Giving your child feedback
by Neil Amas, Panyaden International School Director
Giving your child feedback can be a precarious act! When we see room for improvement we want our child to know it but without demotivating him or her, causing tears or, in some cases, flat out denial! So what is the best way to give feedback? Here are some tips for parents that came out of our recent teacher training workshop.
The first point to note is how hard it is for us as adults! Most of us find criticism difficult, even when we know it to be true or well-intentioned. The old adage, ‘If it’s true, why get upset? If it’s false, why get upset?’ is good to remember, but not always easy to practice. If our normal reaction is to storm out of the room in a blaze of indignation, we should not be surprised when our little one does the same!
Without honest feedback, kids can’t possibly figure out what to do differently next time. So how can we make sure our comments are helpful? That they motivate instead of deflate?
The Buddha gave advice on this 2,500 years ago which remains true today. He gave us 5 things to remember when criticising another:
- It must be true and based on facts.
- It should be said gently, with kindness.
- It should be said at the right time and in the right place.
- It should benefit the other person/people or situation.
- It should be based on goodwill and conducive to harmony.
So, telling your child how he went wrong on a maths problem just before he goes to bed, is definitely not the right time or place! Similarly, pointing out a tiny grammatical mistake in an essay designed to practise storytelling skills might be based on the facts, but it is not necessary if it deflects attention away from an otherwise competent piece of writing and especially if it deflates the morale of a child who is justifiably proud of his work.
At the school’s recent workshop on student assessment, teachers discussed how to give feedback in the classroom. The following suggestions are also based on the work of author and motivation expert Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson. They complement the Buddhist approach, but are more specifically centred on the child. These apply equally to the home environment, whether helping your child with homework or commenting on any other task.
Firstly, be truthful. It’s not easy to tell a child that they made a mistake because we know, in some instances, this can cause anxiety. But at the same time we shouldn’t make the mistake of protecting a child’s feelings at the expense of telling them what they truly need to hear. Children also need to take responsibility for what they did wrong. Letting them off the hook just because we don’t want to be too hard on them, or saying ‘you tried your best’ when clearly they didn’t, gives them no motivation to improve. It is how you deliver the message that matters.
Secondly, be specific. Instead of giving general feedback, focus on high impact areas. If you give lots of comments, your child won’t know which one to focus on because she may not yet have the experience to prioritise. If the goal of the assignment is to make a good argument, don’t focus on minor spelling mistakes. Ask yourself, what are the most important skills to build? What worked well, what needed improvement?
Third, make sure your feedback is actionable. Give a concrete suggestion on what could be done differently next time, rather than what was ‘wrong’ this time. Emphasize actions that your child has the power to change. Talk about aspects of performance that are under their control, like time and effort, or the study method which was used. It is important your child feels the goal is within reach.
Fourth, make it timely. Make sure your feedback is immediate and tied to the event. Waiting until the next task will make it more difficult for your child to embed the learning in her memory.
Lastly, focus on the task, not the child or his ability. Instead of saying ‘you did not clearly explain x and y’, say ‘I did not clearly understand x and y’. This helps put focus on the task, instead of judging the child. Make sure you show appreciation for aspects of your child’s performance that are under their control, such as careful planning, persistence, positive attitude or creativity. Praising actions, not some notion of fixed ability, means that when your child runs into trouble later on, she’ll remember what helped her succeed in the past and put that to good use. A child who recalls that something tangible like ‘careful planning’ helped him complete a project last time is more likely to feel motivated than being told he is ‘good at writing’.
And finally, don’t forget the Buddha’s second tip: stay calm! When we give feedback gently, our child is reassured we are doing it from a place of kindness rather than from agitation and frustration!
Download the Thai version here.