Using direct and specific praise to support young people’s emotional well-being

Most of us, regardless of age, light up when we are told something that makes us feel that we are getting it right or doing something well. However, for a minority of non-typically developing children, praise can actually make them feel more uncomfortable and worse about themselves. This is due to the nature or complexity of the child’s inner working model, which develops in the early years through experiences and the quality of social and emotional relationships. If children are repeatedly rebuffed, rejected, neglected or maltreated, the mind develops in a way that confirms their value in the world.

When we are feeling good about ourselves we are more likely to agree, or be affected positively with what we have been told. However, young people who perceive themselves as worthless genuinely struggle sometimes to hear what we are saying, especially if we use simple praise expressed either in terms of the person themselves or their work being good. Young people with low self-worth and self-esteem issues will reject this praise as they do not believe that they or anything that they do is in anyway good. This could also negatively upon your relationship with the young person, as they will not see you as someone who is honest or accurate in your judgements.

Direct praise is more descriptive and not only supports the positive development of self-esteem but also aids in grounding the young person in the present, such as mindfulness at home or in the classroom. So rather than saying, “That is really good what you’ve done today”, instead think about selecting specific things that the young person is less likely to dismiss, “I really like how you have stayed focused (in the lesson/with your homework) today, and the work that you have produced is really well presented. I particularly like how you have used some great vocabulary to make you work more interesting. Well done.”

This approach is also particularly beneficial to young people presenting with ADHD and anxiety issues who need approximately one third more praise than typically developing children. Direct praise increases the quality of praise and the intensity and, if done so frequently, can have a significant impact on positive behaviour change.

Little actions that can help in a big way:

  • Provide honest, specific, descriptive praise whenever possible
  • The more that you do it, the easier that it becomes
  • Use one third more praise with young people who present with ADHD/anxiety or non-typically developing disorders
  • Be genuine, children can tell if you mean it!


Next time: Understanding Emotional Development