Why Praise is Essential for Learning (and How to Use it Effectively)

For children, early education is often an experience where you learn what not to do. Papers come back with red marks over mistakes; you’re told to stay focused, not talk too loud, and stay in your seat. Even more so for children with learning disabilities/neurodivergence. While correction is a vital part of learning, and school environments need these rules to teach, the constant regulation children experience makes it all the more necessary for praise to be an integral part of their education. 

The act of giving praise is to tell someone that you like the way that they are behaving. When it comes to learning, giving children praise is essential if you want them to continue a behavior, focus on improvement, and build positive self-esteem. If discipline is used as the predominant tool for correction, children only learn that they do things wrong, and over time this can construct negative self-esteem. Striking a balance between praise and discipline is vital.

Types of Praise

There are three types of praise: personal praise, effort-based praise, and behavior-specific praise.

Personal Praise

Personal praise focuses on talents and skills rather than the child’s effort. This is less effective than other types of praise and can be counterproductive. Focusing on traits the child has not earned can create a mindset of non-improvement because the child believes their abilities are out of control. Do not use personal praise as your primary form of compliment. 

Example: “You are so smart!” 

*Avoid praising intelligence as well. While this is well-intentioned, the American Psychological Association has found this to backfire on students when they face difficulty.

Effort-based praise

Effort-based praise rewards children for the type of abilities they can control. This praise commends children when they spend time and attention on improving their skills. Effort-based praise is valuable for teaching children that their efforts will lead to positive results and that they can overcome obstacles. 

Example: “I am so impressed with how you sounded out that word!”

Behavior-specific praise

Behavior-specific praise tells children that they are conducting themselves correctly. This type of praise shows approval for attempting to show respectful actions or control their unruly impulses. With behavior-specific praise, children feel encouraged to be aware of how they act and learn to demonstrate behavior that is respectful to their environment.

Example: “Thank you for keeping your hands to yourself.”

How to use Praise

Be Specific

Being specific about what you’re praising helps the child understand exactly what behavior or effort they are being commended for and how they can continue to do well. For example, “Good job focusing on your homework today” is much more effective than “Good job on your homework today.” In the first example, the child understands that it was their focus that they were being praised for and that they should continue to try to focus when they do their homework. The second example doesn’t tell the child what behavior they need to continue when they do their homework. Was it because they finished it fast? Was their writing neater than usual? It may seem small, but a simple change in wording can lead to continued improvement in academics and behavior.



As crucial as praise is, over-praising can lead to issues as well. Overpraising can feel insincere. This may damage your relationship with the child and downplay when you genuinely praise them for their effort. When trying to build up a student’s confidence, you may instinctually praise them for everything they do. While well-intentioned, overpraising can make children feel you have low expectations. Overpraise can also create a fixed mindset. Fixed mindsets make children think they cannot improve their skills and have no control over them. As mentioned earlier, personal praise can also contribute to creating a fixed mindset.


Balancing Discipline and Praise

Discipline and praise need to work alongside each other. Using praise doesn’t mean that your child has no consequences, but it can change how you discipline your child. For example, the absence of a reward can be penalized. 

Using praise means that you want to look for the positives even when the child doesn’t act perfectly. When they do something wrong, please take a second to ask yourself whether they have improved their behavior since the last time. You can praise this improvement while reminding them that unwanted behavior is not allowed. 

Misbehavior can signify a child’s distress and punishing them for this creates a lack of trust. Try to understand why the child has exhibited improper behavior and see if there are measures you can take instead. Sometimes children act out because they don’t know how to manage their emotions yet. Perhaps they were overwhelmed by the amount of homework, so they threw a tantrum- you can split the amount of homework into sections with breaks in between so it doesn’t seem so overwhelming. You can avoid repeated misbehavior if you find the root cause.

Learning Disabilities and Other Neurodivergence

Children with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, ADHD/ADD, dyscalculia, etc., often hear that they are doing something wrong repeatedly rather than what they are doing right. The effort they are putting in is regularly overlooked in favor of correcting the behavior that their neurodivergence makes challenging to control. Their disabilities are also stigmatized and associated with failure. These factors can significantly impact a developing child’s self-esteem and perception of their chances of success. Therefore, avoiding over-criticizing children with learning disabilities is vital, and praise is incredibly valuable. 

Working With Your Child, Not Against Them

If you are a parent with a child who is neurodivergent, parent management training, as discussed in this article on ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), may also be a valuable tool. Parent management training is carried out with the help of a family therapist and aims to change how parents react to their child’s behavior. Instead of harsh or inconsistent discipline, parents learn to use a systematic approach of rewards and punishments, emphasizing positive behaviors and using non-aversive penalties such as a loss of privileges. Praise is an integral part of parent management training because often, parents whose children are challenging to manage have fallen into the mindset of trying to eliminate or suppress their child’s misbehavior. However, this is ineffective and creates a rift between the parent and child.

Read Learning Center specializes in tutoring children with dyslexia and other special education needs. We understand that children need a positive learning environment to do their best, and we are here to offer support through any academic struggles. Don’t hesitate to call for more information about our tutoring program.