This blog post was contributed by Olga Wysłowska (University of Warsaw).
In a group of two-year-olds, children paint with small sponges. A teacher sitting at one of the tables with three children encourages them (or that is what she intends to do) saying: Great! Bravo! Beautiful! Meanwhile I am wondering: What’s great? Who and what’s to be applauded for? And what is beautiful?
I am observing a group of toddlers and evaluating their experiences using The Classroom Assessment Scoring System: Toddler (CLASS-Toddler), a well known instrument to assess process quality of provision for 18 up to 36 months old children . One of the dimensions of children’s experiences which the measure takes into consideration is the quality of feedback which they receive. Although most of the feedback to children within the study I take part in is positive and enthusiastic, it is not considered of high quality according to CLASS.
In order to explain to practitioners why their positive feedback is rather negatively assessed we had to revise together what feedback is and what is its role in supporting children development.
What is feedback?
Feedback is a verbal or non-verbal signal that refers to the child’s actions or events in his/her environment. Feedback can effectively enhance children’s involvement in an activity and support their learning. For this to happen, however, feedback has to be more than a general expression of admiration. It has to be concrete, individualized, and related to the course of action. Let me illustrate this for the three main goals of feedback.
Feedback to promote children’s autonomy
Providing children with high quality feedback teachers may effectively support their autonomy by:
Ania has a problem with opening the plastic box with blocks. The teacher comes up to her and says: “It seems difficult to open, try to lift the handle up”, while pointing to one of the plastic parts blocking the lid of the plastic container.
Offering physical assistance
When the girl opens part of the lid, the teacher gives her time to come up with an idea of how to open the remaining blockades. If the child requests for additional support, the teacher may provide her with physical assistance: I will now grab your hand to help you open the lid.
Emphasizing connections between actions and their effects
While Ania is trying to open the box, the teacher draws her attention to the connection between her actions and their effect: Hmmm… So first you opened the plastic blockade by lifting it up, and then we lifted another one together… I can see that you don’t need my help anymore. The girl opened the remaining elements blocking the lid while the teacher was describing the process.
Feedback to support creativity and cognitive development
Besides supporting autonomy, a high quality feedback may be a potent tool of providing children with new knowledge; for instance by including into feedback explanation of new words, concepts or phenomena in relation to children’s current experiences, e.g. I see that you have combined different colours of paint in a picture and this has resulted in a new colour, do you know what colour it is? The child who hears such a question from the teacher is assured about his/her genuine interest and encouraged to experiment.
Feedback to enhance motivation
Feedback can also effectively motivate children and enhance their perseverance in pursuing goals. By showing appreciation for the children’s efforts put into the task, teachers may encourage them to continue with the activity even when the child struggles with its accomplishment, e.g. you have put so much work to make these puzzles, I believe you will be able to complete them! It is important that feedback is personalized. Teachers should keep that in mind especially during activities organized in large groups. General terms, such as Beautiful! or Superb! contribute to strengthening the child’s motivation to a limited degree and with time these kinds of comments may become nothing more than a signal of the end of a given activity. Moreover, research by Brummelman and colleagues showed that children who received unrealistically positive feedback may opt for easier activities rather than more difficult ones. In other words inflated compliments may enhance children to get engaged in less challenging tasks .
Share your experiences with us:
What kind of feedback do you provide to children in order to motivate them? Do you share the same strategies regarding feedback with your colleagues?
References: La Paro, K. Hamre, B., & Pianta, R. (2012). Classroom assessment scoring system (CLASS) manual, toddler. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.  Brummelman, E., Crocker, J., & Bushman, B.J. (2016). When and Why Praise Backfires in Children With Low Self-Esteem. Child Development Perspectives, Volume 10, Issue 2, 111-115, June 2016.  Meyer M, Hassan Vijayakumar S, Bekkering H, Janssen DJC, de Bruijn ERA and Hunnius S (2015) Oops – That was a mistake! How toddler brains react to feedback. Front. Young Minds 3:13.