Is it possible to give too much positive praise to preschoolers?

Last week I was the guest commentator on the Bam Radio Show along with Rae Pica, Ellen Ava Sigler, Ed.D.,  and Margaret Berry Wilson. The topic was titled,Creating Praise Junkies: Are You Giving Children Too Much “Positive” Reinforcement?” . You can click on the link to take a listen.

Rae Pica with Ellen Ava Sigler, Ed.D., Margaret Berry Wilson, and Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed.

My Thoughts on positive reinforcement…

I have seen first hand the value of positive reinforcement and would encourage any teacher to understand how best to use positive reinforcement effectively.  Applying positive reinforcement is more than just telling a child “good job” or “I like your painting.”  Instead effective positive reinforcement is sharing a genuine interest in a child’s efforts as he or she is engaged in a specific process.

Words to Encourage

For some, the ability to focus a genuine interest on a child’s efforts comes naturally. For others, like me, it requires a little more thought. I naturally want to say to children, “I love this” because I do – or – “you make me so proud” – because they do – or – “your dress is so pretty” – because I think it is – or “you did this so fast, you must be a genius!” – because I am genuinely amazed. Although this isn’t necessarily bad, it isn’t what is meant by focusing on a child’s efforts. It isn’t what is meant by effectively and productively providing positive reinforcement.

Deborah with Ellen Galinsky, President and Co-Founder of Families and Work Institute

What research tells us…

At the 2011 Indiana Association for the Education of Young Children (IAEYC) conference, the keynote speaker was Ellen Galinsky and while there, she shared some intriguing videos and research from her book “Mind In the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs.”

One of the research videos Ellen shared was of children being given a challenge to solve a puzzle.  To very briefly summarize the research video, some of the children were praised for their effort as they worked on the puzzle and others were praised for how smart they were. Both types of praise sounded genuine and thoughtful but when the children were asked if they would like to solve a more difficult puzzle, only those who were praised on their effort chose to work on the more difficult puzzles. Those who were praised for how smart they were chose to stick with the more simple puzzles so they would continue to be views as “smart.” That brief video was astounding to me – I hadn’t fully appreciated how important it really is to be conscious of what I say or how I apply positive reinforcement.

Focusing on effort…

So how do we focus on effort?  I am still practicing this skill as we speak and if you will listen to the speakers in the Bam Radio Show, they offer up some great suggestions.

What I gleaned from our discussion was to start by focusing on what a child is doing rather than how you feel about what the child is doing. For example, The next time a child shows you a painting he or she just painted – instead of saying  “Your painting is so pretty” try saying “Wow, I see you chose to use red, blue and yellow paint!” The second statement may not seem like a compliment but positive reinforcement isn’t necessarily complimenting children – it is instead the building of a child’s confidence, understanding, and interest in what he or she is doing. It is focusing the child’s attention back on his or her own choices and efforts as he or she participates in or completes a task.

My friend, Kathy, brought her granddaughters by the school and kindly let me photograph them while they were building pirate ships with waffle blocks. If you are like me and applying the concept of effective positive reinforcement isn’t something you do naturally – then let’s try a little practice run. I have written some positive reinforcement statements under each photo below…

You have discovered how to fit all those pieces together!

I see you have chosen to use red, yellow, green, and blue waffle blocks!

You have taught me how anything can be designed from a set of waffle blocks!


You chose to make a pirate ship that is both tall and wide!

Okay – so if you would like to give this a shot. Here is one more photo – perhaps you can teach me some additional phrases that would work.  Keep in mind that positive reinforcement should focus on the effort being made during the process…

Leave your thoughts on positive reinforcement or additional phrases in the comments below…

By |2011-05-07T22:50:21+00:00May 7th, 2011|

About the Author:

Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. has been working and teaching in the field of early childhood education for over 30 years. Deborah currently owns and teaches in her own part-time, private preschool called The Children’s Studio. Deborah’s deep passion for teaching and working with young children is documented and then graciously shared with millions of readers around the world through her blog and other social networking communities. Deborah believes that young children learn best through play and exploration and embraces this belief in all that she does in her own classroom so that she can effectively and passionately share rewarding, real- life, tried-and-true practices with other teachers, parents, and leaders across the field of early childhood education.


  1. kimberly K May 7, 2011 at 11:27 pm - Reply

    My college proff/advisor had a real aversion to using “Good Job” to a child, and has instilled this in me….it is true it is over used and does not offer much in the way of real motivation. I have gotten so that i would rather make the extra effort and comment on what i am seeing, liking and finding out if the child is internalizing it and feeling good themselves about it.

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. May 7, 2011 at 11:44 pm - Reply

      Sounds like a very bright instructor Kimberly – I have always tried to avoid the simple “good job” but sometimes my mind just can’t think of anything else to say so I am trying to recondition myself to look at the process. Just as you say – I want the child to internalize and feel good about their effort rather than just whether or not I like what they have done!

  2. sophie May 7, 2011 at 11:32 pm - Reply

    What a great post! I am trialling this concept over the course of the week with my home schooled preschooler. I had heard a similar concept and adapted it to my complimenting some time back but still find it so easy and natural to simply say “wow, it looks beautiful!”. Am going to re-post this tomorrow on my blog after puzzle time this arvo with my daughter. Thanks!

