Language of Encouragement

Story by May 10, 2016
Ms. Bettina, as she is known at Westside Montessori School in Vancouver, BC, offers words of encouragement other than "good job."

My mentor often said, “Every moment is a teachable moment.”

The language we use with children is so important. In our classrooms, we are acutely aware not to overpraise. We work to foster the child’s inner guide and not to look for external reinforcements. It’s all about building independence and an inner sense of self-worth.

When we hear, “I did it!” We try not to say, “Good job!” Children innately feel successful, they do not need us to reinforce that feeling. We want them to relish in the feeling of meeting success. The accomplishment is theirs.

What does encouragement vs. praise look like?

Praise automatically gives an evaluation on the child’s efforts. “That’s amazing!” “You’re the best!” “You’re a good boy.” These words create the habit of the child seeking acknowledgement from others.

Here are phrases that express encouragement, without value judgment:

“How do you feel about that?”
“I notice many details in your picture. Tell me about them.”

A warm smile or nod can also reflect encouragement and shares in the child’s moment. It can covey that you are right there with them – but the glory is theirs.

Focussing on acknowledging the child’s efforts rather than results is another affirmative route to take:

“You worked hard on that piece.”
“Sounds like that was challenging for you and you persevered.”

It shows that you recognize their efforts, but deflects the idea of needing your approval or thumbs up.

“The child, in fact, once he (she) feels sure of himself (herself), will no longer seek
the approval of authority after every step.” Dr. Maria Montessori

“I notice many details in your picture. Tell me about them.”

In the classroom, we especially avoid phrases that create expectations. Comments such as, “You’re so smart.” and “You’re really good at Math.” are hard to constantly live up to. Instead of being encouraging, they can be debilitating. We have seen the effect of children not willing to try new challenges, unless they know that they can live up to these words.

It takes a lot to retrain ourselves to adapt and to change the language we use with our children. But the impact is huge.

Here is a handy chart that might help:

Recently, a parent in my class had asked her 3-year old daughter, “What does Ms. Bettina teach you?” Without skipping a beat, she replied, “Ms. Bettina teaches me that I can do hard things.” It’s not about the constant praise and affirmations. This child recognizes that I believe in her and she knows that she is capable.

Rewards and Punishments

“The prize and punishments are incentives toward unnatural or forced effort, and, therefore we certainly cannot speak of the natural development of the child in connection with them.” Dr. Maria Montessori

Further to the idea of fostering the child’s inner guide, the same logic can be said for external reinforcement through rewards and punishments.

Gold stars, stickers, prizes – these are short-term, motivators for the behavior we want to see. They are proven to be ineffective in creating lasting change in attitude or conduct. Instead, they feed the idea that one’s positive actions warrant a reward. “If I’m good, I’ll get … ” It doesn’t make positive behavior the expectation, rather it creates a habit of dependency on receiving something tangible or a privilege in return.

It takes conscious effort to use encouragement, rather than praise. I hope that you find the charts useful. It may not sound right at first or feel natural, but trust that the long-term effects are lasting and powerful. Small tweaks in the daily language we use with our children can have a lasting impact on the way they see themselves.

Are you interested in more? Try these reading recommendations!

How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

Between Parent and Child: The Bestselling Classic That Revolutionized Parent-Child Communication” by Dr. Haim G. Ginott

The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting” by Alfie Kohn

About Bettina Tioseco

Bettina is an experienced Montessori guide trained to teach children from Birth to Twelve years of age. With over twenty years of teaching experience in Casa and Elementary classrooms both in North America and Asia, she brings with her a breadth of knowledge to her role as the Head of Westside Montessori School. WMS currently houses four Casa programs (ages 3-6) with 80 students and will be expanding to include an Elementary program in the Fall of 2016.

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