Praise is Overrated

Pam Consear submitted a comment on the earlier post “Tips for instructors who teach martial arts to kids,” but instead of approving it, I held it in the queue till I could set it up as a new topic. Here it is– and I hope others will have things to say on this important subject.

I agree with all the comments about keeping things positive, using all the kids’ names, working out and enjoying practicing alongside them, etc. I’d like to make a comment about PRAISE, though.

We should make sure that the praise we’re giving is thoughtful and specific, not just habitual. I think that some of our kids these days get showered with too much praise (and trophies, medals, awards…) for just showing up, and the words eventually lose their value.

According to research I’ve read about child development and teaching, praise doesn’t build self-esteem (assuming that’s one of our goals here), but skill mastery DOES. So we can help by pointing out specifically WHAT they are doing well (“good job raising your knee up for that snap kick!”), and being gently honest when they’re not doing something right, and telling them how to fix it. Not everything kids do in class is a “great job!” (Not in my classes, anyway!)

Research has also found that telling kids they’re “smart” or “talented” or “gifted”, etc., can actually be counter-productive. It causes some kids to either not try new things for fear of not being as amazing as everyone thinks they are, or to give up quickly if they don’t catch on immediately for fear that people might find out that they’re not actually smart/talented/gifted after all. More useful is to focus on the EFFORT they’re putting in, and point out how that is leading to progress and new skills. Everyone has the ability to try hard, so the kids start seeing success as something attainable through hard work, and not the birthright of a few “talented” kids.

Ok, that’s my two cents about keeping the praise real!

Any thoughts, readers?

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6 Comments on “Praise is Overrated”

  1. gordon Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. When I’m teaching kids karate, I’m there to teach the kids karate… I’m not there to be a cheerleader. I think that most of the kids sincerely want to learn. That’s what they’re there for. Don’t get me wrong – I certainly do give them praise when they show improvement, and it’s sincere praise, but I don’t sugar-coat the bad stuff. When they mess up, I let them know they messed up. I think because everyone gets the same treatment, and I’m genuine in my praise and criticism, that they take it the right way. They feel good about the praise, and (I think) motivated to improve by the criticism.

    • redwoodojo Says:

      Gordon- Thanks for putting it so succinctly:

      When I’m teaching kids karate, I’m there to teach the kids karate.

      Tho’ I don’t think it’s the rule, I have seen instructors who get so preoccupied with making everything fun and keeping every kid 100% happy, that important little fact starts to get lost.


  2. Pam Consear’s short essay is right on, at least in my book. In my school psychologist days I often saw how praise in the middle of an activity could paralyze, as suddenly a kid became conscious of what had earlier been performed more naturally.

  3. Tanner Critz Says:

    I’ve never been big on praise as a ritual, and the study that Pam mentioned on praising work over attributes was a real eye opener. I think of each comment that passes between me and the students as a sculpting process, molding not only their abilities, but the relationship between us, and their relationship to the dojo and martial arts.

    People sense and understand input on so many levels (especially kids) that what you say to them is not half as important as your intention in that moment and your attentive presence to their progress. Some of the biggest reactions I’ve seen in terms of long term enthusiasm for the martial arts have come from the smallest comment of acknowledgment about something that a person has been working hard privately to correct or improve on.

    Thinking this through as I type – I’d say that unfettered attention is some of the most meaningful praise we give, and very lacking elsewhere in people’s lives.

  4. Ricki Kay Says:

    I would rather use praise than negative reinforcement. I do agree that it can be over used. I try to use a principal called P-C-P- praise – correct- praise. I agreet it is better to praise the behavior or the techniques that you are looking for rather than just say – “good girl, or good job”. But I couple the praise with something that has to be done better. Such as You have a good stance, make it better by bending your knee more. Or Your block is correct, now pull your reaction hand back further. If I am saying something positve I will always use the child’s name, be very specific with what I am praising and say it out loud. If i have a correction to make,i will say it quietly to the child.


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