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Praise With Emotion, Discipline Without

Emotions can be defined as ‘energy in motion.’ They play a critical role in the success of every behavior modification interaction. When you understand how to use this powerful tool, you can increase connection, communication and produce big results.


Praising a student sounds like this: “Great job! I’m so proud of you.” The student responds with a smile and sparkle in the eye. He stands taller, reflecting a rise in self-confidence. Praise embodies enthusiastic emotion that celebrates an accomplishment. The positive, feel good emotion penetrates to the very core of the student’s identity. This helps to define how a young person sees himself. Praise supports a young person’s belief that ‘I am worthy of attention. I am capable. I belong.’ Positive praise is a force of emotional energy that can last for hours, days, or even a life time.


For best results, praise must be associated with a specific action or behavior and be worthy of reward. The praise should be genuine and sincere. When the student has a clear understanding of what action the praise is based upon, the emotion has a solid foundation. The student is clear on how to repeat the desired behavior.


Effective praise sounds like this, “I am so impressed that you spoke up against bullying. I know that can be scary. You can be proud of that.” When you encourage students to self-generate a feeling of pride, they have power over their own emotional experience. Without it, there is a risk of training students to be needy, seeking attention to feed their emotions.

When praise is overused, vague or insincere, it quickly loses its value. The emotion conveyed is manipulative and loses the desired effect. One student received multiple school rewards for being a good citizen. When asked what she did to receive such awards, she said, “I don’t really know, I guess I’m nice.” She gave her ribbons to other students or tossed them in the trash. Insincere praise for the purpose of building self-esteem becomes worthless. Children are masters at pretending. They know when adults are faking it.


Now, consider discipline. “You got out of line. Move to the back.” This correction can be delivered with no emotion or even a positive one. “Would you please lead from the back of the line?” The word discipline literally comes from the word disciple, direct or teach.

When corrections are filled with negative emotions, students likely hear little of what is said. Instead, a student will focus in on the feeling of shame, embarrassment, or guilt they feel. Strong, uncomfortable emotions override rational thinking. Negative emotions become negative thoughts of self-worth, ‘I can’t do anything right. What is wrong with me?’ If this is repeated often, temporary feelings become long term realities.


Praise/discipline should not be confused with reward/punishment. Reward/punishment follows the carrot and stick approach, a technique used to train horses. The carrot/ stick is an emotionally manipulative technique designed to control behavior. I asked professional horse trainer Melissa Mershon how effective the carrot/ stick approach really is, and here is what she said: “Horses understand love and affection much more than punishment. Animals seek guidance and security more than anything else. It’s important to deliver clear communication of what you want and what you don’t want. The stick works at first, but then it comes with a price. Animals lose a sense of trust and will do anything to avoid pain. Eventually, they rebel. They quit.” As it turns out, carrot/stick approach doesn’t even work on horses.


Whenever you convey emotions around a child’s behavior, you are sending messages that shape a child’s identity for life. So, remember this: Praise with emotion, discipline without.


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