If you listen long enough in a Montessori classroom you’ll be surprised by the phrases that you don’t hear. Good job! Your work is beautiful! Clever girl! These are positive sayings, right? Everyone likes to receive praise! These common praises often slip out of our mouths before we have a chance to pause and think if there is a better alternative to praise, such as encouragement. In our Montessori practice we use encouragement, not praise, to build healthy self-esteem and habits in our children.
Praise is the expression of approval or admiration, and it often feels like the natural response that we should use when we are talking to our children. As adults we know that praise can feel good, and as parents and teachers we want to support good behavior in our children and tell them how we feel. Praise can sound like I love it, you’re so helpful, you deserve a reward, you know what makes me proud, you’re such a good girl! In the moment everyone feels great hearing and saying these praises, but long term they are not beneficial to your child. Children find intrinsic joy in their work, and we avoid praising the child to prevent them from doing activities only for our acknowledgment. If we remove the external reward of praise we want our children to continue their effort and work. Additionally, praise can inadvertently put a lot of pressure on children by setting standards they feel they need to live up to. If we say you’re so good at math! they may be hesitant later on to try more advanced work in fear that they will not be able to live up to this standard anymore and let us down.
Instead of praise, we use encouragement. Encouragement focuses on the process, not the product. So we may say I saw you working hard. Hearing a parent or teacher take note of their effort encourages children to continue that behavior, without the pressure of creating a perfect product. Encouragement is also descriptive and specific, not evaluative. Instead of saying that is a beautiful picture, we can say I see you used a green crayon in this picture. Can you tell me more? We can take note of their work and place sincere interest in it without evaluating or judging it, and in doing so the child can form their own opinion and be proud of their process without needing the validation of another person.
Dr Maria Montessori said that “prize and punishments are incentives toward unnatural or forced effort.” We can think of praise as a prize that externally incentivizes behavior, when in fact children already have the internal motivation to work and explore independently. Our job, then, is to encourage this process without praise or punishment. In the Montessori classroom materials aid in this process; Montessori materials have a control of error that allows the child to determine for themselves if the action is correct. Encouraging words are empowering to children, reassuring them that they have our support, but more importantly that they are capable and independent.
The hardest part is breaking the habit of using praise; they are phrases that we do not think twice about using, and saying a descriptive phrase about the process and not the product can feel rather awkward at first. A great place to start is with the phrase You did it! From there you can describe what you saw your children doing– you did it! I saw you worked hard until you got it just how you wanted it. When you child asks if you like the drawing, or if you are proud of them, it is a great opportunity to turn the question around back to them. How do you feel about it? Can you tell me more about what you have done? Are you proud of yourself? Ultimately our goal is to raise our children in an environment where they feel safe, loved unconditionally, and supported in their efforts, and small changes of phrase can go a long way in creating that environment.