Child and Youth
The tools of encouragement
The eminent psychiatrist Rudolf Dreikurs claimed: “The most important skill for raising a child in a democracy is the ability to encourage that child” (1971). Dreikurs considered encouragement to be the single most important quality in getting along with others — so important that the lack of it could be considered the basic influence for misbehavior. Dinkmeyer and Losoncy (1996) concurred that encouragement is the key ingredient in all positive professional and personal relationships.
If encouragement is indeed the most vital aspect of a child’s social development, very few educators, counselors, and parents fully realize this fact. Encouragement is desperately needed today. Children and teachers need encouragement like plants need water. Learning the tools of encouragement is fundamental to improving relationships and creating cooperation in the home and in schools.
What is encouragement?
Encouragement has been incorrectly described as “nonevaluative feedback in hopes of gaining compliance” (Kohn, 1996). On the contrary, encouragement is not praise, reward, or language used to gain compliance. Praise is judgmental, extrinsic, and controlling, perpetuating a discouraging superior-inferior relationship in which the child must consistently both please the authority and prove himself/herself. Praise always contains an element of judgment and evaluation. Whereas praise is given only when one achieves “good” results, encouragement can be given any time, even when things go poorly.
Encouragement is founded in Third Force Psychology and Adlerian principles, a hopeful, phenomenological, humanistic, perceptual, and purposive psychology (Evans, 1989; Evans, 1997; Meredith & Evans, 1990). Adlerian psychology has been demonstrating and using the principles and practices of encouragement for more than 55 years. According to Adlerian psychology, encouragement is the process of developing a child’s inner resources and providing courage to make positive choices.
Encouragement is an attitude
Schools and programs that embody an encouraging attitude follow six practices (Carlson, Sperry, & Dinkmeyer, 1992). Such programs:
The statements below contrast encouraging statements that imply faith and respect with discouraging statements that convey doubt and disrespect.
Encouragement through belonging
When conducting workshops, I ask school personnel: “What inhibits a sense of belonging in your school?” Not surprisingly, the answer typically consists of those things that discourage students: comparative grading, win-lose competition, focusing on mistakes, focusing on outcomes, unreasonably high expectations, overambition, labeling children, and the level system. Together, all of these common practices pit parents against parents, parents against students, students against students, and students against teachers. In short, they create a climate of discouragement.
Shared decision making, on the other hand, in which students are allowed make choices regarding their own education, can help foster a climate of encouragement. Students can participate in class planning, create rubrics, and work in teams. They can learn to evaluate this work through portfolios and self-evaluations and can be trained to conduct student-parent conferences instead of parent-teacher conferences. Discipline and planning take place during classroom meetings, which allow students to make decisions about the operation of the class, resolve conflict, and give encouragement. The more students are involved in the decision making of the school through activities such as these, the more they feel a sense of belonging and connection. The more connection they feel, the more courage they have to participate and contribute, which results in a more democratic and cooperative classroom.
Most adults are skilled at discouragement, having received more than their share. We have learned how to yell, threaten, nag, interrogate, criticize, reward, punish, and isolate when problems arise. As much as teachers and parents love children, we often end up treating them with little trust and respect.
Our very educational system is mistake-centered, stressing the negative value that hardly anyone is good enough as he or she is. Education promotes this value under the assumption that growth and improvement occur from pointing out mistakes and creating dissatisfaction with oneself. Teachers have been trained to spend much of their day, in various ways, pointing out the mistakes children have made. Many feel obligated to correct and prevent these mistakes, not realizing how fundamentally discouraging it can be. As a result, children learn that mistakes determine their value. They learn that by doing nothing, they can succeed in not making a mistake and avoid the evaluation, criticism, and ridicule that follows. Entire groups of students procrastinate and do nothing simply to avoid the humiliation that comes with making a mistake.
What can be done? Half the job of encouragement lies in avoiding discouragement. But before this can be accomplished, teachers and other adults must learn to distinguish encouragement from discouragement. Most commonly, teachers discourage students in five general ways (Dinkmeyer & Losoncy, 1996; Evans, 1989, 1996):
The following list of attitudes and behaviors compares the characteristics of encouragement to discouragement.
The Tools of Encouragement
Focusing on effort or improvement
For example, your five-year-old son is playing soccer in the neighborhood league. He is hesitant to get involved and unsure of what to do. Consequently, he stands back and watches the other children play. During the game, the ball rolls toward him. He kicks the ball, but in the direction of his own goal. What can you do? Some parents would correct his mistake and yell at him to kick the ball in the right direction. The encouraging parent would find something of value that focuses on his effort and say, “Did you see the way your foot contacted that ball,” or “Way to kick the ball!” or “By hanging in there long enough, you got to kick the ball.”
Focusing on strengths and assets
For example, 14-year-old Karen is stubborn and rebellious. She wants to do things her own way. When the teacher assigns her to write an advertisement on the value of drinking milk, she does the opposite. She interviews all the students who do not drink milk, and writes on how people dislike milk. Instead of engaging in a power struggle with Karen, the teacher could reframe her rebelliousness as a sign of self-determination and ability to think on her own. Instead of criticizing Karen, the teacher could recognized her desire to be an independent thinker. She writes on the top of her paper, “You display a desire to be an independent thinker and approached this assignment with initiative and creativity.” By using an encouraging attitude, the teacher can avoid a power struggle, which may allow Karen to reduce her rebelliousness in the future and improve the relationship between them.
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