The power of effective praise: A guide for teachers

Learn how to use praise to engage and motivate your students. Download and print a tips sheet to help you give effective praise.

Many students who learn and think differently get more negative feedback than positive. That makes meaningful praise even more important. Learn more about the power of praise, and how to use it in the classroom.

The effects of meaningful praise

Praise can have a powerful effect on your students. The right kind of praise can turn around behavior challenges. Or improve students’ attitudes about learning.

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. It’s important to know that some kinds of praise are more effective than others.

The 3 types of praise

There are three types of praise that teachers most often use: personal praise, effort-based praise, and behavior-specific praise. Personal praise is the least effective.

Personal praise

This type of praise focuses on natural talents or skills that come easily to students. It doesn’t focus on the effort or the techniques used. 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, they may think they can’t improve.

Personal praise can also make struggling students less willing to try new things. They may be afraid of revealing just how little talent they think they have.

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Effort-based praise

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.

With effort-based praise, a teacher might say, “I’m so impressed by how hard you worked to sing that song without the music and lyrics in front of you.” That’s more empowering than “You have such a beautiful singing voice!”

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Behavior-specific praise

Behavior-specific praise clearly tells students what they’ve done correctly. It’s an evidence-based classroom management strategy.

Let’s say a student has trouble with organization. The teacher might say, “Nice work getting your homework out of your folder first thing this morning.”

When students feel that teachers are honestly telling them what they did well, they’re more willing to continue to work hard. And to look for strategies to overcome obstacles.

How to deliver effective praise

Knowing what to praise your students for and when to give praise is just as important as the praise itself.

1. Be specific.

Specific praise allows students to identify exactly what they did well. It reinforces the positive behavior you want students 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.”

2. Praise the process and progress, not just the outcome.

Students who learn and think differently may struggle to complete an assignment or task. They may feel discouraged when they’re working hard, but it feels like their work isn’t good enough.

You can support students by giving behavior-specific praise about their process and progress as they work. Let them know they’re on the right track. Point out small wins to help students see that their hard work is moving them forward. For example, “You’ve put so much effort into writing your first draft."

3. Be clear about the expectations and standards.

For praise to be effective, students need to know what the standards are. Explicitly state how you’re evaluating an assignment or the behaviors you expect. Then give praise that matches those expectations.

Maybe your students are expected 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!”

4. Be sincere.

Students know when you’re not being honest. For example, praising students for minor reasons can feel insincere.

Insincerity may damage your credibility and your relationship with students. It can make students wonder if you’re not able to recognize their strengths.

5. Avoid comparisons to other students.

Praise students for mastering a skill they’re working on. Don’t compare their skills to other students’ skills or tell them they did better than someone else.

Imagine a teacher praising one student in front of the class, saying “High five for coming in first in the spelling bee!” This comment might send the message that the teacher is comparing students’ abilities. It’s better to say something like, “High five for learning how to spell such tricky words!”

6. Praise students for hard work.

Focus your comments on how much effort students put in or which techniques they used. This emphasizes things that students can control rather than skills that come naturally to them.

7. Avoid overpraising

The instinct to heap on the praise (especially for students who struggle) is well-intentioned. But it can backfire. Overpraising for small things can make students doubt they can do big things.

Research has shown that some teachers overpraise certain groups of students. This includes students of color. Overpraising sends the message that teachers have low expectations for them. And it can make students doubt whether you think they’re capable.

Instead, focus on precise, sincere, and effort-based praise at key moments. This could be when students try a new skill, make progress in a project, or show mastery of a concept.

How to 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, 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.

Consider teachers who tell Black students that they’re articulate. This may be intended as praise. But it can imply that they don’t expect their Black students to be well-spoken. This harmful stereotype could leave students wondering what their teacher thinks of them.

It’s important to get to know your students. This plus understanding culturally responsive teaching practices can help you decide how to praise each student.

Download: 7 ways to give praise

Praising students based on effort and behavior takes practice. Download this one-page resource. It has tips for giving effective praise.

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You can also write down specific, positive behaviors that help students thrive socially and academically. Refer to this list throughout the day. It’ll remind you what you can praise students for.  

Over time, you’ll establish that meaningful praise is a social norm in your class. And you can then teach students how to appreciate and praise their peers.