The other day I finished reading my six-year-old son a chapter of his favorite book, and he responded with, “Good job, Mommy!” It was cute… and slightly off-putting. A few years ago I resolved to stop “good jobbing” my kids so much, but I had apparently fallen back into the habit—and now they were “good jobbing” me.

While there’s nothing wrong with a genuine, “Good job!” here and there, the tendency to dump empty praise on our kids all day long can be problematic. The reason, in short, is that kids know when they’ve done something well. When we insert a generic value judgment every time they zip their jackets, pick up the classroom, or complete a worksheet, we may hijack their sense of accomplishment. They begin to look to us for validation, and their successes become more about us than about them. Furthermore, the praise can start to feel patronizing or manipulative. How would you feel if someone gave you a saccharine, “Good job, honey!” every time you cleaned the kitchen?

Plenty of studies, such as the one featured in this article and the ones described here, explore the problem with overabundant, useless praise. But, admittedly, when kids are looking for feedback, it feels strange to say nothing. And in many situations, it’s meaningful to help them celebrate their accomplishments. So what can you say instead?

In a frequently cited article on this topic, education researcher Alfie Kohn suggests the following:how to praise students

“Say what you saw. A simple, evaluation-free statement (‘You put your shoes on by yourself’ or even just ‘You did it’) tells your child that you noticed. It also lets her take pride in what she did. In other cases, a more elaborate description may make sense. If your child draws a picture, you might provide feedback – not judgment – about what you noticed: ‘This mountain is huge!’ ‘Boy, you sure used a lot of purple today!’

If a child does something caring or generous, you might gently draw his attention to the effect of his action on the other person: ‘Look at Abigail’s face! She seems pretty happy now that you gave her some of your snack.’ This is completely different from praise, where the emphasis is on how you feel about her sharing.”

Additionally, in this article in Psychology Today, Jim Taylor, Ph.D. advises, “Direct your praise to areas over which your children have control—effort, attitude, responsibility, commitment, discipline, focus, decision making, compassion, generosity, respect, love, the list goes on.”

Taylor and Kohn both explain how asking your students questions, such as, “How did you figure that out?” is also beneficial.

At Read Naturally, we have a special interest in this topic. We know that, in order for students to achieve reading fluency, they need to stay motivated. But instead of “motivating” students with meaningless rewards and empty praise, our programs motivate students with specific feedback about their performance. The simple act of tracking their progress makes them want to work harder and beat their scores. Tangible charts and graphs prove how their hard work pays off, and confidence builds. These graphs are more helpful than “Good job!” because they come from the students themselves—not from the teacher.

It’s wonderful to celebrate your students’ accomplishments with them, and there’s probably no harm in slapping a “Good job!” sticker on their work from time to time. But be sure to offer specific feedback as well. If you’re using Read Naturally, remember that taking the time to look with the student at his or her progress-monitoring graph will go much farther than any “Good job!” ever will.