Positive Descriptive Feedback for the Win!

child and dad playing with blocks

As a parent and a teacher, I frequently ask myself, “How can I get my children to repeat the good things I have taught them to do? I know they can do it!” We see this all the time. We teach them what to do and when to do it. But when it comes down to the moment of truth, they don’t perform. It can be so frustrating for parents and teachers.

So, what can you do about it? First I will describe a few simple steps that will help children be motivated and successful when you expect them to perform a skill or expected behavior. Then, I’ll provide some concrete examples for how parents and teachers can apply this strategy in specific situations.

Step 1: Teach the Skill

Be sure children know what you want them to do and how to do it. No one expects you to change a tire or the oil in your car without any instruction. As adults, we can watch a video, read about it, or ask someone else to demonstrate. Children don’t always have that luxury. We must remember to show children what we want them to do. But that is not enough.

Step 2: Practice the Skill

The first time you change that tire, you may forget a step or two. You may have to review the steps to be successful. Because children are probably less motivated to comply than you are to get that tire changed, children need much more practice to perform the skill.

Step 3: Provide Positive Descriptive Feedback

Children need to receive feedback on their skills to know they are doing them correctly. This feedback must be positive so they feel rewarded for their behavior. It must be descriptive so they know exactly what is going well. You would never hire a private tutor or trainer who does not provide descriptive feedback about your performance. You want someone to tell you exactly what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. This applies to any industry (e.g., musicians, athletes, life coaches) that offers individualized instruction to enhance your performance.

But what does positive descriptive feedback look like for young children? Positive descriptive feedback is broken down into two main parts. Positive simply means something good the child is doing or how their behavior is positively impacting the world around them. Descriptive feedback refers to stating the exact behaviors a child is doing that you want to see repeated. Here are some examples.

School SettingsHome Settings
“You are keeping your hands by your sides and your mouth is quiet! That is super helpful in the hallway.”

“You raised your hand to ask a question! Way to follow our circle time rules!”

“Your walking feet are keeping our classroom safe!”
“I love it when you listen the first time! It’s so helpful!”

“You cleaned up your room and put away all your clothes. Nice job!”

“You remembered to put your dishes in the sink and clean up your place all by yourself without asking! That’s awesome!”

Using positive descriptive feedback with young children provides them with verbal recognition for their behavior, tells them exactly what they are doing that is getting your positive attention, and increases the likelihood they will repeat that behavior in the future. A side bonus is that other children will hear your positive descriptive feedback and will want some too.

Trudy Little Trudy Little

Trudy Little came to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend the doctoral program at Vanderbilt University in special education in fall 2018. Before attending Vanderbilt, Trudy was a preschool special education consultant in Abilene, Texas, where she provided professional development and coaching for teachers of young children.
(Biography current as of 2021)

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Child Care Center
  • Family Child Care
  • Home
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Parents / Family
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
  • Preschoolers (Age 3 Through Age 5)

Reviewed: 2021