The powerful language of encouragement

Published on Tuesday, 24 August 2021
Last updated on Tuesday, 24 August 2021

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Words matter. When educators speak words of encouragement to young children it has the power to boost their confidence, thinking skills and self-worth. The language of encouragement puts the focus primarily on a child’s effort or improvement rather than outcomes, and promotes internal satisfaction as opposed to external approval.

Praise and encouragement are often seen as side-by-side concepts, but encouragement is a specific variety of praise.

Encouragement is non-judgemental and encouraging statements point out specific facts but do not evaluate them.

Phrases such as “You really worked hard” or “Look at all the green you used in your painting” or “I bet you are proud that you finished that whole puzzle” are examples of non-judgmental encouragement.

Children who are encouraged tend to develop a stronger self-motivation and pride in their work because the encouragement focuses on what they are doing well, not what the educator thinks about their work.

In comparison, praise often focuses on what the adult thinks or feels and contains a judgement or evaluation such as “good.” The impact of praise on a child starts early. In a study facilitated by Professor Carol Dweck, children as young as fourteen months had begun developing opinions about themselves and their abilities based on the praise their parents gave them.

Another study by Professor Dweck while at Columbia University, used primary school students and provides a compelling video example of how praise can have a negative impact on motivation and learning.

This example can be related to early childhood and provides a handy illustration on the difference between the language of praise and encouragement.

Encouragement vs Praise

There is a range of compelling reasons why early years educators should use the language of encouragement:

  • Encouragement focuses on effort.

Educators who encourage children point out how hard they have worked or how much they have improved. This helps build children’s pride in their own work.

  • Encouragement sets up children for success.

If Mike is learning to read and hears the teacher say that Sarah is a “good reader” (an example of praise), Mike may conclude that he’ll never be a good reader like Sarah. If the teacher tells Sarah that she is reading bigger words now (an example of encouragement), Mike does not have any reason to believe that he cannot also read big words.

  • Encouragement teaches children to evaluate themselves on their own merits.

When adults provide children with feedback about what they are doing, the children learn to evaluate themselves without comparing their efforts and successes to those of others. Children who are encouraged learn that what they think about themselves is more important than what others think.

Words of encouragement are a valuable tool for educators. Try monitoring yourself over a period of a week to determine how often you use praise statements and then think of alternative encouraging statements.

Sometimes just a simple tweak of words can make a huge difference in supporting a child and recognising their accomplishment. Changing “I like” to “I notice” is one easy shift from praise to encouragement. You can also encourage self-evaluation by saying, "I would like to hear what you think first." 

Breaking the habit and changing the use of praise to the language of encouragement with children involves educators to reflect on their interactions, in particular the ones that are ‘on the fly’ or automatic. It isn’t an easy switch.

Helpful strategies include:

  • Observe play silently:

Spend time in coming to understand what children’s goals or interests in their play is before participating or offering support in other ways.

  • Use materials yourself:

By using the same materials children are using and in the same way, educators are not imposing their own ideas on to children.

  • Describe actions, materials and effort:

By describing what we are seeing in the way of actions, materials or effort we can avoid saying what we think of what we are seeing. This then allows children to make that judgment for themselves.

  • Ask open-ended questions (sparingly):

Open-ended questions give more scope for children to respond rather than being led to a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. A reflective point for educators to consider: A good question is one you don’t know the answer to.

Here are some examples of encouraging phrases you could use with your group of children, during different times of the day:

Encouraging phrases that express achievement or difficulty

  • You have nearly finished.
  • Wow, you did it all by yourself.
  • It looks like you've worked really hard on that.
  • You're nearly there, you can do it.
  • You've definitely put a lot of thought into that.
  • It looks like you are really disappointed. How about we talk?
  • It looks like you don't feel like staying there for long and you want to go on to something else.

Encouraging phrases to use for independence and routine times

  • I bet it feels good to have done it by yourself.
  • You look so pleased with your new clothes.
  • Wow, you went to the toilet all by yourself.
  • You must have been very thirsty. You have finished your drink and are ready for another one.
  • I can see you have dressed all by yourself.
  • You kept your nappy dry, it looks like you are happy about that.
  • Looks like you were really hungry; you have eaten everything for lunch.

Encouraging phrases that express appreciation for helping

  • Wow, you nearly finished doing that. You must be pleased.
  • You have put everything back in its right place. Thank you, I really appreciate it.
  • This is pretty tricky but I'm sure you can do it.
  • Thanks for doing that, it really saves me time.
  • I bet it feels good to do that yourself, rather than waiting for me to do it.

Encouraging phrases to use with artwork or activities

  • You've mixed the colours to make a new colour here. Would you like to tell me how you did it?
  • Look at all the colours you used in your painting.
  • It looks like you are enjoying that.
  • You've been concentrating on that for so long, you must enjoy it.
  • I can see you have enjoyed using the red paint in your painting.
  • It's difficult isn't it but I'm sure you can do it.

Thank you to Extension Alliance for Better Child Care and Aussie Child Care Network for their insights on the language of encouragement that helped write this article.

References and further reading

Highscope – Early childhood education: Why Saying “Good Job!” Is Not “Good Practice”

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