Feedback without Flattening
A few tips for teachers and parents on how to give children helpful feedback about their behaviour without damaging their self-esteem
© Copyright 2007-2021, Richard Whitehead
Children are future adults, and every adult was once a child. Nature has so ordained that each generation is entrusted with the enormously responsible task of raising the next.
In the early years of life, children are deeply trusting of the key adults around them and believe instantly what they say.
As educators and parents, one of our responsibilities towards the children in our care is to help them master behaviour patterns that will set them up for success in adulthood and that are respectful of the rights of others.
As with any process of mastery, mistakes are a key part of the learning process. Our reactions to these mistakes can determine whether they serve a productive purpose as a learning opportunity, or whether they become bedded down as a long-term inappropriate behaviour.
Still more importantly, our reactions can determine whether a child grows up thinking he is a good person or a bad person. History is full of tyrants, criminals and war makers who at some point in their lives took the decision to be bad people. The art of constructive, loving feedback is the biggest gift we can give to the next generation – it helps create loving and effective individuals who are willing to trust their own judgement and value both themselves and others.
The following simple tips will maximise your effectiveness at both praising and criticising the children in your care in such a way that their confidence and self-esteem grows strong.
Give praise that describes the action or accomplishment. Avoid praise that evaluates the child’s character. Evaluative praise puts you in the position of a judge who decides who is “good” and who is “bad”. Descriptive praise gives a child the chance to evaluate him or herself.
Instead of: “What a clever boy!” … try: “You wrote the whole sentence without a single mistake!”
It can also be helpful to give praise that describes your feelings.
“I really enjoyed working with you today – you got on with your work and were really helpful to me.”
Avoid “you”-based criticism – it is confrontational and attacks the character or integrity of the child. If you need to get angry, do so using sentences that are based round “I”, stating your feelings and your expectations.
Instead of “Look what you’ve done again!” or “Have you learnt nothing about manners?”… try: “I don’t like what I’m seeing. I expect you to…”
Avoid punishments that are not “logical” consequences of the child’s negative action. This minimises the chance that the child will become resentful, and maximises the chance that the child will learn something about the law of cause of effect and will grow through the experience.
A child is being noisy and disobedient in class. In doing so, he is missing out on the content of the lesson as well as distracting others. Making him sweep the floor or write lines after the lesson will be an illogical punishment. Removing him from the lesson “because I need your classmates to be able to focus on what I am saying”, then inviting him to come back during his free time to catch up on the material missed, would be a logical step aimed at protecting everyone’s best interests.
Before taking the step, however, give the child a choice. For example: “I don’t expect others to talk when I’m talking. It’s distracting to the rest of the class. Either sit quietly, or leave the classroom. You decide!”
Dealing with Entrenched Behavioural Problems
In cases of acute or repeated problem situations, try the following step-by-step problem-solving strategy. This can be carried out either in a one-to-one meeting with the child, or in the presence of others provided they agree to adhere totally to the strategy or else keep completely quiet:*
Describe the problem from the child’s point of view. (“I can see that you like to be able to speak your thoughts as soon as they come into your mind, and sometimes things happen in our lessons that make you feel excited – right?”)
Then describe the problem from your point of view. (“The thing is, it makes it more difficult for everyone to focus when there’s a lot of noise.”)
Suggest that you both look for a solution. (“How can we find a way forward that works for us both?”)
Gather a list of suggestions from the child, yourself and anyone else participating without evaluating their effectiveness. Write them down on paper or a whiteboard.
Now go through the list together, crossing out any suggestions that don’t work for either the child or you.
Formulate a definite plan of action based on the suggestions that didn’t get crossed out. Agree who will do what, and when, in order to implement the strategy.
This immensely powerful procedure often produces excited reactions in children because suddenly they are part of the solution and no longer part of the problem.
And in General…
Give firm but calm reactions to negative behaviour and excited, enthusiastic reactions to positive behaviour.
Children are fascinated by excited reactions of any kind – whether it is agitated annoyance or excited praise. Therefore, big reactions of any kind maximise the chances that your child will repeat the behaviour that provoked the reaction – so that they get to see the reaction again. So keep your big reactions for positive behaviour.
*This strategy is taken from How To Talk So Kids Will Listen, And Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. The same book inspired many of the suggestions made in this article and is thoroughly recommended as a further source of effective child communication strategies. Get this book and others at our online bookstore.