Praise That Packs a Punch

Maximising the effectiveness of praise

reward praise
Rewarding with a 'high 5'

happy preschool teacher and child giving high-five

How do you reward your kids in your house?

In our house we use a variety of things. There are informal methods, such as verbal praise or high 5s for good behaviour and formal methods, such as the reward chart pictured below. We have also used other charts to target specific behaviours – eg. to work on table manners, we used laminated placemats that had pictures of expected behaviours and boxes for ticks, working towards a reward. As a Speech Pathologist, my advice here is focused on rewarding communication skills that we want to see our kids use more and more (eg. using the correct “s” sound, using stutter-free speech, or simply working hard at speech therapy homework). However, as a Mum, I can tell you that this discussion is relevant to ALL parents who want to see an increase in desirable behaviours and a decrease in undesirable behaviours.

We know that praise works better than punishment. This is backed up by lots of research. Rewarding good behaviour is more likely to lead our kids to repeating that good behaviour. Punishing or withholding a reward, when our kids misbehave is less effective. Negative responses to misbehaving can also damage relationships and self-esteem.

Our feedback to our kids about their behaviour and communication is crucial. Our response to their speech and language can encourage more of the communication behaviours that we want to see.

Has your child been in therapy for stuttering in the preschool years? If so, you’ll probably know all about the Lidcombe Program, which is a behavioural treatment that works by the parent responding consistently to the child’s stuttered and stutter-free speech. It’s a very effective program, and I think it demonstrates the power of praise and feedback to encourage desired behaviour. When doing the Lidcombe Program, I talk to parents constantly about how to make their praise most powerful.

So, here’s the question: how can we make our praise MOST effective, MOST powerful?

Here are 7 tips for using praise that packs a punch:

#1: Tune into your child – notice when they use the skill or behaviour well

It’s often much easier to notice mistakes, incorrect speech and language behaviours and wrong choices. This can lead us to respond with negative comments (eg. “no, that’s not right”) or even subtly withholding the reward (eg. withholding praise – ie. NOT saying “great work!”). If we can tune into when our children use the desired behaviour or skill, we will find ourselves rewarding them more frequently. It is certainly important for praise to far outweigh the feedback we give when they do not use the behaviour or skill.

In university, a psychologist told us that a person needs 8 positive comments for every negative comment in order to MAINTAIN the current level of self-esteem. (She noted that this did not even promote growth in self-esteem, just maintained it.) As parents, it can be very easy to get stuck in the rut of barking orders and criticisms to our children.

#2: Make feedback consistent

Make sure you respond consistently to the behaviour or skill so that your child learns quickly how to get the reward, and so is more likely to use the behaviour or skill. If your child is in therapy, this is absolutely crucial. Part of your therapist’s role is training you to recognise the desired skill and reward it consistently.

Consistency does NOT mean giving the same response each time – it is crucial to mix up the types of responses. Consistency means giving a positive response when they use the desired skill or behaviour, and not rewarding them when they did not show the desired skill or behaviour.

#3: DON’T reward your child every time

Rewarding your child every single time can take away the power of the reward. Regular feedback is important, but consider rewarding at variable times rather than every single time.

#4: Use desirable rewards

Rewards must be personally rewarding, by definition. Consider what your child really likes and finds rewarding. This may mean asking your child what they want to work for. On our rewards chart my boys choose what reward they want to work for. You could also consider your child’s “love language”.*

  • Is your child physically affectionate? Perhaps a hug would speak volumes to him or her.
  • Is your child really boosted by affirming words? Give your child lots of verbal praise.
  • Does your child love to give (and receive) little gifts? Perhaps a prize would be most effective.
  • Does your child thrive on time spent with you? How about rewarding him with some “one-on-one-with-Mum” time. Take him to the park or a café or movie, or spend time just with him, reading or playing a game together. This is especially powerful for children in larger in families, where they are not often given one-on-one time with parents.

#5: Vary the rewards

Mix up the rewards and they will remain fresh and effective. Gary Chapman says that a person rarely has only one love language – so consider whether your child has a couple of love languages and how you could use this knowledge to give them rewards that speak to their heart. If we always praise in the same way, praise ceases to be special and quickly loses its power.

#6: Vary your praise language

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut here. If your child is having speech therapy, you need to move beyond “good work”. Here’s a starting list of different ways to say  “good work”.

  • Fantastic!
  • You got it!
  • Well done.
  • Fabulous!
  • Wow!
  • Yes!
  • Nice one!
  • I knew you could do it!
  • Now you’ve got it!
  • I couldn’t have done it better myself!
  • Beautiful!
  • I’m impressed.
  • That’s the way.
  • Nice going.
  • Good remembering.
  • Great listening.

It is also often important to give specific feedback to your child about the speech skill – eg. for a lateral lisp it may be something like “What a straight-shooting ‘s’!”. Your child’s therapist will give you the language for this. Intersperse specific feedback with general praise.

#7: Involve other people

Sometimes, being rewarded by someone other than you may really give your child a boost. The one condition I place on this is that, if your child is doing speech therapy, the person who is responding to the child’s use of the skill needs to attend therapy so that their responses are consistent. However, there are ways to get around this. Here are some ways to involve others:

  • Ring up someone special (eg. Grandma or Dad at work) and allow your child to tell them that they did “X” really well.
  • Mum, who attends therapy, uses a secret signal with Dad, who is unable to attend therapy (and so is not trained in identifying the speech skill) so that when Dad sees the signal, he gives praise to the child. Sometimes hearing it from Dad (or someone else special) is more powerful.
  • Arrange for the special person to write a note of praise and mail it to your child. The same could happen with a text message, but I think it’s extra special to receive old-fashioned snail mail!
  • The special someone could take your child out as their reward for a certain number of ticks on a chart.

Now over to you – what reward systems have you used? What worked? What didn’t work?

Our family’s reward chart for behaviour. Our children choose the reward that they want to work for. The older the child, the more ticks are required. They get a lolly once they get all the ticks in a category, and the major prize once all the boxes are filled.

*Gary Chapman – The Five Love Languages. The Five Love Languages of Children is a follow-up book which was written specifically for parents (this is on my reading list!).

DISCLAIMER: This advice is not intended to replace the recommendations of a Speech Pathologist for an individual with a communication impairment. If you have concerns about your child’s speech and language development, please contact a Speech Pathologist.