How To Use Praise To Encourage Good Behaviour

How often do you praise your child? Is it a regular thing or something you reserve for special occasions (like exam success)? Do you do it more or less than you did when they were a baby?

These are important questions because praise is a great way to encourage good behaviour. Getting positive attention for doing the right thing motivates children to repeat that good behaviour.

But that doesn’t mean you have to wait for them to do something good before you can start parenting this way.

Today we’ll be looking at “indirect comparisons of praise” which is a technique used by teachers to inspire children to do the right thing.

Parenting using praise as positive reinforcement - child collecting pebbles on the beach

Indirect comparisons of praise

This is a method I picked up during my teacher training:

Rather than saying, “Isabelle – sit quietly, please,” a teacher will often say, “James is sitting beautifully.” Isabelle then sees that James is being rewarded with positive attention for doing the right thing, so she decides to sit quietly too.

At no point has the teacher had to speak to Isabelle. There has been no disciplinary action, no cross words, no instructions, no negativity… and yet there is suddenly a class full of children doing exactly what they should be doing!

This is because children (and adults) crave positive attention. And they will modify their behaviour to get it!

I like this little trick because Isabelle is given the chance to work out what she should be doing for herself – she has clocked the desired behaviour, made a comparison with herself, and adjusted her actions accordingly. She is learning and growing as a person rather than just following instructions.

Giving praise and positive attention to promote good behaviour - child at the beach in sandals

Praise comparisons in everyday life

So I’m sure you can see this is a very adaptable technique – you can compliment your kids on everything from, “Thank you for crossing the road so sensibly,” to, “I’m so pleased that you did your spellings straight away.”

The child who is receiving the praise is super happy because their good behaviour has been noticed. And the child who “overheard” the praise knows how you want them to behave in the future.

It’s a win-win.

Now of course, as a parent, you haven’t got a class full of children to pick from. You might have two or three alternatives at the most! It can still work but you need to be much more mindful about who you are highlighting – it can’t always be the same child that you praise!

If you have one child, it is a little more difficult to use. But with young children, you can still say things like, “I think the living room needs tidying. I wonder if there’s anyone in here who might be able to put the cushions back on the sofa for me…!” This gives your little one a chance to think about what they’re doing and offer to help, without being told to.

Praise inspires children to improve their behaviour - mum with feet on stony beach

5 Traps and pitfalls

It’s always tricky trying something new, so I’ve put together a list of traps and pitfalls that you might come across.

Direct comparisons

If you make an direct comparison – “Isabelle please can you sit quietly like James – it implies that one child is better than the other. The key to this technique is to let the children work out that they need to copy the good example.


You need to share out the praise – it can’t always be the same child who is the model example, or the other children will begin to feel that you don’t like them as much. They will also come to resent you and the “favourite” child.


Don’t always praise the same things – try to look for a wide range of things. If you only praise a child for academic success, they will think that academics is the only thing you like about them. Make sure you are encouraging them in every part of their life.

Non specific

Of course it’s fine to give general praise, but if you really want your children to learn what you think of as good behaviour, you need to be specific – don’t just say, “You’re a kind girl.” Instead, say, “You were so kind when you shared your sweets with Dylan.”

Concrete standards

Different children have different strengths and weaknesses, so you need to adapt to each child. You can’t expect all children to reach the same standards. Maybe you have one child who always sits sensibly at the table, and one who wriggles around. Well if the wriggler manages 5mins of sitting still, grab that opportunity to make them the one you can praise. It doesn’t matter that the other sits still for much longer.

Praise as a technique for improving behaviour - young child throwing stones into the sea

I hope you’ve found this useful. I much prefer to use positive praise to train my kids than yell at them. Have you ever tried this method? How did it work for you? Have you ever noticed school teachers using it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!

