Beginning Counselors' Use of Praise

J. Scott Glass
Elon University

J. Scott Glass, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Human Services Department atUniversity.All correspondence regarding this article should be sent to J. Scott Glass at jglass@elon.edu.

Abstract

Praise can be a powerful tool in relationships between elementary school counselors and their students. While there are beneficial aspects of using praise, it is equally important that school counselors be aware of students’ possible negative reactions. To effectively use praise with elementary students, counselors need an awareness of possible benefits and pitfalls associated with the construct. While school counselors are most likely aware of praise, it is important that they gain an understanding of how to implement it effectively when working with their young clients.

Beginning Elementary School Counselors’ Use of Praise

Elementary school counselors often use praise to encourage students who may be dealing with a difficult situation. While counselors have been taught to empower the student, there are concerns regarding the effectiveness of praise when it is not genuine or unwarranted. It is generally agreed that such praise is often received by students as hollow or expected (Feldman, 2003). While many theorists believe that praise promotes positive student reactions, research indicates that the results are mixed (Hancock, 2000).

It has been understood by young people for centuries that an effective technique for getting what they want is “buttering up” mom and dad. One way of doing this is to praise one’s parents. For example, “Dad, you are so smart. May I borrow your car keys?” Just as parents are often aware of the falseness of these statements, it is likely that young people will also recognize the insincerity of misused counselor praise.

In order for elementary school counselors to use praise correctly, they must recognize when praise is appropriate and when it is not. In addition, praise is most effective when counselors incorporate it as a normal way of interacting with their students.

This article will show effective ways to use praise and also discuss potentially destructive consequences that can occur when praise is misused. Existing literature regarding praise is discussed and the delicate nature of using praise for school counselors is considered.

Praise

Praise can be a difficult construct for counselors to understand. One reason for this is the paucity of literature focusing on praise in the counseling field. Shepell (2000) said that the term “praise” comes from the Latin verb pretiare, which translated means to value highly. Blote (1995) further suggested that the term includes commending the worth of an individual or expressing admiration or approval. For the purpose of this paper, praise is primarily viewed as a positive reward for something done well that has already occurred. This reward may take a number of forms including nonverbal and verbal messages being sent to the recipient. Using praise in counseling addresses a client’s strengths and abilities, which has often been ignored in the field of counseling (Watts & Pietrzak, 2000).

Thomas (1991) suggested that consistent praise was capable of encouraging desirable behaviors, while reducing undesirable behaviors. Verbal praise has been recognized as a major mediator in the development of student motivation in the classroom (Mueller & Dweck, 1998; Thompson, 1997). However, some researchers have found that disruptive behaviors continued when teachers use verbal praise as their only classroom management strategy (Pfiffner, Rosen, & O’Leary, 1985).

Burnett (1996) discussed the importance of significant others’ positive and negative verbal statements when offered to children. Burnett (1999) also investigated the relationships between negative and positive statements made by teachers, parents, peers, and siblings and children’s self-talk, and discovered that praise is more beneficial than verbal criticism. Furthermore, praise may lead to a sense of empowerment for the student, sometimes an objective in counseling, which implies that the individual can rely on a healthy inner-motivational system (Beck, 1994).

While there is a lack of research on praise in the counseling field, research has been done in the area of schools and student responsiveness to teacher praise. There is support for the use of praise in the classroom. It has been shown that teacher behaviors, such as contingent praise/approval can be a powerful influence on the behaviors of both individual students and entire classes (Beaman & Wheldall, 2000). The influence of praise can be significant when, frequently, teacher or counselor praise may be the only rewarding interaction some children receive from an adult (Edwards, 1995). Providing praise for both correct academic responses and appropriate social behavior has been shown to be an effective teaching behavior (Gunter & Coutinho, 1997; Gunter & Denny, 1998; Walker, Colvin, & Ramsey, 1995; Wehby, Symons, Canale, & Go, 1998) as well as an effective strategy in classroom management (Sutherland, Wehby, & Copeland, 2000). Furthermore, verbal praise can be an effective reinforcer of classroom learning (McCown, Driscoll, & Roop, 1995).

School counselors who often work in group settings should be aware of potential negative consequences that can occur from the misuse of praise in groups as well as with individuals. Bartholomew (1993) states that praise, while generally being a statement of approval, is also a positive evaluation, and may be given to an individual or a group of people. Confusion can occur when this generic praise is given to a group of children, because group members may not be sure of who or what is being evaluated. For example, saying “good job” to a group of students does not readily identify the intended recipient of the praise.

