Art Class

I have been sharing information on the importance of encouragement with young children for nearly 20 years. Some Early Childhood Education instructors might call it “process-praise” or “effort-based praise.”

In the ECE classes I teach, we practice how to encourage children, learn to identify empty praise, and study the research behind best practice. We know that encouragement fosters intrinsic motivation and a sense of self-approval.

It is rare to hear a “good job” in my preschool program, unless it slips from the mouths of children acknowledging one another, like they so often have been recognized outside of school.

I’ve also been known to use “encouraging language” with my spouse, but it’s not always a huge success. But the problem could lie in the sarcastic tone I don’t use with young learners. “I see you emptied the dishwasher.” “It looks like you paid the bills.” Somehow this is not as effective…

I enrolled in a botanical illustration course through our local community college – four nights and I’ll learn to illustrate nature! Class started off with copying basic shapes and working on shading with HB pencils. Then came illustrating peppers. I don’t even like peppers, which likely put me in a mood.

The instructor went around the room, commenting on people’s work, guiding them toward improvement, and telling some of the students “good job.” Note some meant not me. I am under no false assumptions that I am a gifted artist, but I wanted MY “good job.”

I looked around the room sheepishly trying to determine WHO was doing such great work. What did it look like? What did the instructor like about it? I no longer even liked this person who I still hadn’t identified, this botanical illustration protégée.

In addition, I doubted my skills (consistent with the research on praise), which I wasn’t feeling confident in from the beginning. Why aren’t I a ‘good’ artist? Why do I suck at illustrating peppers? I would have loved a, “You’re working hard on your pepper” or a “I see you have made multiple shades with your pencil.”

And this is how young children feel when we offer their siblings and peers empty praise. When teachers tell their classroom of unfocused preschoolers, “I like the way Moe is sitting.” It’s not about Moe! It’s about everyone else who needs to get their shit together and do what Moe is doing. And Moe is singled out, and may feel good in the short-term, but in the long-term, she’ll just want to blend in. And Moe’s classmates? Not a fan of this brown-nosing, rule follower. These techniques may ‘work’ on 3-year-olds who care about pleasing adults, but try this technique with older students… Or a 40-something-year-old preschool teacher in art class. It doesn’t work.