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. May 7, 2011 at 11:43 pm - Reply

      Good luck with your trialing – I hope you see a difference:)

  3. Amy A May 7, 2011 at 11:37 pm - Reply

    Did you see Dan Hodgins monthly newsletter on this? I tumbled it….

    How about these, “I noticed that you put the blocks together in different ways. Some of them hook together to make blocks and are completely joined while some of them are joined by just one side.”

    Another point that Dan makes during presentations is that we need to be careful not to say things to children, especially when asking questions that we wouldn’t say to our best friends. Keep the information exchange genuine and meaningful.

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. May 7, 2011 at 11:42 pm - Reply

      “I noticed that you…” is a terrific way to facilitate positive reinforcement Amy! I will have to read this article too!

  4. Julia Simens May 8, 2011 at 5:12 am - Reply

    When I get stuck and want to say “Wow, nice job” because I am in a hurry or have too many children to get to, I have trained myself to say, “It looks like you put a lot of effort in that project”. With the “wow’ comment I would just see the kids looks at me.

    With the ‘effort’ comments, I always get a smile and often the child will tell me what part he/she is most proud of without me asking. I like to offer this type of opened ended comments first to see where the conversation takes us. Sometimes I think the picture is so colorful but the child will point out that he put a lot of effort into making the lines straight so the picture frame is perfect. If I had not allowed him to guide my understanding of what he is proud of we would have never had this conversation.

    It does take more work to have the genuine conversation but I know it is more real to the kids and therefore more valuable. I often hear them re-telling other students about our conversations.

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. May 8, 2011 at 9:56 pm - Reply

      I love this Julia “With the ‘effort’ comments, I always get a smile and often the child will tell me what part he/she is most proud of without me asking. I like to offer this type of opened ended comments first to see where the conversation takes us.” It is a great way to look at positive reinforcement.

  5. Candace May 8, 2011 at 8:20 am - Reply

    When presented with a “unique” creation, I begin with “Wow, did you do that?” Generally the child will follow up with a description of what they have created which then gives me enough information to comment appropriately. If they don’t offer a description, I’ll ask leading questions such as “This looks interesting, tell me how you chose ______”. I also use the phrase “I noticed” a lot as well 🙂

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. May 8, 2011 at 9:57 pm - Reply

      I am going to have to start using “I noticed” as a way to train myself to stay focused on the process.

  6. Julia May 8, 2011 at 10:16 am - Reply

    When a child first wants to show me something they have done I say something like “let me see what you have created…..tell me about it” and then I try to make a comment related to what the child has shared. So if little “Amber” said I made a rocket ship — then I would say something like, I see you made it very tall and I see you used orange waffle blocks for the platform, etc.

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. May 8, 2011 at 9:58 pm - Reply

      I love it – from “let me see..” to “I see…”

  7. Rory May 8, 2011 at 4:26 pm - Reply

    I have this voice in my head – a former instructor – who always said “Praise specifically” – goes right along with what you are saying. You can see the difference in a child’s eyes when they hear genuine interest and some comments specific to what they have done – instead of the stock phrases! I am a great believer in this!

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. May 8, 2011 at 9:59 pm - Reply

      That makes two of us Rory:) Being genuine is truly the most important part.

  8. Candy Lawrence May 9, 2011 at 4:42 am - Reply

    Great post- I also dislike ‘good job’, which sounds to me like praise for toilet training!

    I often start out with ‘I like the way you…’ which keeps things very specific. So in your last photo, I would say ‘I like the way you put a blue one sticking out on both sides and then a red one hanging down from it, so it looks the same on both sides.’ If you look hard you can usually find a design feature to comment on.

    One that I use a lot with clever kids is ‘You did that so quickly! Well done. Do you think that one was a bit too easy- would you like me to find you a harder puzzle? I’d love to see how long it takes you to do this one- it’s meant for people who are (x) years old, but I reckon you could have a go…’ I almost always get a positive response to a challenge like this, which is always accompanied by a happy and sincere smile and lots of eye contact from me.

  9. Cody May 28, 2011 at 10:46 pm - Reply

    Great article. It seems to me that the last photo is a great opportunity to teach the word “symmetrical” by saying something like, “I see that you created something symmetrical, do you know what that word means?” Or the parts of the boat, “I see that you made a deck on your boat and a mast and sail.” I am not an educator but I enjoy teaching my 2 1/2 year old new words every fun opportunity and he seems to love it too!

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. May 29, 2011 at 8:10 pm - Reply

      Those are great responses – I need to keep practicing this skill:)

  10. Jenny November 5, 2011 at 9:25 am - Reply

    I try really hard not to use “good job” it is actually a pet peeve of mine. I have a very creative son who can make anything out of paper and builds incredible things with legos another son who creates things out of wood and sketches his inventions on paper. I struggle with what to say, “good job” seems so lame when I see the effort and brain power they used in their creations! I am challenged with coming up with alternative phrases and appreciate all the ideas from your post and others comments. Thank you!

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