While it may be helpful to praise a client, counselors should be alert to how their messages of praise are being received. Researchers have indicated that praise is often perceived in a negative manner (Bartholomew, 1993; Wood, 2001). For example, when praise is interpreted by young people as being less than honest, the intended positive results may be lost. The praise may then be viewed as condescending. Young people recognize when teachers and counselors are insincere with praise, even at an early age (Wood, 2001).

Perhaps more disturbing are the findings that suggest praise is not given contingently upon successful performance. It has been suggested that a student’s inappropriate behavior is maintained and at times increased by teachers who offer non-contingent praise (Beaman & Wheldall, 2000). These teachers often praise on the basis of what they expect from a student as much as on the work they actually receive (Eggen & Kauchak, 1999). For example, teachers may give praise to a student performing poorly in an effort to protect that student’s self-esteem and self-evaluations in relation to the rest of the class members (Thompson, 1994). Evidence suggests that lavishing unearned praise on students does not produce positive results (Wood, 2001). Wood (2001) stated how one study revealed that excessive and unwarranted praise can make young people feel less confident rather than more.

Earlier research (Brophy, 1981) suggested that teacher praise was most effective when it was behavior specific. For example, telling a child, “You are talented as a singer,” should receive a more positive reaction than simply saying, “You are good at so many things.” It is through praise that the teacher acknowledges to the student the specific behavior being reinforced. Brophy (1981) further found that teachers’ use of praise is infrequent and is not effective as reinforcement unless it is specific, sincere, and credible. Verbal praise has long been viewed as a major mediator in the fostering of student motivation in the classroom (Mueller & Dweck, 1998; Thompson, 1997). The idea is that praise increases a student’s desire to succeed in a particular area (homework) and motivates the individual to work harder to continue earning praise.

Contrast with Encouragement

In addition to the lack of research on praise within the counseling field, there seems to be some confusion as to the relationship between praise and other constructs such as encouragement, which appears much more frequently within the counseling literature. Praise focuses on outcomes while encouragement focuses on effort or improvement (Chance, 1992; Sharma, Sharma, & Malti, 1984). As mentioned previously, praise is given for something done well that has already occurred, however, this is not to say that praise is never used, for example, in response to a good effort, an effective plan, or a helpful idea.

Encouragement occurs during a process, while praise is given after something has occurred. A counselor encourages a client to continue working on staying sober, while praising him for remaining sober for the previous month. While Dinkmeyer, Dinkmeyer, and Sperry (1987) suggest that encouragement focuses on helping clients become cognizant of their worth, the same may be said regarding praise.

Elementary School Counselors’ Use of Praise

Armed with this information the question becomes, how does this relate to elementary school counselors? Can counselors praise students in a manner that would encourage them to achieve a personal goal? Nelson (1991) stated that school counselors have the ability to enhance an entire school if they reinforce others and themselves, generously and often. If counselors in a variety of settings are to embrace this power, it is crucial that there be an understanding of how to effectively use praise in the therapeutic relationship.

Praise is something most people take for granted. Often people give each other praise without giving it much thought. However, praise should be viewed as a two-way street. There are two persons involved in the offering and receiving of praise (school counselor and student) and each has a role to play in its use. Regarding the school counselor and student, the counselor offers the praise and the student then has the opportunity to decide what to do with the information.

Rogers (1957) stated that the counselor-client relationship was critical for counseling success. Using praise appropriately can aid in the development of a positive counselor-client relationship. He suggested that a client’s ability to experience movement in a therapeutic relationship is not primarily dependent upon the counselor’s personality, techniques, or attitudes. Instead, therapeutic movement is dependent upon the manner in which these counselor variables are perceived by the client in the relationship (Rogers, 1951). Therefore, simply offering praise does not guarantee a positive result. A school counselor’s ability to use praise successfully will be dependent upon the student’s reaction and interpretation of such praise.

Accepting Praise

To be most effective, praise must meet certain criteria. Elwell and Tiberio (1994) suggested that praise from teachers is not the crucial determinant in whether praise motivates the student but is dependent on how the praise is perceived by the would-be recipient. The client must perceive the praise as being honest. Rogers (1957) identified genuineness as being a necessary condition for the achievement of client change. Being genuine with regards to praise suggests that school counselors must mean what they say. If praise is insincere or forced, and not perceived as genuine by the recipient, then its content is rendered meaningless.

