Educational Praise


  • Since the early 70s, parents have been told that praising their children was vital to enhance self-esteem, which was then believed to be one of the most important facets of a person.  Studies over the last couple decades have revealed that praise can actually be detrimental. Children who are told that they’re smart by parents are less likely to try new or challenging activities for fear of failing. Frequently praised children are more competitive and interested in tearing one another down in an attempt to keep their status (Dweck/Self-esteem video/Social Comparison Theory).  This is not to say all praise is detrimental; in fact, praise is a common way to meet our need for love, belonging, and knowledge, but the type and amount of praise given is of vital importance.
  • To be positively effective, praise needs to be specific, descriptive of process/effort instead of outcome, and it needs to be delivered with sincerity. Praise that indicates judgment on the part of the praiser tends to have a negative effect.  “Great game,” after a game Jim’s team won, may get a thought response from Jim of “Sure, only I played lousy.”  “Nice job,” after a book report, may get a thought of “I could have done better; I hardly tried.”
  • At Camp Augusta, we use EDUCATIONAL PRAISE.  Below are some examples of NVC Gratitude (very textbook/stilted version), educational praise, and both together.  
  • “The Psychology of Success”  An interview and video by Berkeley’s Greater Good Science center.  “Mindset” is critical, and the book by the same title is a pivotal work in Child Development.  Follow up article and video is here.  And, one more on the importance of failure.

NVC Gratitude

Educational Praise


Jane, I felt delighted when you kept climbing after you’d fallen on the climbing wall. It met my need for connection to share that with you.

I noticed your perseverance, trying different options up there Jane, especially after you’d fallen a couple times.

Jane, I was delighted that you chose to persevere and keep trying different options on the climbing wall after you’d fallen. I felt really connected, sharing that experience with you.  

John, your singing at campfire tonight met my need for joy and humor, I was engrossed hearing you!

During Playstation, I could easily see how much effort you put into practicing your song, working on the pitch, cadence, range, and facial expressions.

John, your song tonight had me laughing and dancing along. All that effort you put in during Playstation really made a difference.  The audience was tapping their feet and smiling, and so was I. 

I’m so delighted to see you shooting so consistently, and you trying the suggestions I made.  It meets my need for validation and purpose in my teaching. 

That round was very consistent, something we look for in archery. Your focus and patience resulted in  your arrows being clustered in the same area of the target (offer further suggestions or tips).

Your arrows are clustered in that one area, indicating that you’re focus and patience resulted in greater consistency. I’m happy to see that you trust me enough to try my suggestions and that I’m explaining things in such a way that you can give them a try. 

Your praise describes what happened specifically.  “Educational praise” helps people know how they did when they did not know already.  Again, the above examples are intentionally awkward to help the key components be more salient.

Praise needs to be given carefully, however. It can become the carrot (incentive) to keep the horse (person) walking forward.  In the long run, it is more beneficial for folks to be striving to achieve a goal for internal reasons, rather than because they want to hear that a trusted mentor is proud of them, or thinks they did a “good job.”  A person that relies on praise is less likely to see the positive in what they do without someone else to point it out. We want to teach the person to fish, not feed them fish for the rest of their lives, or feed them until they look healthy. If we don’t teach them how to fish, they get sick when we are not around, because they can’t feed themselves. Children need to learn to praise themselves and see both the things they did well in a given situation and the things they would like to change for next time.  This skill will serve them well both now and in adulthood. 

Descriptive/Educational Praise (also see the NVC gratitude page – how to praise without judgments!)

  • Can be given anytime, not just when someone “wins”, and relates to effort and improvement, not the outcome.  Praise is ideally offered “educationally.”  By that, we mean that the child/person was not aware of their success or ability and you pointed it out to them
  • Allows the person to make an internal evaluation (“Hey, I’m doing better”).
  • While judgmental praise can be embarrassing, descriptive praise is helpful.
  • May seem more honest than judgmental praise.  Descriptive praise is specific and sincere. 
  • A problem with judgmental praise (“That was a great story!”) is that people often feel they must “out do it” next time, i.e. provide an encore or they won’t be accepted, loved or appreciated.

NVC, educational praise, and the keys of scaffolding are highly interconnected. Educational praise on its own helps people recognize something about themselves that they were not able to see on their own. NVC gratitude expresses your feelings and the needs related to those feelings that were met. Scaffolding is supporting a person toward gaining or improving a skill (something that they have expressed a desire to learn and have accepted your offer of assistance with).  Educational praise and NVC gratitude are both important parts of scaffolding — to share observations with the purpose of feedback and growth.  Primarily, NVC gratitude and Educational praise offer the “praise and understanding” element of scaffolding, yet Educational praise may also help focus a student’s perspective on elements that went into their progress.