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Praise: How to maximize effectiveness of positive feedback

Self-efficacy vs. self-esteem: (ineffective use of praise)

Administrators and profesional developers tell us all the time: "Studys show low self-esteem is inextricably related to low academic performance."

Then they turn the pressure up on us, asking: "what are you doing to make your students feel better about themselves?"

The answer they want from us, invariably, is praise. There is a common misconception in some circles that more praise equals better students. However, our professors taught us, "Correlation is not Causation!" I believe that praise is a very powerful tool in a teacher's professional toolbelt. Like any other tool, overuse can create its own problems. Hammering away at a stubborn screw isn't nearly effective as a few turns from a trusted screw driver.

While low self-esteem and low achievement are both problems that require a teacher's careful attention, we cannot solve both by only addressing one. Studies have shown that ineffective praise is less effective than no praise at all. To use a medical analogy: treating low self-esteem without addressing low achievement is like prescribing asprin for ulcer pain. It masks the pain, but does nothing to solve the problem. Over time, neglecting the root problem only makes it worse.

So how to use praise in an effective manner? Praise should address a student's sense of self-efficacy, not simply increase their self-esteem.

Quick distinction: Self-efficacy is the sense of competence you get when you successfully accomplish a goal. Self-esteem is a general sense of self-worth that you carry with you everywhere. Self-efficacy is how you feel about your ability to succeed in specific areas of your life. Self-esteem is how you feel about your value as a human being. Self-efficacy contributes to a student's general self-esteem. But since self-efficacy in the classroom is directly related to a student's ability to succeed on academic tasks, a teacher can best address a student's self-esteem by providing feedback designed to increase a student's sense of self-efficacy. The best way to increase self-efficacy? Help them to get better at the academic task at hand.

Effective use of praise addresses a student's sense of self-efficacy, which in time can positively shape their self-esteem. since self-efficacy in the classroom is directly related to a student's ability to succeed on academic tasks, a teacher can best address a student's self-esteem by providing feedback designed to increase a student's sense of self-efficacy. The best way to increase self-efficacy? Help them to get better at the academic task at hand. Here's how you can make sure you're taking efforts to maximize the effectiveness of your praise. Like a well-yielded hammer, your praise will strike true and hit the nail on the head.

1) Encourage language that highlights efforts rather than ability. Quickly correct students who mumble "I can't do this", or "I'm so dumb". Instead, connect student successes with behaviors you would like them to repeat: "You looked back in your notes and that helped you answer this question correctly." "Your topic sentence is good: it clearly states your main idea. How can you make your other sentences support your main idea?" "I can tell you were paying attention during the lesson because you did this well."

Remind them that everything they learned to do was difficult at one point. Everybody remembers learning how to ride a bike through repeated trials, slowly improving due to sustained effort and a little help. Communicate your faith in their ability to overcome their learning struggle with practice, sustained efforts and repeated trials. Acknowledge that you don't expect the learning to be easy. Students need to understand that learning is an active verb. Emphasize that there is no reason why the student can't learn. I am like a broken record in my classroom: "My job is to teach you. Your job is to learn. I've worked hard to get good at my job. If you listen, take notes, and ask questions, I promise I can help you learn anything."

2) Communicate explicit, clear behavior expectations. When teachers talk to students about behavior, they are usually telling them what NOT to do: "Stop calling out," "Now is not the time to walk around the room," "We don't use that type of language." These types of feedback only contain information about how students should NOT behave. But they assume that students already understand how they SHOULD behave in a classroom. This feedback also contains no information about how a student can improve their own learning experience.

I want teachers to talk about the little behaviors that help student learn. "I want you to think about questions you can ask to help your learning." "Everything I'm writing on the board you're writing in your notes." "I'm going to wait until all eyes are on me so that I know I have your attention." These statements focus students on attention-related behaviors that help them participate in active learning strategies. The more often students practice these behaviors, the less they stare blankly out the window during instruction and demand extra help during independent practice. Show your students how and when they can exert concenteated efforts to improve their learning throughout the lesson.

3) Finally, quickly praise the behaviors that you want students to repeat in the future. This means that you should provide blanket praise for students who follow classroom procedures without prompting: "I see 5 students who are taking out their notebook and getting started on their bellwork right away." It's fun to see how quickly other students will conform to expected behavior without further prompting.

Some students will need extra help to do basic behaviors. That means praise for doing their homework, taking notes during class, or asking an on-topic question. These are things that students should be doing on their own, and most students shouldn't expect extra praise for these everyday behaviors. However, your typical struggling student doesn't have many opportunities for praise. And each time you catch them doing something positive for their learning, showering them with praise (usually privately) you increase the chances they will repeat that behavior in the future.

When you praise effort instead of ability, communicate clear, concrete expectations, and praise desirable behavior, your feedback can be much more focused and effective. Rather than praising children to increase their self-esteem, selective feedback can target a student's self-efficacy. By reserving praise for effortful engagement in the curriculum you will shape learning expectations and classroom behaviors to maximize the learning environment.

How do you use praise effectively in your classroom or household? What have you found to be the best way to communicate to kids how you want them to act?

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