Our goal is to support children's love of learning. There are good reasons for teachers to avoid terms like "good job", although this can sound counter-intuitive.
In the field of child development and early education, to avoid the pitfalls of praise (which are discussed below), we have learned to use open-ended questions with children, to have conversations about what they are involved with, and to provide them with opportunities to share how they are experiencing their learning.
To make this a little more concrete, here are some past examples of how we have approached these interactions in our preschool program (names have been changed):
1. Joe is painting at an easel. He is making big round circles in three different colors. He is spending a long time focusing on his painting.
The teacher is standing nearby, noticing Joe's painting and focus.
Joe looks to the teacher with a smile on his face. He looks proud of what he has done.
The teacher smiles back at Joe. "I see you are painting Joe. Would you like to tell me about your painting?"
He responds "I'm painting circles!"
The teacher says, "Yes, I see you have 3 circles on your paper!"
Joe looks at his painting, counts the circles and starts to paint again.
It is altogether possible that if the teacher had initially responded "good job!", he may have heard the teacher communicate his painting was complete and walked away from it.
2. Last year, Charlie had been learning to use the potty at home. He used a diaper at preschool, but one day he went into the bathroom and used the preschool potty. He said "I used the potty!" with a smile.
The teacher smiled back at him and said "That's great Charlie, you did it!!" and put up her hand for a high-five. In this instance, she is celebrating this accomplishment with him.
3. Two children are working together to build a tower with big blocks.
The teacher is observing these children as they run out of blocks to build with. Their interest in continuing this project is evident.
The teacher says "I'm noticing that you are working together to build a tower. Did you run out of blocks?"
One child responds "Yeah, we need more!"
The teacher says "Let's try to think where we might find more. Can you think of where they might be?"
The children both remember where the other blocks are and run to get more.
Had the teacher simply said "good job!" instead of asking them if they ran out of blocks, the children may have thought that there were no more blocks and considered their project complete.
The phrase "good job" is one we seem to hear everywhere these days. Although the intent of this praise originates from a loving desire to help children feel good about themselves and grow into capable, self-assured adults, the impact of this praise doesn't usually support these goals. Approaching children with praise for the things we notice may be teaching them to try to please us or other adults and may distract and even stifle their innate motivation to learn and discover something new.
We want children to grow into confident, thoughtful, motivated, self-actualized individuals. There are many ways to approach this in a preschool setting. Sometimes when children are immersed in a task or play, giving them any feedback at all is distracting. At other times, it may be that an open-ended question about what they are doing or an invitation to share with us gives children the support and connection they need. In other cases, getting specific about noticing the effort that children are demonstrating or specific about one aspect of their efforts, allows for more learning. If we allow our children to show us their pride in their accomplishments and then take their cue to celebrate with them, we are supporting their innate love of learning. Research has demonstrated that children are more willing to persist at future tasks when they are given positive feedback about the effort they put forth instead of praising them for accomplishing a task.
One last point about this approach is that we do not consider the children's work as something they are doing for us or to demonstrate their skills, but rather as something they are engaged in because of their interest and their own investment in learning. If we can support that, we are nurturing a lifetime love of learning.