Put meat in the compliment sandwich

The compliment sandwich has been endemic to teacher and coach training programs for about the last forty years. In recent years it has been integral to parent education. It works this way. When working with a learner (student or child), say something positive, then give a correction or suggestion, followed by something else positive.

The theory is that one wants to be overall encouraging and supportive. The correction alone might be perceived as negative or punitive. However, in practice, the complement sandwich too often fails to live up to its promise. Too much Wonder bread and not enough meat.


The complement sandwich arose as an alternative to the adult tendency to point out children’s faults. Make that a human tendency. The human brain defaults to negativity. The easiest explanation is that the brain is lazy. Well…not exactly lazy; it simply saves energy whenever it can. And it is easier for the brain to recognize errors than it is to analyze such errors with an eye toward suggesting a preferable alternative.


Back to the lazy brain, to save effort the compliment sandwich is reduced in practice to Good, Bad, Good; in other words, generalizations. It becomes junk food for the learner’s brain; it tastes good with no nutritional value.


To increase the ‘nutritional’ value, replace generalizations with specifics; give it some meat. Instead of Good, describe a specific positive component. Replace Bad with a specific recommendation. The second Good might be replaced with specific encouragement.


For example, “That’s good. I like the way you _____.” Mention at least one specific thing that made it good.


For the correction, do not just report to the learner that what they did was Bad. (They probably already know that.)  Rather, “You are Falling Short of Success because _____.” Be specific in pointing out a deficiency related to what they are trying to accomplish. Follow that with, “You might get Closer to Success if you _____.” Then be specific in what they need to change.


Complete the sequence with encouragement and support, “I am certain if you do (the secret to improved performance you just gave the learner), you will get better at (whatever it is they are trying to accomplish). You have the ability, it just may require a bit more practice.”


It is tempting to blame the learner for lack of effort or diligence. If you want to see more effort, provide specific, concrete cues that allow the learner to experience immediate improvement. That improvement becomes self-reinforcing. 


It is also tempting to resort to trite adages, “Practice makes perfect.” Actually, it doesn’t. Only perfect practice makes perfect. Encouraging the learner to persist at practice, when what they are doing is incorrect, does little more than make them really good at doing it wrong. To get closer to perfection, good teachers break a skill into its component parts, and introduce each component as the learner is ready.


The best teachers put a lot of meat in their compliment sandwiches. They understand how new skills develop, and they share that knowledge with the learner in a way that produces improvement most relevant to the learner.


The concept works for learners of all ages. If you are looking for specifics to guide positive changes in your life, ask Dr. Kweethai.


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