Why PRAISE is bad for our dancers – and what to say instead

Becoming a mother has taught me so much already…

Not least of all it’s made me question the things I am already saying to my 15 month old to encourage his growth, independence and self-belief, from the word go.

I mean, should I help him with the puzzle piece? Should I show him how to open the lid – or different ways to play with the sand? Should I clap and praise him when he gets the shape in the right place or should I just sit quietly and watch so as to not interrupt his concentration?!

One things for sure, becoming a mother has made me consider more deeply how I speak to and praise the dancers I work with, for exactly the same reason… Are my words helping their growth in the best way?

When delving into the subject of MINDSET I learned so much about why I AM the way I AM, because of things that were said – or not said – to me as part of my dance training. In creating the Groove Child syllabus, we wanted to help other teachers avoid this pitfall (consciously or unconsciously) by including information and exercises within the syllabus that ACTIVELY help you as teacher to nurture more of a growth mindset in young students – and most importantly, in an easy way that doesn’t add more work or worry to our plates! 

I very quickly realised the parallels all this ‘mindset stuff’ has to the way I want to bring up Lenny, and the way I also want to help ‘bring up’ the dancers I have the honour of working with week on week.

I’m sure all the parents here can relate!

So, in a nutshell, here’s my biggest takeaway from the mindset research we undertook as part of the Groove Child dance syllabus development.

Giving ‘encouraging feedback’ rather than ‘praise’ is paramount to helping a child or young person develop a healthy mind.

Seems obvious, right?

On the face of it, yes. But if you look more deeply at WHY that is, you begin to realise that we ALL default to phrases of praise all the time when we’re teaching, phrases such as ‘Great work’ or ‘YES! That was so much better that time’ or ‘Excellent’ etc, all the while meaning very well and thinking we are giving ‘encouraging feedback’ when, in fact, we’re giving little more than a sugary sweet…

So WHY exactly is praise bad?

  • Praise for children and young people is like a form of addiction.
  • It can turn students into praise junkies!
  • It breeds reliance on ‘external motivation’ – to get the praise from you all the time rather than developing intrinsic motivation where they want to do well for themselves or for their own motivational reasons.
  • Their focus can become about doing things to hear praise from you.
  • They may eventually feel like they NEED it, to feel good about themselves, instead of learning to look inward and feel pride in their accomplishments
  • Constant praise creates a situation where the child/student is only in it for the praise and the attention from you.
  • When you are out of the picture they may loose the motivation to keep doing something well (for example, when a different teacher is working with them)
  • Ultimately – and we know, this may sound controversial – praise is an easy way out for us as teachers (and parents) because you just say it automatically without thinking about the individual or what they might need in that moment to help progress from A to B.
  • More thoughtful and skill driven feedback is best for real growth and development. 

Okay, so what’s the down side to giving more constructive or ‘encouraging feedback’?

Giving encouraging and constructive feedback all the time is obviously a more time intensive process! And not always possible in a large class setting (or on zoom).

But it’s worth considering how you could incorporate more of this feedback approach as part of the wellbeing focus you have for your students, not just for the obvious reasons of helping individuals develop technically or artistically in the right direction, but MORE VITALLY so that if ever asked to consider the question ‘Who do they dance for?’ they can feel in their hearts that although they may want to achieve and make their teacher proud, at the end of the day they don’t dance for anybody more than they dance for THEMSELVES.

And that’s the beautiful relationship I want to be part of nurturing – a student’s love of dance and of themselves.

In the end, this coaching approach may not be the approach for everyone but it’s worth considering in terms of your teaching style and how you want your students to develop their self-belief – not only as dancers, but as people.

Not convinced?

Studies and Proof

One of the most talked about studies on the effects of praise on children was conducted by child psychologist Carol Dweck and she looked at differences between growth and fixed mindsets. She coined these terms (which we refer to often with our students) and they basically describe the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence. Growth mindset is what we are ideally striving to encourage in our dancers, which means our students understand that effort makes them stronger and better at something, rather than ‘natural talent’.

