Head Lines with Jonny Mitchell: Praising kids in the right way is an art

HEAD LINES Jonny Mitchell.
HEAD LINES Jonny Mitchell.

Thornhill Community Academy’s straight-talking headteacher Jonny Mitchell showed the world what life in the classroom is really like in the award-winning TV documentary series Educating Yorkshire.

Now he writes exclusively for us.

I recently read the recommendations and findings from the Sutton Trust regarding how to teach effectively. The Sutton Trust has produced a wealth of relevant and interesting information on the subject, so I am always intrigued by some of their findings.

I did, however, take issue with some of the reporting of their findings and suggestions this time – not that the information they produced was in dispute, simply the way the media jumped on the subject matter and then made it out to be a little more than it really was.

How to run a school and how to teach children depends on a great number of variables – we always have to take the evidence from research and then try our best to apply it in the best way to fit our circumstances. And I think we do a pretty good job of it, by and large.

So, when, through the media, I learn that teachers shouldn’t praise kids too much in class, I looked askance.

Of course, I don’t think anyone would argue that lavishing praise on a child when it is unwarranted is wrong, morally at least. But the notion that praise should only be given when children get something right is flawed on many levels.

For some children, actually having a go is a big ask – there are far too many who feel intimidated in class to speak up for fear of making mistakes or getting things wrong, and subsequently being ridiculed or laughed at by their classmates. If, as a school, the conditions can be created under which effort is encouraged and praised, and there is a “no put-downs” culture, this type of behaviour (investing effort, that is, not ridiculing) increases, and children feel comfortable and do not become risk-averse.

If a supremely gifted child answers a question correctly, then of course they are recognised for it, and praised, as appropriate.

But, in the interests of encouraging children to learn from their mistakes, it is still a very good idea to offer reward for effort, even if a child who finds work much more difficult, has a decent stab at getting something right, but falls short of the mark.

Of course, we should never over-egg it. We should only offer praise when a child does something which is personally positive, and we shouldn’t be telling them how wonderful they are for managing to sit quietly for 10 minutes. It is still a question of making sure they are stretched to achieve and be better people – then we praise them.

School interaction between teachers and children has become an art – there are types of language that can be adopted, simply, to make all the difference between a child having his or her self-esteem crushed or enhanced. It is every teacher’s responsibility to make sure they are emotionally savvy enough to strike this balance, and to offer children safe routes through the pitfalls of the classroom.

I have still never met a single adult who is averse to praise – sure, some pretend to be embarrassed for the sake of their public persona, but – in essence – we all love it.

“That was brilliant – well done!” is one of the best things anyone can say. And no-one likes criticism – even if it is constructive – we just develop mechanisms for coping with the disappointment. Perhaps we should go back to the good old system of school reports, then at least everyone knows where they are.

“This is the worst child I have ever had the misfortune to teach, and he will never amount to anything. He is rude, aggressive and downright lazy. An awful year!”

True, perhaps. Some kids can make some teachers feel like that. But would it not be better to wrap up the vitriol with something positive? Perhaps this child is, indeed, a heinously-behaved individual. But there is not a single child who is born bad (at least I have never met one). And it is this sort of interaction with a child that contributes to that retrograde development of character.