Thursday, December 22, 2011

Why "good job" isn't necessarily good enough...

 “Good job!”  Have you ever had anyone say that to you?  (We hope so!)  As mentioned in our last entry, recognition that our efforts and talents are appreciated is something that we all value.  We also mentioned that recognition is a powerful predictor of bonding—which is important for young people who are developing their ideas about how they should behave.  What we would like to explore in this week’s post are the types of recognition that are the most effective at creating this bonding and attachment.

We will start with the concept of “feedback.”  When we use the term, we mean information about  performance.  Feedback can be information and details about what you need to change or stop, or it can be about what you need to keep doing the same way.  Turns out, we tend to be much better in our society at giving feedback about what needs to be changed.

Think back on the last time someone helped you learn how to do something…did they give you specific advice on what you should do differently?  Golfers are told, “Don’t swing so hard.” Baseball players are told, “Don’t take your eyes off of the ball!”  Novice knitters are told, “Keep an even tension with the yarn.” We find that, with a few exceptions, most detailed feedback is about what someone wasn’t doing, or what they were doing wrong, sprinkled liberally with a few, “good job!” comments.

Imagine the following scenario:  You are trying to learn how to execute a round kick as a novice in a martial arts class. (If this seems outrageous to you, just go with it for a moment!)  You step up to the practice bag and give the thing your best kick.  The instructor smiles and says, “Good job!”  This may please you.  However, you may have little idea of what, exactly, was “good” about the kick!  Now imagine if the instructor had said, “You had great momentum and good foot position with your heel pointed at the target when you kicked!  Way to go.”  In this instance, you would have known that your heel position was correct and would be more likely to use that position again.  This feedback about what you did properly is important, especially when there are many sub-skills to be learned.

There is another important factor to consider regarding this level of detail…the fact that the instructor could provide you with specific examples of what you did properly means that the instructor was paying attention…to YOU.  An instructor can say, “Good job” even if they were distracted or watching the student next to you.

If students feel that positive feedback is generalized or—even worse—not accurate, they may become skeptical and alienated…and actually less likely to become bonded to those delivering what they feel is false or empty praise.  They may discount future statements meant to be positive and hear only the criticisms.

(Note: we are not in any way suggesting that constructive criticism is not valuable.  What we hope you will take away from reading this is that specific, detailed feedback on what people have done right, is just as valuable—perhaps even more so when we are talking about promoting healthy youth development!)

We find that for most adults, providing this type of feedback to youth is not as easy as you might think.  It is a simple concept, but a surprising number of people struggle to actually do it.  It is also a challenge to make sure that other forms of recognition (beyond basic feedback) are meaningful and valued by the recipients.

Consider a typical scenario in many schools...a school staff member decides to recognize a quiet, but talented young woman with a student of the quarter award.  At many schools, getting this award involves standing in front of the entire student body at an assembly.  For some shy teens, this may be far from a "reward!"  Being really good at providing meaningful recognition is rooted in relationship.  (There is that word again!)  If we take the time to know the people we work with, we may learn what they find to be motivating and meaningful.  Tailoring the way we honor the achievements and efforts of our young citizens is the best way to truly let them know that we notice and appreciate what they offer to our community. 

We encourage you to try providing detailed, skill-specific, positive feedback whenever you are helping someone learn something new.  Especially if that person is one of our younger citizens!  As when learning any new behavior, you will likely first become aware that you didn’t do it as much as you wanted to. It may even feel awkward at first.  But if you keep at it, it will become automatic!

We also encourage you to think about how you reward youth beyond this feedback, and if the reward is truly a good fit for them.  If you try either strategy, let us know how it went.  We can all learn from one another as we strive to make this the best community we can.

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