Is there a correct way to praise pupils?

Young children can be enormously sensitive to feedback. But getting it right can be like navigating a minefield, says Jo Brighouse

Child being applauded by room of adults

Year 2 has been learning about the Great Fire of London. They spent several days making Tudor houses out of cardboard, lollipop sticks and straw. At the end of the week they were brought into the playground to see them set alight by the fire brigade in a recreation of 1666.

Half the class thought it was brilliant. The other half sobbed at the sight of their hard work going up in flames.

It was one of those "wow lessons" that slightly misfired. I’m sure some of the children now have a better picture of why the fire of London spread so quickly, but for many their overriding memory will simply be of a big red fire engine in the playground, followed by the realisation that they wouldn’t be bringing their house home to show their parents.

Sensitive to feedback

Young children – sometimes contrary to appearances – are hugely sensitive to feedback about their work.

A big part of a primary teacher’s job is to keep confidence levels high, without compromising on standards. Small children don’t give you much in the way of second chances (try telling a four-year-old that their writing isn’t very good and see how willing they are to write more for you). 

Which isn’t to say that you throw meaningless praise around. But you’re not going to get far with young children if praise isn’t a big part of their day. 

And it’s not just the little ones. Older children need praise too. 

I encourage my struggling writers to read their stories out to the class at the end of the day. Not because I think everyone’s afternoon will really be enhanced by largely unpunctuated tales of zombie killers, read in a halting monotone, but because I know how important an audience is in keeping them enthusiastic about writing. 

How much praise? 

But just how much praise is the right amount? This is a tricky area for teachers. A generation or so ago it was the norm to hold up the best work for public praise and stamp everyone else with “must do better”. Then there seemed to be a phase when everyone was praised, regardless of effort or brilliance. 

And now we have Carol Dweck’s growth mindset, where we praise effort but not outcome because that could actually stifle persistence and risk-taking (although it’s much more complicated than that and most of us are still doing it wrong anyway). 

There’s also the fact that a lot of praise is unspoken. Children are savvy and pick up on the cues. Do you default to the most fluent readers when reading aloud in class? Are the same writers getting held up as role models? The same artists appearing on the school website? Do you over praise the behaviour of those who struggle with discipline, while ignoring the good behaviour of the perennially compliant? 

Navigating the minefield

Add in the fact that some children will be constantly seeking your approval, while some will never voluntarily show you anything, and it quickly becomes a minefield, which you will never quite learn to navigate correctly. 

And, however hard you try to strike the right balance in school, there’s a good chance it will often go out the window at home. My son came home from school the other day with his lighthouse. It had taken him ages to make out of card, paper and paint and he was proud of it.

“Do you like it?” he asked me. “Is it the best lighthouse you’ve ever seen?” 

I looked at it. It looked like a badly amputated leg, sitting on a bed of litter. Then I looked at his face. 

“Yes,” I replied in all honesty. “It’s the best lighthouse I’ve ever seen.” 

Jo Brighouse is a pseudonym for a primary teacher in the West Midlands. She tweets @jo_brighouse

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