silence. “………………………………” rather than “good job, great work, good girl, keep going, wow!”

What you might like to say when a child shows you something, asks for your approval or if you simply want to express that you are feeling proud…

  • “How do you feel about that?”
  • “Do you feel proud of yourself?”
  • “What was your favourite part of that?”
  • “Why did you choose these colours/shapes etc?”
  • “What do you think you’ll do differently next time?”
  • “What was the hardest part of that?”
  • “What was the easiest part of that?”
  • “Did you enjoy that?”
  • “Why did/didn’t you enjoy that?”
  • “I didn’t realise you know how to do that, I’m happy to be learning something new about you!”
  • If a child asks if you think it’s good you can reply: “Do you think that it’s good/pretty/clever?”
  • “Did you feel like that was easier than it was the last time you tried?”
  • “I have never thought of trying that, thanks for your perspective”

What you might like to say when a child does something nice or helpful for you (or with you!)…

  • “Thank you” (sometimes it’s actually that easy!)
  • “That was a nice surprise for me.”
  • “I feel really happy when you help me with that.”
  • “Your help made that much quicker so now we have some free time to do something else together. What would you like to do?”
  • “I appreciate your help with that, it would have been much harder on my own.”
  • “I have lots of fun when I’m working with you.”
  • “I enjoyed your company while we did that.”
  • “I enjoyed talking to you while we did that.”

 

What to say when you’re overwhelmed by the urge to ‘correct’ a child when he/she is being ‘too slow’ or doing something ‘the wrong way’

  • “I do that differently, would you like me to show you how I do that?”
  • “There are lots of ways to do that. This is one way that I know how to do it.”
  • “Thank you for sharing your idea with me, I’d love to show you my ideas too.”
  • “It is nice of you to offer to do that but I think we should try it together first”.
  • “I would prefer if we do this as a team, will you be my team mate?”
  • “Today we need to do this very quickly so I would love you to watch and then next time we can try it together.”
  • “Thanks for letting me watch your turn, now it would be polite for you to let me have a turn.”
  • “It takes a lot of practice to learn how to do this, shall we practice together?”
  • “I am really glad you tried this today, let’s try it again another time.”

You say it best when you say nothing at all…

  • Make eye-contact with the child when you speak. This makes a child feel that you are genuinely interested in engaging.
  • Put down what you are doing/holding when a child asks for your attention. Children are intelligent enough to notice when you are ‘multi-tasking’ or only providing a slice of attention. If you are constantly distracted then a child will begin to feel unimportant (and may also find it unfair when you ask him or her to give you eye-contact and attention when you interrupt their work to say something that you think is important!).
  • Get down on the floor with the child. Just sitting together on the floor to play or chat can make a child feel comfortable and appreciated, because you are choosing to go into the child’s world rather than asking the child to be a visitor in yours.
  • Slow down! The reality of life is that many of our ‘deadlines’ are self-imposed. Ask yourself whether you really have to rush out, leave now or get it done quickly. If you don’t have a genuine reason to hurry, and are just falling victim to the adult habit of impatience, then slow down and enjoy the relaxed pace of discovery, discussion and repetition.
  • Focus on right here, right now rather than worrying about where you should be or what has to happen.It is so easy to dwell on the past, or worry about what is yet to come, and adults sadly let these musings infringe upon our present. One of the most beautiful things about childhood is the ability to become completely absorbed in a moment, in the present. You should try to preserve each child’s sanctuary of ‘now-ness’ for as long as possible, and you should also try to inhabit that ‘present moment’ too – it’s a lovely place to be!
  • Be the one to notice something special to show a child – a rock, a flower, a bug! Think of the look of delight on a child’s face when he or she proudly announces a new discovery (that a child thinks is miraculous but you might see as mundane). Not only can you make a child’s day by mirroring his or her delight when you are the audience, but you can also show that you see the world as a beautiful place – and the child as a partner in the journey of discovery – by proudly presenting a treasure of your own!
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