Helpful praise is descriptive

“There is no value judgement more important…no factor more decisive in [a person’s] psychological development and motivation – than the estimate [they] pass on themselves.” Nathaniel Branden The psychology of self-esteem.

While it is essential that children build a positive and realistic self-image, praising children can be a ‘tricky business’ that brings about unintended consequences (How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk).  According to the authors of this parenting classic, children (and adults too, no doubt!) tend to eventually reject praise that is evaluative (good, beautiful, fantastic) but they thrive on helpful praise which is descriptive in nature.

What is wrong with evaluative praise?

It can make the recipient fee manipulated (what does this person want from me?)

It can force one to focus on their shortcomings and make them anxious about the future (that was just a fluke; I’ll never be able to do this well again)

It can cast doubt the person giving the praise (Me? A great artist? I can barely hold a pencil! This person clearly knows nothing about art.)

Ultimately, though, evaluative praise indicates something about the virtue or character of the recipient, which can lead to a fixed mindset (rather than a growth mindset) and cause the recipient to continue to need evaluative praise to feel good about themselves.  This is not what we want for our students.

What is helpful praise and how can I deliver it?

Helpful praise helps students to focus on their efforts and actions.  Helpful praise is descriptive.  It is delivered by simply describing, with appreciation, what you see or feel.  You might also sum up the praiseworthy behaviour in a word or two.

Such praise will help the student to clearly know what it is that they have done well and then in turn they can make their own evaluation.  It takes the focus away from the virtue of the student and places it firmly in the concrete present. Descriptive praise also makes it more likely that the student will repeat and attempt to improve the praiseworthy behaviour in the future.

A worked example (paragraph structure):

Evaluative praise: that is a very good paragraph! Well done!

Descriptive praise: I see a topic sentence, some points of elaboration and a linking sentence. That’s what I call effective paragraph structure.

To recap:

Evaluative praise = unhelpful L

Descriptive praise = helpful J

Give descriptive praise by:

  1. Describing, with appreciation, what you observe or feel.
  2. Sum up the praiseworthy behaviour in a word or two.
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