Positive Behaviour Change Part 2: Using Praise and Rewards Effectively

Hi everyone,

I hope the school holidays treated you well. This second part of our series on positive behaviour change builds on what was covered in the last newsletter, which mapped out the general approach and set the intentions that sit behind all effective behaviour management approaches. This part of the series will focus on the value of praise and rewards, and how to best utilise these tools to support positive behaviour change.

When we praise our kids, we’re communicating two fundamental things to them: ‘you matter’ and ‘I notice your effort.’ Really, these are one thing, since, if I’m noticing your effort, that necessarily means you matter. This message, repeated over time, can have a profound impact on our kids, who will grow to learn that they have real value and that this value is most obvious when they work to be the best they can be. Such a mindset prompts action in the face of fear or uncertainty and helps set the scene for a confident and resilient young person.

Now, it’s all well and good to tell our kids we appreciate them, but it doesn’t tell them what to do to get more of that appreciation. Enter: descriptive praise. Descriptive praise, as you have probably guessed, is the kind of praise that tells your child exactly what they did that you liked. It says ‘hey, this behaviour is the thing that got my approval and attention, definitely do more of it!’ Try to avoid blanket phrases like ‘good boy’ or ‘great job.’ Instead, tell them what they did well so that they know what they should do next time. This is important for children of all ages, too – you can sincerely tell a teenager that you appreciate that they texted you when they were on their way home, or managed their anger when they wanted to yell at you. Heartfelt words of thanks and acknowledgement mean the world to all of us. Some examples of descriptive praise are “I love how you stopped what you were doing when I wanted to talk to you” or “thank you for packing up straight away when I asked” or “you guys are playing so quietly, that’s really helpful.”

To me, the best kind of praise is for effort. Saying “you really stuck with it, even though you weren’t sure you could. Well done!” or “I’m really pleased you were willing to give it a proper go” does wonders. The reason for this is that effort is associated with the process that creates success, rather than the outcome – the success – itself. A successful final product is a good thing to have, and it’s great to comment on that too; however, we are much more interested in our kids building the skills to achieve regular success, rather than single successes. We don’t want our kids to attach too much to the outcome of their work, because that can promote avoidance of failure and making mistakes – and mistakes are part and parcel of true, long-term success. If our kids identify by the outcome of their work, and the outcome was a failure, then they will feel like a failure – no matter how much effort they put in. The metric for success was the final product, after all. If, however, they identify by their effort, and the outcome was a failure, they can still feel proud of their effort, and have room to problem-solve the next time. You can do this when the outcome is great, too: for example, “you got 95% on your maths test? Wow! You must have been working really hard, I’m proud of you.” Wherever possible, focus your praise on effort. If you do, when your child faces something they’re not sure they can do, they are likely to give it a try and to keep trying with a positive attitude.

We are going to go into reward systems in more depth next time, but I wanted to briefly say this: you can think of a reward as a way of underlining your praise. As a parent, you’re like a representative of society. When you praise and reward, you’re showing your child that ‘doing this behaviour is socially and materially rewarded.’ That’s a lesson worth teaching.

When you want to change an undesirable behaviour, part of it is looking for the opportunities to praise. When your child does the desired behaviour, swoop in and praise it. Initially, praise and rewards are plentiful. Once the behaviour is happening more frequently, frequent, light praise, with an occasional reward for particularly impressive behaviours is good to maintain it. A high-five, thumbs up, or even a look of approval from afar can be just as pleasing for our kids.

Focusing purely on positive behaviour and rewards is only half the story, but it’s a half that’s often tricky to figure out. I hope I’ve given you some food for thought, and encourage you to check out  Praise & encouragement for child behaviour | Raising Children Network if you’d like more info on how to do this in more detail.

Bring on Term 4!

Graham Goodall-Smith
Registered Psychologist