Ways to Praise: Words that Inspire, Encourage, and Motivate

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Have you ever thought about how you give praise and offer encouraging words? Is there a way to do this that promotes learning?

How can we use our words to foster the development of intrinsic motivation and a positive self-image in those we teach?

Think of a time when someone praised you for something you achieved or shared a word of encouragement. How did it make you feel? What do you remember about those moments?

Maybe you remember feeling appreciated or valued.
Maybe those words inspired you to keep going, to learn more, to challenge yourself to achieve greater things.
Maybe you remember feeling special and proud of yourself.

Praise is a powerful tool and one that we as educators can use to equip and empower those we teach. We can use praise to inspire creativity, cultivate the pursuit of excellence, motivate them to keep moving forward and keep exploring, and celebrate milestones.

Today, I’m sharing a few simple ways to offer praise with intention: words that inspire, encourage, and motivate. But first, let’s talk about why this is important and ways you can use praise effectively in a teaching environment:

How to Use Praise with Intention

  1. Strive to give immediate praise that is genuine and specific. "Being specific is one of the keys to more effective praise” (source). No detail is too small here! Zero in on something ultra-specific and you’ll be able to give praise that's more unique to the individual child and the given situation. This kind of praise is often the most well-received and the most meaningful in the long run.

  2. Look for ways to praise a child’s effort (and/or their behavior), not their intelligence. "Praising effort motivates and shows the child that you believe in them” (source). Try to separate out the child’s action and find a way to talk specifically about that.

  3. Think about ways to use praise to highlight an observation or something you noticed vs. an evaluation. "Tell them you saw them working hard and that their effort was valued” (source).

  4. Praise the process or approach rather than the person. Researcher Carol Dweck determined that the way we praise children "can affect their mindset and, in turn, their propensity to take on challenges, persevere and succeed” (source). To promote a growth mindset in those you teach, praise the process or approach they took to meet and overcome a challenge. Here’s an example:

    Fixed Mindset:

    "You sang that piece from memory — you are so smart!"

    Growth Mindset:

    "You sang that piece from memory — you worked so hard to be able to do that and now you can! Congratulations!"

  5. Offer praise only when merited (so that children don’t become dependent on it). “Psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer found that only children under the age of seven accept praise at face value; older children are just as suspicious of praise as adults” (source). Choose those moments when you can praise something specific - something out of the ordinary - where you can be really intentional about highlighting a child’s particular process or effort.

As you can see, there’s a lot more to offering praise or an encouraging word than we might think.

You’ve learned that choosing your words with intention and thoughtfulness can foster learning and motivation, but what to say? Here are 12 super-practical, Mad Libs-style phrases to incorporate into your teaching:

12 Ways to Offer Praise and Encouragement

  1. I saw how closely you were watching me and following along that time.

  2. I know how much you practiced that tricky rhythm and your hard work really paid off!

  3. I could see that you were really singing with your heart.

  4. It makes me smile when you __________.

  5. You all did such a great job lining up on your own and staying quiet as we walked in. Thank you for taking responsibility and working together!

  6. You have really grown in __________ [ability/area].

  7. I am so proud of the effort you put into learning this new piece. How does it make you feel?

  8. Your ‘ah’ vowel was beautiful at the end! I’m very proud of your hard work, and you should be, too.

  9. I like how you took the time to mark that in your music.

  10. You’ve worked really hard at __________. How do you feel?

  11. Thank you for all the time you put into learning and preparing this anthem.

  12. I noticed that you took the time to smile and shake hands during the greeting. That made me smile.

I hope this list inspires you to offer some specific and genuine words of praise and encouragement in the coming weeks and be intentional about how you offer praise to your students this year.

Does this resonate with you? If so, let me know in the comments. What are your favorite phrases for offering genuine praise and encouragement to someone you teach?