By Amanda Morin
The best kind of praise can motivate your child. But some compliments can make kids with learning and attention issues less willing to take on difficult tasks. Here’s how to give praise that empowers.
Be specific about what you’re praising. For example, instead of saying “You were so good in the store,” make a more detailed comment such as, “Thank you for being so patient while we waited in line.” Descriptive praise removes any guesswork for your child. By clearly identifying what he did well, you can reinforce good behavior and help him remember to be patient again the next time you’re waiting in line.
Good, descriptive praise makes clear which standards you’re using to evaluate your child’s performance. Start by helping him set a realistic goal. Then give him positive feedback as he gets closer to reaching it. For example, if the focus is on improving your child’s morning routine, you could say, “I like the way you packed your backpack and put it by the door last night. That helped you finish getting ready for school five minutes faster this morning than it took you yesterday. Nice job!”
Kids know when you’re not being genuine. Insincere praise—“You’re the best baseball player I’ve ever seen!”—can make your child start doubting you. He may wonder why you’re not telling him the truth. Or worse, he may worry that you don’t have the knowledge to accurately assess his abilities.
Focus your comments on how much effort your child puts in or which techniques he uses. Emphasize the things he can control rather than his natural talents. Research on mind-sets shows that people who think they were born with certain abilities worry they can’t improve. Saying “You’ve always been an amazing painter” could end up making your child avoid challenging tasks because he doesn’t want to risk failure. It’s better to praise his artwork, such as “That’s a cool way to use shapes and color.”
Praising your child’s efforts and strategies is half the battle. The other half is helping your child see how well those efforts are paying off. Look for even the smallest bits of progress and praise your child for them. This can help your child stay motivated to keep at it. Try saying things like, “I can really tell how much you’ve been practicing at basketball. You’re getting better at controlling the ball, and your speed has also improved since you started the season.”
We’ve all heard this type of praise before: “You’re so smart, beautiful, sweet and perfect!” But this kind of over-the-top adoration won’t do much to help motivate kids with learning and attention issues. In fact, constantly telling your child he’s really smart could make him start to doubt whether he really is intelligent. There are better ways to boost your child’s self-esteem.
Praise your child for how his actions make you or other people feel. For example, you can say, “Look how happy your sister is to get a turn with your new toy.” Or you can say, “Thank you for helping with the dishes. I really appreciated your lending a hand.” This has the added benefit of showing your child you notice his efforts and that he’s a valued member of the family.
Sometimes children with learning and attention issues need help identifying their own emotions and owning their accomplishments. For example, you can say to your child, “I’m so proud of you for working so hard to get a better grade on your math test!” It’s also good for you to pair that kind of praise with a comment like this: “You must feel so proud that all of your hard work and studying made such a big difference.”
Praise your child for mastering a skill rather than telling him he did better than someone else. Instead of saying “I’m so proud of you for coming in first in the spelling bee,” it’s better to say, “I’m so proud of you for learning how to spell such tricky words!” Studies indicate it’s better for motivation and resilience to praise kids’ skills. Praise based on outperforming peers can lead kids to doubt their abilities. This is especially true if they start to face stiffer competition.
For kids with learning and attention issues, this is an especially important point. It may take several attempts to achieve the desired result, so look for ways to help your child stick with it. Rather than waiting and saying, “That’s one great collage you made,” try, “I love watching you work on this collage. Even though it might not turn out exactly the way you’d planned, it’s really neat seeing what pieces works well together and what doesn’t. I am really impressed by your dedication!”
Amanda Morin is a parent advocate, a former teacher and the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.
Elizabeth Harstad, M.D., M.P.H., is a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.
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