How to Motivate Students with Effective Praise

By Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW

How to Motivate Students with Effective PraiseMotivating students can be a challenging part of the work we do in schools. Kids often report not liking school, and when asked what they do enjoy, they often answer with video games or some other form of screen technology. While this is not always the case, it is a reality that many kids can benefit from assistance with motivation. Educators can choose to view the gap in motivation as a deep trench, impossible to traverse, or we can reframe it and see it as an opportunity to have fun and be creative.

PBIS and Formal Systems
There are mixed feelings about schoolwide programs such as PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports). It is reasonable to prefer that children be motivated intrinsically to do what they “should be doing,” and not simply motivated because they will be getting some extrinsic reward or praise. However, children who lack motivation need to start somewhere. Even if their motivation was first activated through extrinsic rewards, would it not seem plausible that these expected behaviors eventually would become second nature?

I have witnessed school culture enriched by these schoolwide frameworks. They offer opportunities to provide effective praise and rewards to individual students who display expected behavior as well as to the whole class when the collective is functioning well. I see kids feeling genuinely proud of their accomplishments and motivated to continue on this path. Plus, the rewards are fun and motivating (for example, “paw parties” where kids can wear PJs and bring in a stuffed animal, show-and-tell days, board games from home days, movie and hot cocoa days, etc.). These joyful in-school experiences build a positive school culture and increase the odds of seeing more preferred behavior.

More Specific Praise
One way you can use praise effectively is to be specific in your use of it. Simply put, being recognized with precise language feels good. The praise feels more meaningful for the child, and this goes a long way. Compare the more general praise in the first example below to the specific praise of the second.

Example 1: “Good job, keep going.”

Example 2: “Wow, [Name], check this out! You are working hard to decode and also to show me clearly how you came up with your answer. You should be proud of the progress you’re making on this. Don’t back away from the challenge; your brain is definitely ready for more!”

Get excited! When you see something good happening with a student, first you must notice it. Next you must create an engaged and meaningful response. I suggest you stop and really get jazzed about what you see. Enthusiasm is a simple concept but carries a lot of weight with kids. Plus, communicating authentic praise with meaning and excitement increases the likelihood for more of what you want to see.

Focus on the Positive Whenever Possible
It is so easy to fall into the pattern of commanding students to stop doing undesired behaviors: “Stop blurting out!” “No running in the hall!” “That was so mean!” “Say you are sorry!” “Don’t give up, keep trying!”

Think about what might happen if you refrained from this practice and instead shifted your focus to praising the positive things you see—and wish to see more of.

“Wow, I love how the front of the line is keeping their bodies safe and respectful!”

“Derik, that was excellent ownership. You realized your words weren’t kind or necessary and fixed that all on your own. You can feel really good about that.”

“Janelle, I know how hard it can be to stop yourself from blurting out, and I have noticed how hard you’ve been working to reduce this. You can feel proud of this work, girl. Nicely done!”

Connecting your specific praise to the positive feelings that you’d like to evoke in children is a useful tool as well.

Mystery Student
A fantastic teacher at my school uses an effective and fun tool to motivate students. Each day she randomly selects a craft stick with the name of one of her students on it, but she keeps the identity of this student a secret. She tells the class her “Mystery Walker” for the day has been selected and then reminds them all that she will be watching this particular student while walking through the building during the day. She names the expected behaviors for these transitions and points out that everyone should be mindful of these things, because anyone could be the Mystery Walker.

At the end of the day, she reflects aloud about what she observed with this mystery student, and if it was on par with the stated expectations, she rewards the student by publicly showering her or him with specific praise and excitement. She usually offers that student five tickets (class currency) or some other reinforcement tool. She invites the whole class to rejoice in this student’s success. If the student has not demonstrated the expected hallway behavior, she does not name the student, which would be shaming. She simply tells the class that she did not observe the expected behavior on this day and they have a chance to try again tomorrow. She reminds them that because the drawing is random, any of them could be chosen as the Mystery Walker the next day.

It is a fun activity that works well in motivating students and can be adapted for academics as well. For example, before math begins, say, “Let’s see who my Mystery Mathematician is going to be today.” Draw a name and explain what you’d like to see out of your math students that day. When that behavior occurs, praise it explicitly. Let everyone share in the joy.

Quality of the Connection
Using formal systems and frameworks for positive behavior, being specific about our praise, focusing on the positive, and creating unique, fun approaches to reinforcement are some of the ways that we can use praise to effectively motivate students. Additionally, it is critical to consider the quality of your connections with students. Take time to build individual relationships with your students. Trust that it will resonate with kids when they feel like you truly care, enjoy them, and are genuinely moved and inspired by their success.

While ultimately students will be responsible for cultivating their own sense of self-worth and motivation, it is clear that educators have a huge role in helping students develop this in their early years of school. It is important to know that it is more than okay that motivation starts with us, because eventually, it will end with them.

Amanda SymmesAmanda C. Symmes, LICSW, is a social worker currently serving as a school adjustment counselor in Haverhill, Massachusetts. She adores her work with children and is continually amazed by the talented and caring staff she is surrounded by each day. Aside from her work family, Amanda lives with her supportive husband and three kids (ages 16, 13, and 6) and enjoys spending time with them taking in all the beauty and joy in the world. She enjoys writing, knitting, laughing, walking, and using mindfulness. Connect with Amanda on Twitter @LicswAmanda and on her blog

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