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…

Deborah J Stewart

Deborah J Stewart

Every time I think I know everything I need to know about teaching young children, God says, "Hold on a minute!" and gives me a new challenge.

Let me tell ya...

With each new challenge that you overcome, you will find yourself better equipped and more passionate about teaching young children.

God didn't call wimps to lead, teach, or care for His children. Nope, he has high expectations, so get ready. You will have to give your very best but after teaching for over 30 years, I can tell you that it is a wonderful and rewarding journey.

Whenever your calling feels hard, just remember, 'He who began a good work in you (and in the children you serve) will be faithful to complete it.'

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