CYC-Online 65 JUNE 2004
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The tools of encouragement

Timothy Evans

The students who need encouragement the most are often the least likely to receive it. This article presents the attitudes, language, and strategies necessary for effective encouragement, a key to success for motivating low-achieving or discouraged students.

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 relation-ships and creating cooperation in the home and in schools.

What is encouragement?
Encouragement is positive feedback that focuses primarily on effort or improvement rather than outcomes. Encouragement is recognizing, accepting, and conveying faith in a child for the mere fact that he or she exists. The child does not have to be “the best" to be a full-fledged human being. With encouragement, a child feels worthwhile and appreciated regardless of the results he or she achieves. Encouragement separates the deeds from the techniques to make students behave. Rather, encouragement doer so there is no such thing as “good" or “bad" children. Encouragement assumes that children are intrinsically motivated and will cooperate and learn for the satisfaction that comes from it.

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 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 “good" results, encouragement can be given any time, even when things go poorly.

Encouragement is an attitude
Encouragement is not a step-by-step method or set of specific techniques to make students behave. Rather, encouragement stresses a fundamental attitude or “spirit". Technique alone cannot create a democratic and cooperative atmosphere. The attitude of encourage rejects the unduly pessimistic view of children and their motives (e.g., “students will likely revert to less cooperative ways without powerful reinforcement or recognition" [Albert, 1992]). Following this line, to be encouraging, adults must believe that children have a positive desire to solve problems and make changes. When this attitude is lacking, encouragement is nothing more than another technique to coerce children.

Schools and programs that embody an encouraging attitude follow six practices (Carlson, Sperry, & Dinkmeyer, 1992). Such programs:

  1. Make relationships a priority;

  2. Conduct respectful dialogue;

  3. Practice encouragement daily;

  4. Make decisions through shared involvement (classroom meetings);

  5. Resolve conflicts

  6. Have fun on a regular basis.

The statements below contrast encouraging statements that imply faith and respect with discouraging statements that convey doubt and disrespect.

(Evans, 1995, Dreikurs, Gmnwald, & Pepper, 1982)


"I think you can do it."
"You have what it takes."
"You're a hard worker."
"What do you think?
"I could use your help."
"It looks like a problem occurred.
"What can we do to solve the problem?"

"You put a lot of effort into your work."
"You're a fine person."
"I know you did your best."

"Here, let me do that for you."
"Be careful; it's dangerous."
"Don't forget your assignment."
"Let me give you some advice."
"When you're older, you can help."
"I told you to be careful."

"I'm proud of you when you do well."
"You did better than anyone else in the class."
"Next time, if you work harder, I know you can get
an A instead of a B+."

Encouragement through Belonging
Encouragement is a key concept in promoting and activating “social interest" and “psychological hardiness" in individuals (Griffith & Powers, 1984). Alfred Adler (1931) described social interest as a tendency for people to unite themselves with other human beings, to accomplish their tasks in cooperation with others. A person with fully developed social interest knows he or she belongs and is a worthwhile member of the human community. Such individuals strive to contribute and cooperate with others (Dreikurs-Ferguson, 1989). The more encouraged they are, the more belonging they experience, and the more intrinsic tolerance they have to struggle with life's challenges. In short, those with social interest take life in stride without becoming antagonistic. Schools based on encouragement attempt to develop social interest by enhancing a student's sense of belonging and connection.

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, over ambition, 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 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. Discipline and planning take place during classroom meetings, which allow students to make the decisions about the operation of the class, resolve conflict, and give encouragement. The more students are involved in the decisions 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.

Psychological hardiness
Along with social interest, encouragement develops psychological hardiness in the individual. Psychological hardiness is recognized as a personality characteristic that effectively buffers stress, allowing the individual to function adequately and cope with life’s challenges in a way that creates meaning and purpose in life (Kobasa, 1979). These individuals have a positive and realistic view of self, positive and realistic view of others, and an openness to experience (Combs, 1992; Evans, 1995; Evans, 1997).

  1. Positive and realistic view of self
    People who feel encouraged like themselves. They see themselves as adequate and are kind to themselves even when they have poor results. These individuals believe whatever they contribute is useful and this alone gives meaning to their lives.

