Keeping Praise Positive

Published On: 20 April 2023

Reading time: 4 minutes


We know the value of praise and how powerful it can be for all of us. It’s a fundamental part of creating a positive culture in our settings and can act as one of our primary strategies to support de-escalation and encourage behaviour habits. It’s a simple way to reinforce behaviours we’d like to see, both with the individuals we support and as staff teams.


Recognising and commenting on another person’s strengths and successes can be extremely encouraging and help an individual feel confident in their own abilities, although we always have to consider individual preferences, as we do with any behaviour support.


Used effectively, it can raise self-esteem and confidence and motivate those in our care. However, while there’s no doubt using praise can be supportive, it can have its limitations, particularly if it’s not used effectively or sincerely.


How to praise


Praise is great for reinforcing the behaviours we want to encourage. By explicitly praising the behaviour, we’re giving it our attention and focus. Thinking about the Cycle of Influence, we know that behaviours drive a response and create experiences. This isn’t just for behaviours we want to discourage, it also affects behaviours we want to encourage, too.


Cycle of Influence


It can also have an impact on other individuals too. Hearing a behaviour being praised can encourage others to do the same thing:


  • I like the way you’re sharing with your partner.
  • I can see you taking deep breaths to calm down. You’re doing really well.”
  • “Well done for waiting to have a turn.”


It’s important the individual understands exactly what they are receiving praise for. If we don’t make praise explicit, it can become tokenistic and meaningless. Avoid overusing general statements such as “well done” and “great work.” For some of those in our care, connecting the action with the praise will not be obvious.


We also can’t assume that everybody loves gushing and public acts of praise; we can get to know the individual we’re supporting to understand how to use praise in a way that works for them. For some, compliments and attention can make them feel uneasy and self-conscious. We can consider how we can communicate our praise in a less obvious way, such as a symbol or hand gesture, a quiet conversation without an audience, or, for some, written feedback. The more personalised we can be with the praise we’re giving, the more meaningful it becomes to the individual.  


There is also a risk of overusing praise. If we are congratulated all the time, for everything we do, it can become meaningless. If the praise is not sincerely meant and valid, many individuals will see through it and dismiss it, making it less effective in the future. We can end up focusing on the praise as our goal, which can lead to distress if it is not received.


We also need to consider how praise is seen by those around the receiver. For example, praising to an audience can cause people to make comparisons with themselves and judge their own achievements. These comparisons can be very demoralising for an individual with low self-esteem. For example, if we congratulate an individual on a task well done and then move on to praise another individual who knows they have found something more difficult, they may think that the praise isn’t genuine. Praise doesn’t always have to be communicated to an audience. Sometimes a discreet acknowledgement is just powerful and doesn’t encourage a culture of comparisons and judgements.


Description rather than praise?


Debates about praise have been happening for a long time. Many advocate describing behaviour rather than praising it. This is still a way of bringing attention to the behaviours we would like to encourage. With this approach, instead of “well done” or “great job,” we simply say what we can see.


  • “You are putting the brushes back in the paint pot.
  • “We’re standing and waiting for the bus to come.”
  • “You are going to the quiet room, because you can feel you need calming time.”


Again, we need to be aware of individual preferences and consider the impact our communication has on the person we are working with. For some, praise can work well, for others it won’t. We can make sure Individual Support Plans identify the strategies that work best for an individual to create a cohesive approach between staff teams.


Maintaining positive praise


When we’re in challenging situations, fuelled with heightened stress and anxiety, it’s hard to focus on the positives. For example, working with an individual who is not doing something we’ve asked can test our emotions and ability to make reasonable judgements. Not only do we need to remember the power of using praise, we also need to make sure it does stay positive.


There is a risk that feelings of frustration and annoyance, or the opportunity to ‘teach a lesson’ spill over into our praise. Phrases such as: “if only you’d done that when I first asked…” or “but there was no need to…” and “however, you really should have..” can feel like they’re on the tip of our tongue. Making comments such as these after using positive praise shifts the emphasis from the praise back to the behaviours we are aiming to discourage. This can reinforce feelings of failure and shame.


When we use praise, we’re often encouraging behaviours to shift from a heightened state of arousal to a calmer stage of repair and reconnect. We’ve supported the individual to regulate their emotions and helped them to recognise the strategies they’re using. Introducing comments that dwell on the previous behaviours can cause the individual to loop back into crisis stage. Don’t end with the negative. This is what the individual will remember and potentially react to.




Praise isn’t just about giving somebody a ‘well done’ or ‘great work.’ It needs to be considered and used appropriately for it to be effective. We can get to know how the individual responds to praise and recognise that our words can have the power to diffuse a situation or loop back into crisis. For some, describing behaviours will be more effective, and public praise can often have the opposite effect from the one we intended, if it doesn’t meet the individual’s needs.