School counselors’ praise can take many forms such as eye contact, a smile, pat on the back, or a verbal response to name a few. The key component to making praise successful depends upon the lens through which the recipient views it (Elwell & Tiberio, 1994). The student must view the praise as being believable (Burden, 1995; Woolfolk, 1998). If the recipient of the praise believes it to be genuine, the effects are most likely positive. If not, then powerful praise may be reduced to worthless words. Although counselors want the best for their clients and recognize the power of praise, restraint should be used so that praise is offered only when it is deserved.

The second criterion for praise is that it is appropriate to the situation. This aids in giving praise validity. When praise is appropriate to the counseling situation it shows a client the counselor has been paying attention to the interaction and recognizes a task well done. As mentioned earlier with regard to teachers, counselors should make the praise as behavior specific as possible. If used too often and given freely without being deserved, the impact will be lessened. If these criteria are met, praise is more likely to be welcomed by the client.

Refusal of Praise

Unfortunately, things do not always go according to plan when participating in a counseling relationship. It is possible, and very likely, that counselors will have one of their honest and appropriate attempts at praise refused. Refusal of praise can include anything from disagreeing verbally with the praise, ignoring it, or refusing to continue with the interaction. As counselors, it is important to look deeper into the refusal and then attempt to gain understanding as to the underlying meaning.

A number of reasons are possible for client refusal of a counselor’s praise. One possible explanation could be a lack of trust on the part of the student. If the counselor has not portrayed a manner of confidence and trust, the student might be wary of accepting any praise from him or her. It is possible to be in a counseling relationship with clients who have set such high standards for themselves that it is somehow demeaning for them to acknowledge they have done well on a more menial level. For example, if a student is gifted in the area of reading it may be degrading to receive praise for reading a book beneath his or her ability level.

In an opposite direction, counselors sometimes try to help students lower unrealistic standards and set goals that are more attainable. In these situations, it is helpful to praise students about goals that were accomplished and yet not use praise in a way that expects perfection. When praise has expectations of perfection attached, refusal of, or negatively toward the praise is much more likely on the student’s part.

Another situation that may cause disdain with a student is when praise is overused by the counselor. When this occurs, recipients may associate the overuse of praise to mean that the counselor is not genuine and instead using the words as a script that has been rehearsed a number of other times with other clients. Such inappropriately used praise sometimes causes recipients not only to refuse the praise, but to become very critical of their own performance.

One of Maslow’s levels of needs is the achievement of self-esteem (Maslow, 1954). One aspect of this is the esteem we receive from others (Rowan, 1998). People develop a need to be respected by those they respect. Maslow suggests that satisfying this need leads to feelings of self-confidence, worth, strength, and of being useful and necessary in the world (Rowan, 1998). However, Maslow (1987) also indicates that not satisfying this need produces feelings of inferiority, weakness and helplessness. If a person’s self-esteem is built with the esteem we receive from others, then it is worthy for school counselors to consider praise as one means of contributing to children’s self-esteem. The best way to deal with this issue is to be selective as to when praise is used in therapeutic relationships.

If used appropriately, the hope is that praise will be accepted and the benefits will be reaped. As an elementary school counselor, it is important to recognize a student’s reaction to counselor praise. Even if the praise is refused, the interaction reveals important information that can be further examined. For example, a consistent refusal of praise may suggest a negative self-esteem and may be a topic of discussion later in counseling. Counselors must help students examine their reactions and give them an opportunity to understand what the implications may be of either their acceptance or refusal of praise.

Discussion

Just as good counseling provides hope and encouragement (Peavy, 1996), a counselor’s praise can help a student become aware of strengths and perhaps aid that client in discovering a sense of empowerment. When praise is evenly distributed, appropriate and honest, success will be more likely.

It is important to examine the relevance of praise in the school counselor-student relationship. If this relationship is important to the success of the counseling process, then counselors must be intentional and thoughtful as to when they use praise and what words to use in its delivery. Bartholomew (1993) explains that praise is not all the same, and counselors can avoid misusing or overusing praise by increasing the kinds of verbal responses they use. It is important to change what is being said to the students. With children it is important to get into the habit of using direct praise (Glazer, 1997).

Research is needed to examine the effectiveness of praise in a therapeutic relationship. Future studies might investigate more closely the role of the school counselor in the acceptance or refusal of praise by students. Furthermore, what effects might race, age, or gender of students and school counselors have on the delivery and interpretation of praise? Finally, no study has investigated any effects of school counselors’ personal characteristics or personal styles on their usage of praise. Such studies are necessary if elementary school counselors are to have further direction for practicing praise effectively with their students.

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