Praise: Catching Teens Doing Something Right

Youth Specialties
February 9th, 2015

Original photo by Joao Zanetti.

Working with loud, restless, adventurous youth is difficult—but I definitely prefer it to the alternative of working with silent, passive, unadventurous kids. I would rather try to calm a fanatic than raise a corpse any day!

It has been my experience that the teens who are creative enough to get into trouble are probably sharp enough to do something really significant with their lives.

These teens are often the ones most in need of discipline seasoned with praise.

A good way to motivate teens who have behavior problems is to give them recognition when they start doing well. Teens need to know that you appreciate their efforts. Simple matter-of-fact positive feedback will not embarrass most teens. It tells them you recognize their mature and responsible attitudes and actions.

The need for recognition is basic to every human being. It’s one of the driving forces that keeps us going and trying to do better. We especially want praise from people who are important to us.

Telling teens what they’ve done right is more important than telling them what they’ve done wrong.

Our society praises the four A’s: Appearance, Academics, Athletics, and the Arts. 

I have no problem with praising teens for their efforts in these four areas. But I feel it is far more important to give teens positive feedback for character traits that will last a lifetime (courtesy, creativity, flexibility, generosity, honesty, kindness, patience, sincerity, just to name a few).

There is no more meaningful motivator than praise. Former UCLA coach John Wooden, when asked how he motived his basketball players, said:

“I try to catch them doing something right.”

That’s good advice, even though this isn’t always easy in youth ministry.

It’s more important to recognize progress and not simply focus on the finished product. When you see your students making progress, tell them (and remind yourself) that God is at work in their lives, and you like what you see happening.

It’s important that your praise be specific.

Use brief, descriptive statements that tell teens the particular things you are affirming. Don’t just offer vague feedback telling them they did a nice job. In order for teens to repeat their good behavior, they need to know specifically what they have done right.

Though verbal praise is an effective reward, teens in general do not like to be singled out in front of their peers. They get embarrassed.  They do not want appear as the “teacher’s pet.” You may want to praise a student privately.

On the flip side, beware of undeserved praise. Lavish compliments that are unmerited not only diminish praise’s value as a reward and motivator, but they’re also discouraging.  If you praise everything a teen does, regardless of whether it represents real achievement, effort, or progress, you make her expect praise even when she does not deserve it.

Remember that effective praise must be sincere; teens can spot phony praise or fake flattery in an instant. Praise is like icing on a cake—too little and the cake is unappealing, but too much and the cake can be sickening.

Les Christie is the chair of the youth ministry department at William Jessup University. He is the author of 20 books and is an international speaker. He was the youth minister of one church for 22 years.



Get to know Les Christie as he shares more at YS Team Training Bay Area, Dallas, and Kansas City!

Youth Specialties

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