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When foster children come to a new home, do they feel good about themselves? Can they identify their talents and strengths? Do they think they are good learners? Are they calm and self-confident?

In most cases, the answer is probably “No." Many children going into a new foster home feel adrift and alone. They may feel responsible for the break-up of their families and overwhelmed by the task of trying to make it better. They may think they are “bad kids," deserving whatever bad treatment they get. Or, they may think they are stupid and unlovable. Emotional abuse is one of the most damaging types of abuse; its legacy is that you believe you are not worthy of being cared for or loved. How can Foster Parents begin to replace their foster child's negative self-image with something positive and meaningful?

One way is to consistently and sincerely praise children for the things they do well. Praise is nourishment for a child's mind and self-esteem. At Boys Town, we use a powerful tool called Effective Praise to help children develop or restore a positive self-image.

Praise Works!

Boys Town has found one thing to be true time and time again: Praise works wonders. When caregivers use praise consistently, children change dramatically. When caregivers “zero in" on as many positive things as possible, children begin to feel better about themselves, and their behavior improves.

Some people say that they praise their children but it just doesn't seem to work. Most of the time, though, the praise is given only for outstanding achievements or momentous occasions. They forget to look for and praise the little things kids do. After they learn the importance of praising small improvements, and actually do it, they begin to notice many positive changes in their children's behavior. This is not a coincidence: Praise works!

Some caregivers ask, “Why should I praise my children for something that they're supposed to do?" The following questions can provide an answer: “Do you like being recognized for the things you do well, regardless of whether you're supposed to do them? Do you like to hear your boss tell you what a good job you're doing?" Most adults say, “Of course," and then add, “and I wouldn't mind hearing it a little more often." Enough said. All people – kids and adults – like to hear praise for things they do well. And remember: foster children probably haven't heard much praise. Think of them as a plant deprived of water and sunlight. Effective Praise is the nourishment the child needs to bloom and grow into a healthy, productive individual.

When to Praise

When praising children, it helps to look closely at three areas:

  • Things your children already do well (and maybe you take for granted).
  • Improvements, even small improvements, in problem areas.
  • Positive attempts at new skills.​

This means praising children for following everyday instructions like coming home from school on time, cleaning their room, or turning off the lights. They are more likely to continue to follow instructions because you took the time to notice and praise.

If children try hard to learn something new, praise the effort. Remember that praise can help shape behavior in the right direction. Learning a skill requires learning small parts of it, then putting all of the steps together. When your own child was learning to walk, you probably praised each and every improvement – from the first time the child stood alone, to taking that first awkward step, to finally putting a series of steps together. If you praise positive attempts to learn or try a new skill and other improvements, a child's enthusiasm and effort can carry over to other areas. Seize every opportunity to recognize positive attempts to learn.

Steps of Effective Praise

The easiest way to praise someone is to say things like “Fantastic!", “Great!", or “Keep up the good work!" This is a good start, but you can take it a little further to make sure your children receive a clear message. That's why we make a distinction between praise in general and Effective Praise.

Effective Praise allows you to do the following:

  • Recognize your children sincerely and enthusiastically for the progress they are making.
  • Specifically describe what they did that you liked.
  • Give a reason why you liked it.

This is the basis for Effective Praise. Here are the steps:

  1. Show your approval. Smiling and giving a pat on the back are enthusiastic ways to show approval. A brief praise statement such as “Great job!" also is effective.
  2. Describe the positive behavior/Label the skill. Give clear, specific descriptions of the behavior(s) and skill your foster child did well.
  3. Give a reason. Tell the child how using the skill can help him or her, or how it can help others.
  4. (Optional) Give a reward. You can give a reward (or positive consequence), depending on the situation and the behavior or skill the child used.

Let's look at an example of Effective Praise:

Situation: Your teenager called to tell you where he is and that he will be late.

  1. Show your approval.“Thanks for calling me, Tony."
  2. Describe the positive behavior/Label the skill.“I'm really glad you're checking in and letting me know where you are and why you'll be a little late."
  3. Give a reason.“That shows responsibility and lets me know that I can trust you."
  4. (Optional) Give a reward.

“For checking in, you can stay out an extra 15 minutes the next time you go out." (You could save this step for when Tony gets home. That way, he gets praise two times.)

In this brief scenario, the child learned specifically what he did right (checking in) and why it was so important (it shows responsibility). By recognizing his appropriate behavior, you increased the likelihood that he will call you the next time he's in the same situation.

Children are like the rest of us. They not only like to hear nice things said about them, but they'll also work harder to get more praise. Many foster children may have been emotionally neglected or abused and they are really starved for someone to notice them and their abilities. When you combine a sign of your approval with specific praise, it's that much more meaningful.