Encouragement Is More Effective Than Praise in Guiding Children's Behavior

Adult hugging baby

Many child care providers try to help children feel confident by praising them. But encouragement is actually more effective than praise in building children’s confidence. But overusing praise can actually lower children’s self-esteem and make them more competitive and less cooperative.

The Difference Between Praise and Encouragement

Praise and encouragement are very different. Praise focuses on what the adult thinks or feels, and often includes a judgment such as “good.” Praise statements starting with “I like…” send a subtle message that the adult’s opinion is what is important. Statements like “You’re such a nice girl” or “I love your block tower!” or “I’m so proud of you for cleaning up” are examples of praise that may sound effective. But children who are praised tend to do things to please adults, not because they are motivated themselves.

Encouragement is non-judgmental. Encouraging statements point out specific facts but do not evaluate them. Phrases such as “You really worked hard” or “Look at all the green you used in your painting” or “I bet you are proud that you finished that whole puzzle” are examples of non-judgmental encouragement. Children who are encouraged tend to develop a stronger self-motivation and pride in their work because the encouragement focuses on what they are doing well, not what the teacher thinks about their work.

Child care providers sometimes overuse praise. Imagine a situation when Tommy and Julie have been working hard, painting butterflies at the art table. As the child care provider passes by, she says, “Tommy! What a beautiful butterfly! I love it!” Tommy beams, but Julie is shocked. She thinks her butterfly is prettier than Tommy’s, but clearly the teacher knows best. Julie leaves the art table, concluding that she’s just not as good as Tommy at painting butterflies. Tommy may feel happy, but Julie is just discouraged.

Instead of praising Tommy’s butterfly, while accidentally hurting Julie’s feelings or implying that her butterfly wasn’t as beautiful, the teacher might have encouraged Tommy by saying something like, “Tommy, your butterfly is very colorful. You worked really hard on it.” This comment states a fact about Tommy’s butterfly but does not imply that it is better than Julie’s butterfly.

Why Encouragement Is More Effective Than Praise in Child Care Settings

Here are some reasons why child care providers should try to encourage children:

  • Encouragement focuses on effort. Child care providers who encourage children point out how hard they have worked or how much they have improved. This helps build children’s pride in their own work.
  • Encouragement sets up children for success. If Mike is learning to read and hears the teacher say that Sarah is a “good reader” (an example of praise), Mike may conclude that he’ll never be a good reader like Sarah. If the teacher tells Sarah that she is reading bigger words now (an example of encouragement), Mike does not have any reason to believe that he cannot also read big words.
  • Encouragement teaches children to evaluate themselves on their own merits. When adults provide children with feedback about what they are doing, the children learn to evaluate themselves without comparing their efforts and successes to those of others. Children who are encouraged learn that what they think about themselves is more important than what others think.

Children do need reinforcement, but encouragement is more successful than praise at building children’s self-esteem, motivation to work, and cooperation with others. The next time you think about saying, “You’re such a good boy!” change your statement to, “You shared your book. Thank you!” You will help children learn more and develop pride in their own accomplishments.

For More Information

To learn more about encouragement and other tips for building children’s confidence, check out the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles: