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Why Noticing Children Is More Powerful Than Praise or Punishment


Why Noticing Children Is More Powerful Than Praise or Punishment

Noticing children is a powerful tool. It’s a nonjudgmental way to address actions, behavior, accomplishments, and choices. It encourages children to self-reflect, build healthy self-confidence, develop an independent sense of worth, and strive for internal validation. Here are some common situations in which noticing is effective, and examples of how to apply it. This might inspire you to take notice of the adults around you, too.  After all, most of us like to feel seen.   

Noticing children instead of praising them

Good job! Nice work! Wonderful! Excellent! That’s beautiful! 

These are all generic blanket expressions of praise. But what do they really mean? They actually aren’t saying a whole lot. Adults often think heaping praise on children will boost their self-esteem and provide positive reinforcement. Research actually shows many children receive too much praise, which often has the opposite impact. Children who frequently receive nonspecific praise may come to depend on external validation for their self-worth and self-esteem. Noticing children, on the other hand, helps them develop internal validation and self-confidence. Using a child’s name makes it even more meaningful.

Examples to show you noticed a child’s efforts:

  • “Josie, you worked hard on that all class period!”
  • “Brandon, you used blue and green in that painting!”
  • “Emily, you chose to work quietly today!”
  • You pumped your legs and swang so high at recess!
  • You really focused hard on completing your project on time!

Notice behavior to increase positive choices

Becky Bailey says noticing is a better change agent than consequences. Acknowledging positive behavior helps children develop pride in themselves. “Everyone lined up so quickly and quietly! We’re going to get to lunch so smoothly today without stress!”  Most of us are more likely to repeat positive actions when we know our efforts have been noticed. 

Noticing challenging behavior instead of immediately reprimanding or issuing a consequence allows children the chance to reflect. They might not have even realized what they were doing or why. Calmly pointing it out in a curious way gives the child a chance to think about what happened and make a plan for making a different choice in the future. For example, a teacher might say, “I noticed Kaden working really hard to build a block tower and then I saw you knock it over. I wonder what happened?” The teacher might next ask, “How might you handle it differently next time and what can you do to help Kaden feel better about what happened?” Simply moving a child down on the behavior chart doesn’t allow for reflection, growth, and connection like noticing does.

Bailey also says it’s important not to use children’s past behavior against them in a passive aggressive way. For example, it’s not helpful to say, “I see Rylie is sitting down calmly now instead of running around the classroom like yesterday.”

Noticing the emotions of children

Emotions need to be taught just like reading and math. Noticing children is a great way to help them start identifying their own feelings, as well as the emotions of others. Don’t assume that just because you have an older child, they have already mastered these skills. Children develop emotional intelligence at different speeds, just like academic skills.

Teachers can mirror children’s body language and facial expressions back to them while providing the language and tools for reflection. For example, “You got really quiet when your mom went home after volunteering in the classroom. Your mouth is frowning. I wonder if you’re sad she can’t stay all day?” 

Noticing instead of judgment

We judge those around us dozens of times each day. Our judgment may be positive or negative. We might think the man who helped the elderly stranger load her groceries is a good person or that the person sighing while standing too close behind us in line is an impatient jerk. Either way, we bring judgment to the scenario. We do the same with children. However, simply noticing a situation allows us to observe from a neutral position. 

Child psychotherapist Andrea Nair recommends “I see you” statements. This acknowledges we see others without attaching our own biases or moods to their actions. No one is any one thing all of the time, but it’s easy to label children by their actions when we rely on our judgement. If we make it a goal to switch to a noticing mindset, it’s easier to see that the whole person is so much more than just “disruptive,” “quiet,” “helpful,” “sullen,” etc. 

Examples of “I see” statements include:

  • “Franklin, I saw you were looking at your phone in the hall and bumped into Joey.”
  • “Jada, I saw you high five your group after you got the answer right.”
  • “Sawyer, I see you are bouncing up and down in your seat.”
  • “Kevin, I see you are tapping your pencil.” 
  • “Tasha, I saw you helped Chloe up when she fell down.”
  • “Davonte, I see your arms are crossed and your head is looking down.”

Add on to “I see” statements to encourage positive behavior choices, help children reflect on their actions, and assist in identifying emotions. For example: 

  • “Franklin, I saw you were looking at your phone in the hall and bumped into Joey. You told him, ‘excuse me.’ That was polite. How do you think you can avoid bumping into people?”
  • “Jada, I saw you high five your group whenever someone got the answer right. It seems to me like you are proud of your teamwork. It probably felt good to them to receive your encouragement.”
  • “Sawyer, I see you are bouncing up and down in your seat. I’m wondering if you’re having trouble concentrating and how we can make this easier for you to tackle.”
  • “Kevin, I see you are tapping your pencil. People sometimes do that when they’re feeling anxious. What do you think is going on with you?” 
  • “Tasha, I saw you helped Chloe up when she fell down. That was kind.”
  • “Davonte, I see your arms are crossed and your face is tense. Do you want to take a break in the calm down corner? ”

Jenny Spencer, a certified Conscious Discipline instructor, recommends putting ten pennies in your pocket at the start of your day. Make it a goal to make noticing statements to at least ten children that day. Each time you do, transfer a penny to the other pocket. If you do this daily, you’ll soon be in the habit of noticing children (and the pennies will no longer be needed).

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Why Noticing Children Is More Powerful Than Praise or Punishment

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Rachael Moshman
Rachael Moshman, M.Ed., an editor at Bored Teachers, is a mom, educator, writer, and advocate for self-confidence. She's been a teacher in classrooms of infants through adult college students. She loves pizza, Netflix and yoga. Connect with her at [email protected]
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