Educational Praise

“Great Job” vs. “I noticed the detail of your work and I felt connected and appreciative from what you did.”
Which do you think is better?

Educational Praise

Since the early 70’s, parents have been told that praising their children was vital to enhance self-esteem, which was then believed to be one of the most important facets of a person.  Studies over the last couple decades have revealed that praise can actually be detrimental when used as a reward or a way of avoiding a struggle or feeling incompetent.
Children who are told that they’re smart by parents are less likely to try new or challenging activities, for fear of failing. Frequently-praised children are more competitive and interested in tearing one another down in an attempt to keep/reaffirm their status (Carol Dweck).

This is not to say all praise is detrimental; in fact, praise is a common way to meet our need for love, belonging, and knowledge, but the type and amount of praise given is of vital importance.

To be positively effective, praise needs to be specific, descriptive of a process/effort instead of outcome, and it needs to be delivered with sincerity. Praise that indicates judgment on the part of the praiser tends to have a negative effect.  “Great game,” after a game Jim’s team won, may get a thought response from Jim of “Sure, only I played lousy.”  “Nice job,” after a book report, may get a thought of “I could have done better; I hardly tried.”

To be most effective and growth-oriented, we recommend combining NVC Gratitude with educational praise. Below are some examples of each and both together. Note that the examples are stilted for the purpose of illuminating. More casual expressions are often better received:

NVC Gratitude Educational Praise Both
Jane, I felt delighted when you kept climbing after you’d fallen on the climbing wall. It met my need for connection to share that with you. I noticed your perseverance, trying different options up there Jane, especially after you’d fallen a couple times. Jane, I was delighted that you chose to persevere and keep trying different options on the climbing wall after you’d fallen. I felt really connected, sharing that experience with you.
John, your singing tonight met my need for joy and humor, I was engrossed hearing you! Earlier, I could easily see how much effort you put into practicing your song, working on the pitch, cadence, range, and facial expressions. John, your song tonight had me laughing and dancing along. All that effort you put in during the show really made a difference.  The audience was tapping their feet and smiling, and so was I.
I’m so delighted to see you handling tasks so consistently, and you trying the suggestions I made.  It meets my need for validation and purpose in being a manager. Your last round of reports was very consistent, something we look for at the company. Your focus and patience resulted in your reports being accurate and concise. Your reports are accurate and reliable, indicating that you’re focus and patience resulted in greater consistency. I’m happy to see that you trust me enough to try my suggestions and that I’m explaining things in such a way that you can give them a try.

Your praise describes what happened specifically.  “Educational praise” helps people know how they did when/in case they did not know already.  The above examples are intentionally awkward to help the key components be more salient.

Praise needs to be given carefully, however. It can become the carrot (incentive) to keep the horse (person) walking forward.  In the long run, it is more beneficial for folks to be striving to achieve a goal for internal reasons, rather than because they want to hear that a trusted peer is proud of them, or thinks they did a “good job.”  A person that relies on praise is less likely to see the positive in what they do without someone else to point it out. We want to teach the person to fish, not feed them fish for the rest of their lives, or feed them until they look healthy. If we don’t teach them how to fish, they get sick when we are not around, because they can’t feed themselves. People need to learn to praise themselves and see both the things they did well in a given situation and the things they would like to change for next time.  This skill will serve them well in the long run.

Descriptive / Educational Praise

  • Can be given anytime, not just when someone “wins”, and relates to effort and improvement, not the outcome. Praise is ideally offered “educationally.”  By that, we mean that the person was not aware of their success or ability and you pointed it out to them
  • Allows the person to make an internal evaluation (“Hey, I’m doing better”).
  • While judgmental praise can be embarrassing, descriptive praise is helpful.
  • May seem more honest than judgmental praise. Descriptive praise is specific and sincere.
  • A problem with judgmental praise (“That was a great story!”) is that people often feel they must “out do it” next time, i.e. provide an encore or they won’t be accepted, loved or appreciated.

NVC and Educational Praise are highly interconnected. Educational Praise on its own helps people recognize something about themselves that they were not able to see on their own. NVC Gratitude expresses your feelings and the needs related to those feelings that were met. Scaffolding is supporting a person toward gaining or improving a skill (something that they have expressed a desire to learn and have accepted your offer of assistance with).  Educational praise and NVC Gratitude are both important parts of scaffolding — to share observations with the purpose of feedback and growth.  Primarily, NVC Gratitude and Educational Praise offer the “praise and understanding” element of scaffolding, yet Educational Praise may also help focus a student’s perspective on elements that went into their progress.
These elements combine to uplift one’s role as support. And good support is often the difference between success and a crash.

The Heart of Educational Praise

On this page, we’re invited to think about how we’re utilizing praise in service to the development of a sense of wholeness within the others. We’re afforded several guidelines around praising and encouraging others, many of which may seem foreign to our previous (and unintentional/mindless) use of terms like ‘good job!’ and ‘way to go sport!’  We may agree that educational praise encourages a developmental mindset, and helps to focus the people on their tasks task rather than on their own state of being (i.e., not “I’m a good person cause I can climb the wall” but rather “I utilized a solid climbing technique on that tricky middle-section of the wall.”); and yet we may also wonder if the simple utterance of the words “great job!” is truly going to destroy all of the process towards self-actualization that a person makes on something they’re doing. The simple answer is ‘Of course not!’ and that abiding by the letter of intentional speech alone, we often miss out on the heart of intentional speech.

The use of education praise is often an attempt to allow the spirit of celebration to come through more powerfully. Let’s say your friend runs the flag across the line in a game of Capture the Flag, and you patted him/her on the back and said ‘great run!’ – well, that’s likely going to land with a little connection to “educational praise”– but not much. And, if you stop them, make sustained eye contact, give them a high-five, and say “I’m so inspired by the patience you demonstrated before that run. You waited for the perfect moment for the defenders to look the other way. Well done!” …. That phrase connects with your friend’s effort and affirms a connection from that effort-focused foundation, but it may not match the appropriate timing/mood/etc for the situation. You’re in the middle of a game, after all!

If you have the relationship, background and understanding with that friend to give them a high-five and say “You absolutely ROCKED that run!” and have that ring with the sentiments of educational praise – then you’ve nailed it! You likely related to the person’s goals for improvement, and encouraged them to see this process as endless, especially if your short praise affirms prior-discussed techniques or skill-oriented conversation.

So what’s so ‘bad’ about saying ‘good job’?! Absolutely nothing – if it feels solid in the moment, let it rip! Celebration, connection, and understanding can flower from even the simplest of affirmations. And, before and after embracing our instincts, we have the option to explore the other powerful options for expressing our gratitude, our affirmation and our praise!

For a good example of Educational Praise in parenting, check out this article:
The Ultimate “Say This, Not That” Cheat Sheet for Positive Parents – This article applies to so much more than just parenting. The first point made is educational praise, and it goes on to share other useful scenarios and Intentional Speech practices.