Praise versus Encouragement

” Like others I had believed that it was necessary to encourage a child by means of some exterior reward that would flatter his baser sentiments….in order to foster in him a spirit of work and of peace. And I was astonished when I learned that a child who is permitted to educate himself really gives up these lower instincts.”

( 2005: 172 taken from Montessori 1967)

Maria Montessori, like many of us, had reservations and concerns surrounding the idea of a child developing confidence, self belief and esteem without extrinsic rewards and praise as a motivating factor and a means of influencing behavior long term.

Montessori stated that by providing encouragement, an environment that supports a child’s needs, and being able to withdraw and let the child show you what he needs means that the child has the opportunity to develop his own sense of self, without having to be dependent on praise from an adult. Montessori believed that excessive, long-term praise can inhibit children from gaining independence because they rely heavily on the praise of those in authority positions. As an alternative, encouragement can be empowering. There are no conditions and it isn’t judgmental. The receiver is encouraged to make judgments of his own behavior, work, and ultimately, self worth.

In contemporary society and education, the adult is generally seen as the center of a child’s learning and development. In the Montessori philosophy, the adult is the facilitator and the guide in the child’s learning and development. Montessori believes adult centered learning, as found in conventional education dampens the child’s self esteem and fosters dependence rather than independence.

When I reflect back on my childhood, I was always striving to be recognized via praise from both my parents and my school. I defined myself by this and I now see that that has hindered my progression as I found it very difficult to make choices unless my parents approved of them, validated them and as a result validating me as a person. As a result of my time studying Montessori I have developed and felt a sense of achievement in my own work and cultivated friendliness with error. This has enabled me to feel proud of my achievements rather than wondering what everyone else thinks, says or feels. This is a liberating development!

We know that children have natural innate drive to internalize, absorb and manipulate what they experience in their environment, much like mathematics and language. We know that the child’s reward is not in the teacher reinforcing that he did a good job in finding the answer to a mathematical problem, but it is in the process itself. This process requires concentration, a strong will and perseverance and the joy the child experiences in recognizing his hard work or the child’s joy at tying his laces is about what he did, his achievements.

Surely, if our focus as teachers and parents is on the rewards, then it becomes less about the process or about the journey of reaching the goal and more about the end product. If you need to provide the reward to get the end product then where is the innate motivation to learn clearly evident in children? In the long term it has been replaced with learners or workers driven by external measures to get a desired result of what someone else wants. Surely the joy is of learning and growing for you.

Alfie Kohn (2001) summarized what we can do and say when a child does something impressive, and although it may go against many of our own experiences in the home and in school, it is important to consider and think about these suggestions.

  1. He advices us to say nothing. Many people believe and insist a helpful act must be reaffirmed and reinforced because if we don’t do this then the child may not respond in this way again. Giving the child a verbal reward is deemed as the best way to encourage good behavior but Kohn suggests that this is an artificial reason and is unfounded and therefore praise may not be necessary.
  2. Secondly he suggests say what you saw. A simple, non judgment statement where you recognize the child’s work such as “You did up your coat by yourself” or “You did it.” This shows you are noticing the child’s efforts and hard work and allows the child to take pride in their achievements. This can relate to you noticing an action and how it affects another person positively. For example if a child helps another child then you may comment how the other child is feeling. “Can you see Joe’s face? He seems happy that you helped him clean up the spill.”
  3. Finally he asks is to talk less, ask more. Converse with the child and ask questions. For example, if a child has drawn a picture ask the child what part he liked the best or what was the most challenging rather than telling him what you like the best. This is likely to stimulate interest in a topic rather than saying “Good job!” as research proves that his may in fact have the opposite effect on the child. Kohn goes on to elaborate further and say;

“This doesn’t mean that all compliments, all thank-you’s, all expressions of delight are harmful. We need to consider our motives for what we say (a genuine expression of enthusiasm is better than a desire to manipulate the child’s future behavior) as well as the actual effects of doing so. Are our reactions helping the child to feel a sense of control over her life — or to constantly look to us for approval? Are they helping her to become more excited about what she’s doing in its own right – or turning it into something she just wants to get through in order to receive a pat on the head.” (2001: 2)

We know that children are driven by an innate interest in learning and it is our role as the educators and parents to support this. We have heard how praise and rewards undermines independence and esteem and how praise and rewards are often used to manipulate children to behave in a particular way. I know I personally have been bought up in a loving, supportive family who praised their children with the best of intentions, but once you start to see praise for what it is and what it does as well as the motives for praising, giving and receiving it, I personally am looking at praise with a more critical eye. Surely it is more delightful to hear a child say, “I did it!” and the pleasure she must feel from this accomplishment. By offering the child the support and encouragement without judgment, at home and in the classroom, we are supporting the child to do things for themselves, the ultimate goal in life.

Ms. Goode
January 2013

Further reading

  • Kohn, Alfie “Punished by Rewards” New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993 a
  • Polk Lillard, Paula and Lillard Jessen, Lynn “Montessori From The Start” New York: Shocken Books, 2003
  • Kohn Alfie, “Five reasons to stop saying ‘Good Job” Young Children, September 2001
  • Bronson, Po, “How Not to Talk to Your Kids. The inverse power of praise” New York News and Features, February 11th, 2007.
  • Bronson, Po and Merryman, Ashley. “Nurture Shock” New York, Twelve, 2009 b