Praise is one of the simplest and most powerful tools to engage and motivate your students. When used effectively, praise can turn around behavior challenges and improve students’ attitudes about learning. Students who learn and think differently often receive negative feedback as a result of their struggles. That makes meaningful and appropriate praise even more important.
It may seem obvious that praise can have a powerful effect on your students. But research shows it’s not always the go-to tool — in fact, it’s often underused.
The good news is that when praise is effective, it’s really effective. Teachers who use praise regularly tend to have better relationships with their students. They lose less instructional time and see fewer behavior issues. In a study looking at practices that reduce behavior problems in elementary classrooms, the Institute of Education Sciences identified teacher praise as one of the top five most effective practices.
That doesn’t mean you should start praising students for every little thing they do. And you can’t expect it to be your only classroom management technique. Before you jump right in, it’s important to know that some kinds of praise are more effective than others.
The 3 types of praise
There are three main types of praise that teachers most often use: personal praise, effort-based praise, and behavior-specific praise. Two of these three are found to be more effective than the other.
This type of praise tends to focus on natural talents or skills that come easily to students, rather than the effort they put in or the techniques they use. For example, a teacher might say to a student, “You have such a beautiful singing voice!” Research has shown that this kind of praise may backfire. When students feel their abilities are outside of their control and just part of who they are, they may think they don’t have the ability to improve.
This is especially true of struggling learners who aren’t as confident in their abilities and skills. Personal praise can make students less willing to risk trying new things for fear of revealing just how little talent they think they have.
Instead, focus on...
This type of praise emphasizes what students can control. Think back to the student with the beautiful singing voice. The student likely worked hard to learn the difficult key changes in a song or to memorize the lyrics. The time spent and the strategies used are within the student's control.
That’s why effort-based praise, such as “I am so impressed at how hard you worked to sing that song without the music and lyrics in front of you,” is more empowering than “You have such a beautiful singing voice!”
Focus also on...
This type of praise lets students know what they are doing correctly. It’s an evidence-based classroom management strategy that focuses on providing specific feedback to describe your approval of student behavior. To give behavior-specific praise, you clearly tell students what they’ve done correctly. For example, if you have a student for whom organization is an issue, you could say, “Nice work getting your homework out of your homework folder first thing this morning.”
Both effort-based and behavior-specific praise genuinely acknowledge your students’ efforts and achievements. When your students feel that you’re honestly showing approval and telling them what they did well, they’re more willing to continue to work hard and look for effective strategies to overcome obstacles.
How to deliver effective praise
Knowing what to praise your students for and when to give that praise is just as important as the praise itself. The following guidelines can help you deliver praise in the right way and at the right time.
Descriptive and precise praise takes the guesswork out of what you’re praising. Students should be able to identify exactly what they did well and know the positive behavior you want them to repeat. “Great job — you were quiet in the hallway as we passed other classrooms!” is better than “You did a good job on the way to lunch.”
Be clear about the expectations.
For praise to be effective, students need to know what the standards are. Explicitly state the criteria you’re using to evaluate an assignment or the behaviors you expect. Then, provide positive feedback that students can directly match to the expectations.
For example, if your expectation is for students to finish their morning routine in 15 minutes, you can say, “Wow, you unpacked your backpack in the first 15 minutes of the day. Well done!”
Praise the process and progress, not just the outcome.
Students who learn and think differently may struggle to complete an assignment or task. In fact, it may take several attempts for students to finish. Students may feel discouraged when they’re working hard, but it feels like their work still isn’t good enough.
You can support students by giving behavior-specific praise about their process and progress as they work, letting them know they’re on the right track. Use phrases like “you’ve put so much effort into writing your first draft” to point out small wins, which helps students recognize that their hard work is moving them forward.
Be sincere — and don’t overpraise.
Students know when you’re not being sincere. In fact, insincerity may damage your credibility and your relationship with them. It can make students wonder if you’re not able to recognize their strengths.
Praising students too often or for minor reasons can also come across as insincere. The instinct to heap on the praise is well-intentioned, but it can backfire. Research has shown that some teachers overpraise certain groups of students, including students of color.
Overpraising can be harmful to students of color and students who struggle because it sends the message that teachers have low expectations for them — the exact opposite of the high expectations teachers should hold. It can also make students doubt whether they’re capable of handling the big things, or whether you think they are.
Instead, focus on precise, sincere, and effort-based praise at opportune moments, like when students try a new skill, make progress in a project, or show mastery of a concept.
Be sensitive, and follow culturally responsive practices.
Praise should also be appropriate for the individual student. Some students may thrive on being praised in front of the whole class. Other students may be uncomfortable being singled out, even if it’s for a good reason.
Similarly, exactly what you choose to praise should be culturally appropriate to the student. Some forms of “praise” may actually reinforce stereotypes related to race, ethnicity, or disability.
For example, consider teachers who tell Black students that they’re articulate. Although the teachers' comment may have been intended as praise, it reveals that they don’t expect their Black students to be well-spoken. This harmful stereotype could leave students questioning their teachers’ assumptions and expectations.
Getting to know your students and understanding culturally responsive teaching practices can help you decide the most appropriate praise for each student.
Avoid comparisons to other students.
Praise that is contingent on outperforming peers can lead students to doubt their abilities. Imagine a teacher praising one student in front of the class, saying “High five for coming in first in the spelling bee!”
This comment could send a message to the rest of the class that the teacher is comparing students’ abilities. It’s better to say something along the lines of, “High five for learning how to spell such tricky words!”
Download: 7 ways to give praise
Incorporating effort-based and behavior-specific praise into your teaching routine takes practice. To get started, use this downloadable resource with tips for giving effective praise.
You can also think about and write down specific, positive behaviors that help students thrive socially and academically. Refer to this list throughout the day to remind yourself what you can praise students for.
Over time, you’ll establish that meaningful praise is a social norm in your class — and can then teach students how to appreciate and praise their peers.
About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.
Mark J. Griffin, PhD has been a professional in the field of learning disabilities for over 45 years. He was the founding headmaster of Eagle Hill School, a school for children with specific learning disabilities.