Praising Kids the Right Way: How to Use Encouraging Words Well

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We all need to hear positive words of encouragement from others, but encouraging words for elementary students is absolutely vital to their development. Children are very impressionable and easily impacted by simple phrases.

This can be really good or really bad. You see, as adults, we have a tendency to focus on the things our students do wrong as opposed to the things they do right.

We point out all of the ways they need to fix their behaviors or do better at a specific task, but we don’t keep track of how many things we are telling them to improve.

Researchers at the Harvard Business Review published an article entitled “The Ideal Praise to Criticism Ratio,” which concluded that the best combination of positives to negatives was 5:1. So for every critical comment that is made, there should be five positive comments to counteract the effects.

Now based on the fact that this study was conducted on adults, I daresay this ratio should be even higher for our elementary-aged students.

Think of it like a balance.

One negative, critical, or hurtful comment weighs 5 times as much as one loving, encouraging, or confidence-boosting comment. So we have to make sure we are putting more positive phrases and good things into the balance to outweigh those times when we say things we shouldn’t or we have to correct a poor choice.

The reality is we need to be front-loading as many encouraging words for elementary students as possible in order to prepare our kids for the tough things that will have to be said sometimes.

In a perfect world, our kids would come to us busting at the seams with positive messages running through their minds. But we don’t live in a perfect world…we live in a world that forces young children to grow up way too fast.

So if we want to have a positive impact in our kids’ lives and model how to appropriately interact with others, we need to be surrounded by motivation.

The truth is, life is really hard sometimes.

We’re constantly bombarded with negativity and it’s easy to become stuck in a fixed mindset. But when we surround ourselves with inspirational quotes, supportive friends and family, and encouraging social media accounts, we find ourselves wanting to be a light to others.

It is imperative that we use positive reinforcement and lead by example. Yes, we all have a bad day every now and then, but we have to remember to keep the most important thing first…relationships.

Understanding the Impact of Your Language

If you’ve ever read the book The Five Love Languages, then you know that there are five main ways we, as humans, express love and feel love. While we all have one primary love language, each of us needs a mixture of all the love languages to feel, well, loved!

The five love languages are words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, gifts, and acts of service.

Now, the reason I’m mentioning these is because the category known as “Words of Affirmation” just happens to be my primary love language and this particular love language is also synonymous with this entire article about encouraging words for elementary students.

So I feel as though I have a bit more insight into the devastating impacts misspoken words can have on someone…especially when Words of Affirmation is the primary love language that person speaks.

But I want to share the two specific ways praising our students can actually be harming them.

The Negative Effects of Praise

Achievement-Based and Value-Based Praise

When we use achievements as the reason we praise someone, we can do unintentional harm to that person. Kids begin to think they are only as valuable as the positive outcomes they can produce.

So let’s look at an example.

Susie comes home with an A on her spelling test. Mom and Dad are so pleased and quickly gush all of the typical comments, “You are so smart! I knew you would be the best speller in your class.” Susie is so pleased because Mom and Dad are happy and she feels loved.

Now fast-forward a few months and Susie brings home a D on her spelling test. Mom and Dad are much less enthusiastic about this score, and exasperated they say things like, “What is wrong with you? Why did you make this grade? Your brother made an A on his spelling test!”

Obviously, there are a lot of things wrong with the way Mom and Dad handled this particular situation, but here is what this one interaction has caused Susie to determine about herself.

She is stupid and unworthy of her parents’ love because she didn’t achieve the score that equated to deserving her parents love while her brother did.

Susie then decides she has two options…

  1. She might as well give up and not even try, or
  2. She has to make the best grades and always be the smartest person in the room to prove she is worthy of her parents’ love.

Both of these scenarios lead to problems.

Option 1- If she gives up, her parents are going to see an abrupt downturn in her grades across all subjects and wonder why their sweet little girl has turned into an ogre when it comes to school.

Option 2- If she decides she has to be the best, her parents are going to see her becoming more and more focused on getting the best grades in the class. The tricky part here is that most parents would be so excited to see their kids take this much of an interest in school. But the dark side they don’t see is that Susie is walking down a dangerous road.

If she doesn’t soon begin getting praised for her effort as opposed to the outcome, she will quickly develop into…

  • a perfectionistic mentality with possible obsessive-compulsive tendencies,
  • an individual with a pervasive need to be the best,
  • someone who struggles with compassion and empathy.

It’s hard to care about others when you have a desperate need to beat them…at everything.

Now let’s shift gears for just a second and look at another sentence that has devastating effects. “You are a good boy or girl.”

Now maybe you’re thinking, “Wait a second! Isn’t telling a child they are good, a good thing?”

