The Power of Praise: How to Properly Praise your Students.

(Last Updated On: August 24, 2023)
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What is praise?

Praise is one of the most powerful teaching strategies that you can use. 

It is often thought of as simply reinforcing good behaviour, which is a very dated way of thinking about teaching and learning. Instead, praise can be a way to give feedback to a student in a way that links their current skill and understanding to success criteria. 

That is a lot of teacher-speak, but basically, when you’re giving feedback to your students, you don’t just want to let them know what they’re doing wrong or what they need to improve. Some of the most powerful feedback that you can give is that a student should keep going down a particular path or that what they have done is what success looks like. 

Why is praise so important?

Praise is important so that we as people know when we get something right. We want to know when we are successful or when we bring some kind of value to other people’s lives.

Praise has enormous power to reinforce a mindset. Whether a student receives or doesn’t receive praise can significantly impact how they think about themselves and their place in the world around them. 

This isn’t just about self-esteem, either. Some students who get praised constantly for having a particular quality can build their view of the world through this lens. If you’ve always been the clever one, the quick one, or the pretty one, then this begins to form your identity. This informs the value that you bring to the world. If that suddenly goes away, you have no value. 

This is why praise is not only important but important to get right.

Is there a wrong way to praise a student?

Praise isn’t all good. Sure, it may always feel good to be praised regardless of what you are being praised for, but you need to be careful about exactly what message you are sending. A common example is always praising little girls for being cute and pretty; this has the potential to set the way that they see themselves and their place in the world.

Praise the process, not the person.

An important thing to remember is to not actually praise the student themselves. You don’t want to say things like:

  • You’re so good at this.
  • You’re really clever.
  • You’re such a talented musician.
  • It’s incredible how you ate that whole cake.

What you need to try and do instead is praise their process, that is, praise what they have actually done. This will give the benefit of telling the person exactly what they did that you are praising and reduces the risk of consolidating their sense of self-value around a particular quality. For example:

  • The way you set your working out for this problem was very clear. 
  • I’ve never seen this problem solved in this way before!
  • You are really good at putting feeling and emotion into your music.
  • It was a good idea to drink a milkshake to help you eat that entire cake quicker. 

See more: 6 High-Impact Teaching Strategies That Take 30 Seconds or Less.

Make it genuine and sincere.

Even young students can tell when your praise is not sincere. Do not aim to praise a student simply because you feel like you should or to make them feel better. 

This can be easier to do if you focus on process praise because it is much more specific. If a student has just failed their maths test, don’t praise them for a good effort. Tell them that it was really good how they kept trying up until the last minute and put down something for every question. Tell them that you saw them studying in the library after school and that it is clear that they tried and took this test seriously. If you just tell them “good effort”, they will know that you are just trying to make them feel better. 

If you try to praise something that they didn’t actually do then it can invalidate any other praise as well. If you say that you appreciate how hard they tried but they know that they didn’t try, then they’re not going to care about the next bit of praise you give them. If this student has failed their maths test and you both know exactly why, don’t praise them. This doesn’t mean that you can’t make them feel better about it. Showing them that they still have value and that you will continue to support them may be exactly what they need.

See more: 3 Incredible Benefits of Practicing Unconditional Positive Regard in the Classroom.

What if I can’t find anything to praise in a student?

Then you’d better find something. 

In all seriousness though, if you are teaching a student for more than just a few days you should be able to think of something about them that you like and is worth praising. It doesn’t need to be about your subject or their learning habits, but it will mean the world to them if their teacher can point out something that they do well. All people seek to have some kind of value to those around them, and it is important that you tell them what it is. 

It could be that they are a great friend, or that they are really passionate about their interests. Even if you think that it isn’t a big (or even important) thing that you’re praising them for, it can change the life of a student who is not used to hearing praise:

Strategies to get the most out of your praise.

I’ve gone through how to do praise right and avoid doing it wrong, but how about doing it better? Here are a few ideas to get the right praise across to your students in the right way:

Make it personal. 

The less likely it is that “you say this to every student”, the more powerful your praise is. 

Point out specific things that the student has done to not only give them specific information about what you’re praising but also to show that you’re paying attention and mean what you say. 

Give names. Give a time and date. “I noticed how you were helping Mr. Gerrard carry equipment on Friday at recess, I know that he really appreciated you spending your time making sure that he had help” has a lot more power than “It was great how you helped out the teachers the other day”.

Make it quiet.

The first strategy that I used in my classroom that had a really clear and strong impact was praising my students quietly. 

Most teachers have heard of closer and quieter. The premise is to not correct behaviour by yelling across the room but by getting really close to the student and being quiet and firm about your expectations and what they need to be doing. 

This exact strategy can also work for praise, but I’ve found even more success with holding students back after class to give them genuine and specific praise. 

This works best with students who are used to being held back after everyone else has left to be told off. You ask them to stay back for a minute after the bell and watch them sink into their chair as everyone leaves. You then tell them that you noticed how they really tried today and they didn’t get distracted by their friend across the room. Tell them how much you appreciate this, smile at them, and then send them on their way. The student will know that you’re not just saying this, and they won’t have a chance to then play it off for laughs in front of their friends. I’ve seen the most disengaged students completely turn around from using this strategy. 

Make it non-verbal.

While process praise is powerful because it is so specific about what you are praising, you don’t need to use your words to give powerful praise. If a student has just done something that you are really impressed by, make eye-contact and give them a long, genuine smile. 

If a student has just told their friend to leave them alone so they can concentrate, if they stayed back a few minutes after class to finish off their last task and hand it in, or if they came to class late but still decided to come, give them a big honest smile. It’s a lot easier to fake words than it is to fake a smile. They will know exactly what you’re praising them for.

Elise is an enthusiastic and passionate Australian teacher who is on a mission to inspire and support fellow educators. With over a decade of experience in the classroom, Elise leverages her expertise and creativity to provide valuable insights and resources through her blog. Whether you're looking for innovative lesson ideas, effective teaching strategies, or just a dose of inspiration, Elise has got you covered.

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