How to Frame Praise for Creative Youth

June 1, 2021

By Lucy Blagg

When I first started teaching with IEA, I was a little nervous. It would be my first time teaching 6- to 9-year-olds, so I dutifully went to the library and picked out some books on working with young children. One of those books was How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber and Adele King, which quickly became indispensable to me, and whose tools and tips I consistently use in my classes with success.

The greatest lesson I learned from How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen was how to praise children appropriately so that they will feel inspired and confident about themselves. How could praise lead to anything else, you might wonder? Well, if you’ve ever felt the urge to reject a well-meant compliment, you know that praise can be a complicated matter. Faber and King write, “It seems only natural that if we’re trying to boost self-esteem, we’ll tell our children frequently and enthusiastically, ‘You’re great, smart, wonderful, beautiful, the best!’” Faber and King call these kinds of words evaluative words — they make and convey a judgment, and, unfortunately, they can more often than not discourage children, rather than encourage them. How? Faber and King lay it out:

“[Praise that judges or evaluates] can make us focus on our weaknesses rather than our strengths. I’m not really that great. You should have seen me ten minutes go.

It can make us doubt the sincerity of the person offering the praise. Does he really mean it or is he just trying to make me feel good? What does he want from me?

It can feel dismissive. Did he even look at all that work I did? Maybe it wasn’t worth the effort.

It can make us feel threatened. What if I can’t do it again?

It can even cause us to give up completely — to stop what we’re doing and walk away.”

That’s a lot that can go wrong! Faber and King’s argument is based on research and observation, and rings deeply true to me from my own experience of praise and as an educator observing children engage in their work. Praise can backfire and cause children — and even adults! — to become disengaged from what they’re doing. As Faber and King write, when you are “deeply engrossed in the process of learning something new and challenging,” evaluative praise puts you in the position of being judged. Instead of being absorbed in what you’re doing, you begin to worry about making a mistake. It becomes better to “quit while you’re ahead” than to continue exploring, making, and learning.

So, what about when children want praise and attention? How do you encourage and inspire them? The number-one tool recommended by Faber and King, and the one I use most frequently in my classes, is actually not really praise at all. It’s simply describing what you notice a child has done. For example, in my drawing class, instead of saying, “What a beautiful picture!,” I might say, “I see a rainbow fish, and a bird in a tree. It makes me wonder, are they friends?” This kind of observation, more often than not, prompts response and participation from the child, and leads them to take more interest in their own work. A participant in one of Faber and King’s workshops give a beautiful anecdote of this approach in action:

“There’s a little girl at preschool who’s always showing me her drawings. ‘Teacher, teacher, look!’

I say, ‘Very nice, that’s beautiful.’

Then she drops it on the floor and walks away. It’s pretty much scribble, so there’s not much else to say.

This time I said, ‘I see wiggly lines on the top and lots of blue at the bottom. It reminds me of the wind and the sea.’

She looked very intently at her own picture and pointed to a tiny squarish scribble I hadn’t noticed. ‘Do you see that? That is a little tiny fish!’

She went back to the craft table to draw more tiny ‘fish.’

It seemed that my looking at the picture closely made it appreciate it more herself and want to work harder on it.”

I love this story. To me, it shows what is possible if we join children in their worlds by withholding judgment and, instead, giving them the gift of our attention. In the process, we encourage children to notice their own creative decisions, empowering them to make exploratory choices, instead of being focused on results and outcomes. So often with gifted children, there is an emphasis on being super-smart and high-achieving. But with creativity, it’s necessary to practice, fail, try again, and see what happens, and the creative spirit needs nurturing, support, and open-ended exploration. Sticking to descriptions of what you notice about a child’s work — “Wow, I notice how you used a lot of the color red, what does that color make you think of?” — instead of using evaluative praise cultivates that space in which children can confidently explore, learn, and contribute to the world around them.

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