Descriptive versus Evaluative Praise

Now let's draw big tree!

The folks who research on praise would like parents and teachers to use descriptive praise and avoid evaluative praise when commenting on children’s behaviors, academics and athletics.

What to Say and Why: Descriptive Praise

Descriptive praise describes behavior and gives it a label. For behavior, this might be, “you handed a block, that was helpful,” or, “you listened the first time, that was quick.” For academics, “you wrote five sentences, that’s a lot of work,” or, “you remembered your capital letters and periods. You are really thinking!” For athletics, “you all got the ball down the field, you were really working together!”

Directly reinforces behavior: Describing the behavior, “you handed a block,” directly reinforces it, and makes it more likely to happen again. You are saying this is the thing to do.

Gradually shapes behavior: Giving it a label, “that was helpful,” shapes behavior in the long run. The more a child hears that they are helpful and kind, the more they think of themselves as being helpful and kind, and you tend to get more of those behaviors.

Ownership to child: When you describe their behavior, children can readily take ownership. When you say, “you handed a block,” the child can think, “yes I did!”

Example: Your eight-year-old practices a piano song all week, and then plays you the song.

  • Effort: “You worked on that song all week. That was a lot of practice.”
  • Process: “You learned every note. You were working so hard.”
  • Progress: “You knew it better this week than last.”
  • Details: “I knew that song right when you started.” “The ending part sounded particularly tricky.”
  • Ask questions or open discussion: “What was your favorite part to learn?” “Was there anything particularly challenging about this song?”

What to Avoid and Why: Evaluative Praise

Evaluative praise sounds like this, “Good job,” “You are such a good boy,” “That was great,” “I like the way you…,” “I am so proud of you.” It’s cheerleader praise. It’s do the right thing, and you get a pat on the back.

Often vague, leaves out the behavior: If the child did a series of behaviors and then hears, “Good job!” they are left not knowing what got the comment. Because it’s not behavior specific, it’s less likely to reinforce the wanted behavior.

Doubt when they don’t hear: When children hear evaluative praise often, they may rely on it and doubt themselves if they don’t hear it. If a child hears, “good job,” often at home, and then goes to school and doesn’t hear it so often, they may doubt their behaviors.

Ownership to adult: “I really like that,” or “I like the way you…,” sends the message that your judgement is what’s important rather than the behavior.

Example: Your eight-year-old practices a piano song all week, and then plays you the song.

  • “What a pretty song. I liked it!”
  •  “Wow, that was so good!”




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