Effective Praise is a crucial element of a strong pre-k classroom. As any early childhood educator or parent will tell you, young learners constantly seek validation from adults. In response, I try to provide constant support for my students’ achievement in order to instill in them the self-confidence needed to take risks as learners and to remain highly motivated. Yet “being positive” in any way does not necessarily benefit young learners.
Consider how we, as adults, become better at something professionally. If a boss or colleague simply says, “Good work,” we cannot be sure what was good and how we can continue improving in the future. If the coworker is specific and genuine, however, we feel not only confident in our abilities but empowered to produce “good work” later on.
The principle holds when working with young children. A child might approach me with a piece of artwork, for example, and I may feel inclined to comment on how beautiful it is. The child, however, walks away from that exchange with no understanding of the strengths he exhibited or areas he could work on. So, while it takes more thought and effort, I aim to engage each child in a dialogue with comments and questions like, “Interesting, I like the way you used three different colors on the top part of your design. Why did you use three colors on top, but only one color on the bottom? Tell me about the design. What could you add to the horse?” Through dialogue, I can focus the child on specific aspects of the work and invite her to reflect.
And it’s amazing when you can actually see and hear that reflection taking place. I often hear my students think out loud and address the points we brought up in earlier discussions. For example, Ravon recently noted, “Oh, the cow has eyes to see just like me,” before he added eyes to his drawing, and Tyrone now engages in a dialogue with himself as he writes independently. While labeling his cat mask during small group recently, he asked himself, “How do you spell cat?” and then responded, “You need to stretch it out, c-aaaaaaaaaaaa—ttt” as he pulled his hands apart the way we had discussed in a one-to-one guided writing session.
In a given day, between small group and whole group lessons, anecdote note-taking and snack time, providing specific and authentic praise that invites further reflection seems difficult. But praise with a purpose is so effective and rewarding that I encourage everyone around young children, in or out of the classroom, to do it. I’ve summed up these principles in a document for easy adult reflection.