In her main study of mindsets Dweck examined children who had received general praise and children who had been offered praise that focused on their EFFORT and found the latter were more successful as they grew and developed.

Children who receive general praise eventually become afraid of doing things because they’re afraid of messing up, looking like a failure and not being able to receive that praise any more.

Do you recognise the above situation in any dancers you’ve worked with? Talented students who may have been told from a young age how great they are (by parents and teachers) or that they are ‘naturally talented’ only to find that as they grow up that ‘talent’ slows down or even disappears?

This is a very common scenario amongst young athletes and performers of all genres, if they are not coached to keep growing and are only praised for always being good.

So with all that said, what can we do / say instead of blanket praise?

Below are just a few suggestions to get you thinking.

Not all the following will fit the situation! But they will hopefully give you food for thought and options of other responses to lead with when giving students feedback. Consider how each could work for you within your dance setting…

What to say instead of ‘Well done’

  1. DESCRIBE WHAT YOU SEE – mention something specific about their performance or demonstration that is exactly what you want them to do MORE of. This way, they know what they need to keep doing in order to grow. This approach is both helpful and encouraging.
  2. FOCUS ON THE EFFORT – especially for things they’ve been creating or working on for a long time. This also is great in terms of feedback for specific exercises, or even social interactions.
  3. FOCUS ON THE EFFECT THEY’VE HAD ON ANOTHER PERSON OR GROUP – dance related or otherwise! Particularly good with younger students. Encouraging social and emotional growth, how they can help others feel good and the positive effects their behaviour can have on others.
  4. ASK QUESTIONS – “wow, that was exciting to watch, why did you decide to do it that way? What made you think of that idea?!” Encouraging their individuality and level of autonomy (choice) over their dancing in some way can not only boost their growth mindset but increase their overall confidence and self-esteem, and help them take more pride in themselves.
  5. DON’T SAY ANYTHING AT ALL – with younger students in particular, we don’t always have to fill the void after or during an exercise. Note: they will often SEE you’re proud from the way you are smiling at them or giving eye contact in an exercise. They will value your encouraging words all the more when you do offer feedback.

Remember these are all just suggestions of different routes to go if you feel you want to say SOMETHING and offer some form of encouragement but want to avoid the generic ‘good work!’ remark.

And finally – don’t beat yourself up if you still use general phrases of praise sometimes (that’s not good growth mindset for YOU!) This totally takes practice and like all things, gets easier and becomes more automatic the more you do it. I am still working on it, believe me!!!

Some words of encouragement and growth for us teachers…

If this resonates and you feel like you want to start flexing your ‘growth mindset’ muscles with your students we recommend starting small and choosing ONE class this week to really focus on with this.

And if you want more inspiration for ways to positively support the emotional wellbeing and personal growth of your students catch the REPLAY of our recent seminar ‘Recharge Repair Reignite’.

As with all things, sometimes just the awareness of something can help – just consider, what are you ‘go to’ praise phrases? Simply drawing your own attention to this may be enough, and you may begin to notice small shifts happen.

Like all things, with practice and effort your ‘coaching’ voice will begin to emerge more and more, where needed.

The fact you’ve read this far shows total curiosity and commitment on your part to nurturing better mental health and growth in your students, and for that we applaud you.

It speaks volumes about the teacher you are. Lucky students x

For a deeper dive into dancer wellbeing and ways to nurture more positive mental skills with your students of all ages in 2021, consider Groove Child® Membership. Designed as an additional tool for experienced dance teachers, our online membership offers a wellbeing and creativity focus, to help you nurture healthy minded and expressive young dancers. Membership includes access to the Groove Child set syllabus covering age 3-15yrs, designed to work in harmony alongside technical training, as well as online seminars, member mastermind sessions, and an annual convention (new for 2022!) all aiming to help you increase self-belief in your dancers, as part of their artistic journey with you. Head to the website today to JOIN US and our heartfelt community or contact Amy, Natalie, or Hattie with any questions info@groovechilddance.com