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How To Use Praise To Encourage Good Behaviour - positive praise for kids is really important and this tried and tested method that teachers use is a great gentle parenting tip


Add yours
  1. 2

    The idea of saying “I think the living room needs tidying. I wonder if there’s anyone in here who might be able to put the cushions back on the sofa for me…!” is pretty much what I look to do. I only have a 17 month old at the moment, so saying that isn’t exactly going to work. Although she does love helping to plump the cushions*

    *she basically likes divebombing into them and smacking them. But I’ll take it. #BlogCrush

  2. 3

    Makes so much sense when you put it that way! Because I have four kids there are more choices for me to highlight good behaviour but I would need to be aware of being fair too as I could easily lose track of who I had praised last or the most – they are much better at keeping score than I am. Maybe I should pick a day per child and find one of two things to highlight each day! #blogcrush

  3. 4
    Phil Edwards

    Another really helpful post thanks Lucy! I kinda try this with the twins, one responds really well to it but the other just seems to go the other way, so it’s something I’m having to be really concious of. They’re only 3 so I sharnt give up yet

  4. 5
    Donna Parker

    People always say, it’s not like children come with an instruction manual…they don’t, but thankfully there are wonderful bloggers/writers/other parents out there to help. Love this, Lucy. 🙂
    Dropped by today from #BlogCrush but always happy to be here. 🙂
    Hope this weekend treats you kindly. 🙂

  5. 6

    This is a great technique, thanks for highlighting it. I can remember trying it out myself when my three were younger but it is easy to fall into the trap of using the same child too often, especially when the other two where little nightmares in comparison. Even now, my one girl is always the one that’s better behaved. I do still prefer to highlight positives rather than negatives, it’s something you can do throughout life, not just with younger children.

  6. 14
    Rebecca Smith

    This has been really helpful thank you, I feel that I would b able to adopt some of these techniques with my son who has high functioning autism, so fingers crossed. I’ve also emailed this to a friend who’s currently training to be a teacher, I KNOW she’ll find this useful.

  7. 15
    Tracey Bowden

    I love this approach, it definitely works well in my experience. although it can be tricky at home as I only have myself and my daughter at home and now she is a tween she can see right through my attempts lol #blogcrush

  8. 16
    Daydreams of Mum

    I was reading an article the other day saying how we are over praising our children and they’ll struggle with ‘real life ‘ because of it. Never read such nonsense in my life I’ve always dealt in praise over punishment and my teens are perfectly rounded individuals ….well mostly !!!! #blogcrush

  9. 17
    Malin - Sensational Learning with Penguin

    We definitely use praise to reinforce positive behaviour, and I like the whole idea of that way of doing things, rather than highlighting negatives. However, I’ve recently learnt that for some kids, praise can feel like a preassure to perform, it can create an anxiety/fear of failure; What happens if I can’t perform this well next time?? This can lead those kids to avoid that positive behaviour which they got praised for. This is very interesting to me, as there are some things our Penguin’s done once, maybe twice, then never again. It might be the case that he avoids trying out of fear of failure, possibly…
    I guess as in everything else, there’s no ’one size fits all’. Though I don’t think anyone benefits from going the negative route of shouting and punishing for ’bad’ behaviours. xx

  10. 18

    Also… I might be quite alone in this, maybe, but if I was ’Isabelle’ in your example above, I would actually take it as personal critisism. I do realise that’s probably more of an ’issue’ with me than with the actual technique though. I’m a perfectionist and I’m not very good at dealing with critisism, even when it comes in a disguised form, like this. I’d immideately realise that what my teacher REALLY wanted to say is that I (and others who weren’t sitting properly) was behaving badly. I’d also resent poo old ’James’ for this. I can laugh at it now because I know it’s silly, but if I was in the actual situation, I’d feel mortified. Crazy, huh? xx

  11. 20
    Lucy Howard

    This is such a helpful post. I really need reminding that I should focus on the positive. I’ve recently been so grouchy with the kids. But I do need to praise them more. Thanks so much for encouraging me to do this. Hugs Lucy xxxx Thanks also for being the host of the fabulous #blogcrush linky

  12. 21
    lynne callaghan

    Thank you..great blog post! Its not until you read something like this that you realise the difference that can be made by talking to children differently #blogcrush

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