One of Montessori’s foundational principles is that all children should be treated with dignity and respect and that their internal drive to “work” should be valued over training them to want external rewards. As Montessorians, we get excited when psychologists and researchers prove her theories to be true and further enlighten us as to why her principles are so effective. Alfie Kohn is one of these researchers who writes and speaks widely on human behavior, education, and parenting. Perhaps you’ve heard of one of his most well-known books, Punished by Rewards (1993). His criticisms of competition and rewards have helped to shape the thinking of educators — as well as parents and managers — across the country and abroad.
Through extensive research, Alfie Kohn has found that giving judgmental praise for the results of a child’s work teaches our children to seek and value external rewards for good work over the internal rewards of the work itself. Instead, we should let children bask in their own enjoyment of the work, and relish in their own moment of self-pride at their accomplishment. By inserting ourselves into that moment with our own words of judgment and praise, we are conditioning children to always look to others for an assessment of their accomplishments. His article published in Young Children, 2001, Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job” provides a more indepth look into his research and the bullet points below give a takeaway to implement!
However, this does not mean that we should stop praising our children all together! Instead of saying “good job” or “that’s awesome” or “you’re so smart” we should praise them on the effort they put into their work and highlight a specific element where they really applied themselves. This helps them develop a “growth mindset”. As Montessorians, this philosophy has been ingrained in us since our earliest days of our training because it is demeaning to give distracted, generic praise. However, that doesn’t make it any easier to change our ingrained behaviors. We may still find the words, “good job” on the tip of our tongue and have to act quickly to swallow them. That is why we develop a handful of things to say instead that will have a more empowering effect on the children. Below you find some of our favorites.
Can you imagine how much more dignity and respect a child feels when their work is truly seen and praised for the most important aspect of it – the effort they put into it? Montessori knew it and now we have the scientific evidence to back it up!