  2. Positive and realistic views of others
    By accepting ourselves, we are able to accept others. Encouraged people have a high degree of empathy for others. They are comfortable with human nature and can allow others to be themselves without controlling them.

  3. An openness to experience.
    Encouraged people do not fear mistakes, are open to their experiences, and are free of success and failure. They realize all learning involves mistakes and they view mistakes as opportunities for development. To encourage this openness to experience, John Leanes, the principal at Carwise Middle School, Has done away with the fear of failure in his school. He encourages mistakes by telling his students they “fail forward" towards learning.

No corrective effort of a child's misbehavior is possible with encouragement. The worse the behavior, the more encouragement a child needs. Yet, children who misbehave are most likely to receive the least amount of encouragement. Discouraged children need a chance to feel appreciated and respected. Yet, instead of building them up, we tear them down; instead of recognizing their efforts and improvement, we point out their mistakes. Instead of allowing then to feel like they belong through shared decision making, involvement, and meaningful contributions, we isolate them further through various means of control and punishment.

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 a child: 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 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 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):

  1. Over ambition/setting high expectations or standards;

  2. Focusing on mistakes to motivate;

  3. Comparing one student to other students;

  4. Making pessimistic interpretations;

  5. Dominating by being too helpful.

The following list of attitudes and behaviors compares the characteristics of encouragement to discouragement.


Hopeful view of people's nature

Individual's behavior is purposeful

Satisfaction comes from work, learning and belonging – intrinsic motivations

Influence without strings

Equality as human beings

Chatting – talking with

Effective listening

Recognition, acceptance and appreciation

Being ourselves, fine as we are

Challenge, stimulate

Invite, offer choices

Cooperative atmosphere – helping and being useful

Value and use emotions

Uniqueness and creativity

Courage to be imperfect

Freedom with order

Recognizes effort and improvement

Natural consequences

Hopeless view of people's nature

Individuals behavior is caused by outside forces and victimization that may have occurred in the past

Satisfaction comes from rewards and acquisition – extrinsic motivation

Control, force and fear

Superior – inferior relationships, sitting in judgment

Advising – telling to

Ineffective listening

Moralistic praise and approval, bribing

Pleasing and proving

Pressure, threaten, coerce

Command, boss

Competitive atmosphere – winning or loosing, success or failure

Fear and control emotions

Obedience and conformity

Recognizes only tasks well done

Fear of mistakes

Order without freedom

Rewards and punishment

The Tools of Encouragement
Listed below are two basic tools of encouragement that adults can use to create relationships with young people based on mutual respect and dignity, enhance a child's sense of belonging, and develop his or her social interest and psychological hardiness (Dinkmeyer & Losoncy, 1995).

1. Focusing on effort or improvement. Encouragers learn to focus on effort and improvement rather than perfect results. Focusing on these elements strengthens a child's courage to move forward. Instead of being burdened by limitations, the focus is on individual progress. Any movement is recognized as progress toward reaching a goal.

For example, your five-year-old son is playing soccer in the neighborhood league. He is hesitant to get involved and un-sure 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."

2. Focusing on strengths and assets. When students do poorly, schools typically focus on identifying their weak-nesses, limitations, deficits, or disorders. The encouraging teacher, on the other hand, knows how to turn so-called liabilities into assets. An essential encouragement skill is recognizing and expanding an individual's strengths, and assets.

For example, 14-year-old Karen is stubborn and rebellious. She wants to do things her own way. When the teacher as-signs 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.

Today, in an era when so many teachers, parents, and students feel discouraged and without hope, encouragement is desperately needed. While encouragement is not a new psychological idea, relatively few educators fully utilize this valuable concept. Based on mutual respect and dignity and on focusing on a person's strengths rather than weaknesses, the tools of encouragement are essential for creating a stimulating learning environment. As more and more educators are discovering, encouragement is a key element in restructuring and improving our schools.


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This feature: Evans, T. (1997) The tools of encouragement. Reaching Today’s Youth. Vol. 1 no. 2 pp. 10-14

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