Rewards and Praise - The Use of Superlatives

Wednesday 28 Jul 2021

Well done! Fantastic! Excellent effort! We have all heard these superlatives many times before, and we are all probably responsible for commending others in this way, but what are we actually saying? Do these words have any effect on the recipient? The short answer is no, and especially not anymore due to their overuse in society.

Rewards and praise are commonly used to motivate children. In the short term, they appear to work; however, over time, they fail and do harm as the child will come to expect greater rewards and need more praise to have any effect. Research also shows that when students are given rewards or constant praise to do something, they will eventually lose interest in what they are essentially bribed to do. Constant praise and reward systems undermine a child’s ability to self-motivate and self-manage their lives and learning.

When a child approaches you to show or tell you something, you need to have an appropriate reply. Often we use superlatives and praise the child for their efforts. Rather than responding in a way often overcharged with energy, a simple acknowledgement such as, ‘Thank you for showing me’ or ‘Thank you for telling me’ is often enough. It allows you to move into asking children questions that support learning and helps children to self-evaluate their own words or actions.

It is essential to show a genuine interest in your child by not just acknowledging their achievement but showing a genuine interest in the process of their achievement. This is where children learn that the process is more important than their success. It is still important to celebrate the child’s success, but it is imperative not to go overboard with this. By questioning your child about the process they followed for their success, they will evaluate their success and create their own ‘feel good’ for the work they have shown you.

When we praise children or reward them for their achievement, behaviour or work ethic, we create a chemical reaction in their brain that releases dopamine. Dopamine is an important chemical messenger in the brain responsible for allowing us to feel pleasure, satisfaction and motivation. When you feel good that you have achieved something, it’s because you have a surge of dopamine in the brain. Having low levels of dopamine can make you less motivated and excited about things. Having too much dopamine is linked to being more competitive, aggressive and having poor impulse control. The challenge is not to over-reward or praise children, as dopamine is like a drug and can become addictive.

- Melissa Tronc, Acting Principal