Well, you would think so, but what you are effectively doing is taking a momentary good choice or bad choice and attaching that decision to a child as an all-inclusive, value-based statement of who they are.

So if we say, “You are being such a good girl,” to a child and ignore another child, we have given them no context for what makes them good, but we have placed a value judgment on their lives by one thoughtless general statement.

Unbalanced Praise

Remember at the beginning when we talked about the importance of balancing positive statements with criticism? Well, any time you get out of balance, it can be a problem.

That’s why you don’t want to always be praising without any correction or constructive criticism, but correcting or criticizing without praise. So let’s take a quick look at how these kids look in real life.

The child who hears too much praise will almost always have an overinflated ego and believe he/she is perfect. These are the kids no one wants to be around because they think they are the best.

They will cheat or lie about things in order to always “be the best.” They will be the ones who cannot cope with hearing no and will likely have temper tantrums or angry outbursts when something doesn’t go their way.

On the other end of the spectrum is the child who hears nothing but correction and criticism. These are the kids with extremely low self-esteem. Kids in this category can display a variety of negative behaviors including failure to thrive, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and more.

But interestingly, it isn’t uncommon for these kids to also display perfectionism or even obsessive-compulsive tendencies. These kids will either work themselves to death seeking approval or go the opposite direction and have no desire to try because nothing they do is ever good enough.

The most important thing to note in every single one of these scenarios is just how important balance is when giving praise. We want every child’s self-esteem to be good, but we don’t want it to be overinflated.

We also want them to know how to take constructive criticism and learn from their mistakes. So how do we take what we know about the kind of praise we don’t want to give and make it right?

Great question! And the answer is we learn how to integrate encouraging words into our routines.

Integrating Encouraging Words for Elementary Students into Your Routine

Practice Effort-Based Praise

Just as we discussed before, we want our encouraging words for elementary students to be effort-based not outcome-based. There is nothing wrong with giving a child praise for accomplishing a feat like making an A on a spelling test, but that praise should not solely be directed toward the outcome alone.

So here are 20 encouraging sentences (and sentence starters) for you to use when you find yourself getting ready to say positive things ONLY about the outcome.

20 Encouraging Phrases to Use with Your Kids

  1. I like how you are…focusing on the task, following directions, etc.
  2. You should be proud of your…hard work, effort, perseverance, etc.
  3. I love you.
  4. I can tell that you…worked hard, tapped into your growth mindset and persevered, etc.
  5. That is a really unique perspective!
  6. You make me laugh!
  7. You are definitely on the right track.
  8. Thank you for being respectful to your classmates.
  9. That was a creative solution.
  10. You are kind.
  11. Can you think of another interesting way to solve your problem?
  12. I can tell you put a lot of thought into your words.
  13. How did you come to that intriguing conclusion?
  14. You are special.
  15. You are unique and valuable.
  16. Keep going. You are almost there!
  17. You are a blessing to me.
  18. I like you.
  19. You can do this!
  20. Thank you for being you.

The goal is for our students to understand that they are more than the sum of their achievements; they are multi-faceted and unique individuals who have the ability to become kind and contributing citizens.

Incorporate Encouraging Quotes

Motivation can be found in the most unlikely places, and when it comes to providing encouraging words for elementary students, nothing is better than quotes from people who faced trials and tough times in their own lives.

Posting these motivational quotes where they can be seen and referring to them often is the best way for you to stay positive and to help your kids persevere when things get difficult. In fact, I have come to appreciate these inspirational words far more as an adult than I ever did as a child.

50 Encouraging Quotes from 15 Inspirational Figures in History

Theodore Roosevelt

  • “Believe you can and you’re halfway there.”
  • “Courage is not having the strength to go on; it is going on when you don’t have the strength.”
  • “Knowing what’s right doesn’t mean much unless you do what’s right.”

Albert Einstein

  • “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
  • “Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.”
  • “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”

Thomas Edison

  • “There is no substitute for hard work.”
  • “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”
  • “A genius is often merely a talented person who has done all of his or her homework.”
  • “Many of life’s failures are people who didn’t realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Walt Disney

  • “All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.”
  • “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
  • “The more you like yourself, the less you are like anyone else, which makes you unique.”

Maya Angelou

  • “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
  • “You will face many defeats in life, but never let yourself be defeated.”
  • “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
  • “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.”
  • “Unless you try to do something beyond what you’ve already mastered, you will never grow.”

Henry Ford

  • “If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.”
  • “There are no big problems, there are just a lot of little problems.”
  • “Even a mistake may turn out to be the one thing necessary to a worthwhile achievement.”
  • “When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.” 

Henry David Thoreau

  • “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
  • “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you have imagined.”
  • “Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.”

Mark Twain

  • “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”
  • “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”
  • “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”

Winston Churchill

  • “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.”
  • “Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts.”
  • “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

  • “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
  • “You must do the things you think you cannot do.”
  • “It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan.”

Nelson Mandela

  • “The greatest glory in living lies not in never failing, but in rising every time we fall.”
  • “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
  • “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Helen Keller

  • “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
  • “We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world.”
  • “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” 

Mother Teresa

  • “‎Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.”
  • “Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.”
  • “I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.”
  • “Do not allow yourselves to be disheartened by any failure as long as you have done your best.”

Abraham Lincoln

  • “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”
  • “Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.”
  • “Don’t worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition.”
  • “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other.”

The very best thing about posting motivational quotes in your classroom, whether that’s writing them on the whiteboard or plastering them across the walls, is the fact that these words don’t say everything in life will be easy.

These words do a great job of helping us refocus our minds and remind us that new things can be difficult, but that doesn’t mean they are not worth doing. So as we consider encouraging words for elementary students, we need to make sure they hear them, see them, and lastly, we want to make sure they experience them.

Introduce Non-Verbal Actions

Up to this point, everything we have discussed has been related to encouraging words. But there is one last vitally important aspect we need to cover, and that is backing up our words with actions.

While our students have to hear words, they also need to experience words non-verbally or through actions. And even though these may not seem like the most creative ideas, sometimes the most obvious are the ones we overlook.

4 Ways to Actively Encourage Kids

1. Smile

Have you ever really considered the power of a smile? Think about how many times you’ve felt discouraged, and then someone offered you a genuine smile. Maybe it was accompanied with a warm handshake or a kind gesture like holding a door for you. 

Those small things had a big impact on you. In fact, that one smile had the power to change your entire outlook.

Now, think about how your smile is an encouragement to your students. As a teacher, your students see you first thing in the morning as they walk into the classroom, and if you’re scowling at them, rolling your eyes, or grumbling under your breath about the fact that you wish you were anywhere else, the tone has been set for the day.

This holds even more true for when you see that “one student” walk in. Instead of wearing your emotions on your face and allowing yourself to have a negative impact on your students, try looking in a mirror and practicing what you could say.

If speaking is too much, just do the right thing and plaster a smile on your face. Your smile says “I care about you” and “I think you are valuable” without a single word. It sets the tone for the entire day…even if you are greeted with tired eyes and scowling faces in return. 

2. Use Hand Signals

If you are using hand signals in your classroom, you know they are intended to prevent interruptions and discipline issues from arising. They are a classroom management tool like no other. However, I’ve also found them to be particularly effective as encouragement for students.

There was one particular hand signal we used in our classroom that was designed to be used whenever we noticed someone struggling to answer a question in class. We called it the “keep going” signal, and it was made by balling your hands into fists and rotating the fists in a circle as though hitting a punching bag.

At the beginning of the school year, I would be the one who initiated the signal. However, as time progressed, the kids initiated the signal for their struggling classmates even before I could. This made my heart so happy because the kids were saying “you can do it” without ever opening their mouths. 

It created a wonderful classroom environment, and provided encouragement for everyone.

3. Offer High Fives

High fives are such a great way to say “good job” without words! Just put your hand up and kids will automatically give you a high five. Think about how many times being able to share a high five with someone has encouraged your heart.

This same positive reaction happens when high fives are used in the classroom. They say “I am proud of your effort,” and they truly have the power to transform a child’s attitude and confidence.

Consider incorporating high fives into your daily routine in some form whether it is as students walk in, as they go to lunch, as they leave for the day, or any other time you deem appropriate. Just be mindful that this small gesture, while not officially encouraging words for elementary students, could be the positive interaction your student needs to keep going.

4. Give a Thumbs Up

The same rule applies to a thumbs up. It is a nonverbal way to tell another person that we agree or approve of what they said or did. And this cue goes such a long way in setting the right tone…especially when accompanied by a smile.

As teachers, we wear so many hats, and it’s hard to make sure all of your students are learning everything they need to know while you are trying to keep up with attendance, put a bandaid on a scraped knee, and sharpen pencils.

But the truth is, one of the great things about our jobs as teachers is helping our students learn how to be a good friend through developing a kind heart, character, and thankfulness.

We have the unique privilege of providing encouraging words for elementary students each and every day. And one of the greatest gifts we can offer them is teaching them how to be their best selves.

None of us makes right decisions all the time; we are flawed and imperfect people. We won’t always have the right words, and sometimes we will do the wrong thing, but teaching our students how to humbly apologize and ask for forgiveness is a crucial part of making sure every child feels loved, appreciated, and respected.

You are a great leader and you are a true blessing to your students.