The secrets to successful praise
Praise is powerful. It has the ability to motivate, guide and support kids’ learning and boost their self-confidence.
We all want our kids to succeed. Naturally, we therefore praise our children to encourage and motivate them. And we sometimes do this regardless of whether or not they have truly applied their best efforts to the task.
However, research tells us that, though well-intentioned, praise for ability as opposed to praise for effort has the capacity to derail your son’s learning.
According to leading researcher Carol Dweck, children generally fall into two categories when considering perceived intelligence – those with a fixed mindset and those with a growth mindset.
Children with a fixed mindset believe that they have a certain amount of intelligence from birth. According to Dweck, they believe that if they have to make an effort to learn, it is because they aren’t smart enough and therefore often become discouraged or simply give up if faced with setbacks.
Children with a fixed mindset tend to:
- care a lot about whether people think they are smart or not smart
- avoid learning challenges where they might make mistakes
- try to hide mistakes rather than trying to correct them
- believe that if they have the ability, they shouldn’t have to try hard
- struggle with frustration and setbacks, sometimes giving up or cheating.
In contrast, children with a growth mindset believe that their intelligence can be developed with effort and hard work, not worrying about how smart they will appear.
According to Dweck, these children tend to:
- care about and invest themselves in learning
- believe that effort is a positive thing they can use to gain knowledge
- try hard in the face of frustration and failure
- embrace setbacks and challenges and seek advice and feedback
- look for new learning strategies.
A 2015 study published in the European Journal of Psychology of Education indicated that the belief that intelligence was malleable (growth mindset) boosted kids’ self-esteem and improved their academic self-concept.
Compare this with students whose fixed mindset was found (by Dweck) to be associated with increased self-handicapping, truancy and a greater likelihood of giving up on school altogether.
Praising effort over ability
How then do we use praise to encourage a ‘growth mindset’?
We can break praise into two categories:
- praise for intellect/ability “you are smart at this”
- praise for effort “you have worked really hard”.
Avoid praising your son for his natural intellect or abilities. According to a 2002 study published in the Psychological Bulletin, this type of praise often gives children a short burst of pride, but has long-term consequences of vulnerability when faced with setbacks or failure experiences. Ability or intellect-focused praise leads your son to the fixed mindset, which makes him more fearful of mistakes, less willing to challenge himself and even more prone to cheat.
Focus instead on praise for effort and determination, which will help teach your son the value of hard work, make him more resilient and better equipped to overcome future obstacles. Praise of this type, should focus on process – i.e. engagement, perseverance and new strategies that will cultivate a willingness to take on greater challenges, improve self-confidence and, in turn, lead to a higher level of success.
A 2002 study on the effects of praise suggests that to be effective, praise must also be sincere. Children are very perceptive. A child who has acquired only very basic skills is unlikely to believe praise for high ability until greater success has been achieved. Similarly, praise for hard work will be discounted when the child has not worked particularly hard.
We need to steer away from simply offering our sons praise for just trying. Children need to be encouraged to use a range of approaches, to try new strategies and seek help from others when they are stuck.
One of the most significant things for parents to remember is that learning is hard. According to 2007 study The Power of Feedback, children need to understand that a good process is what will lead to good learning. The study also argues that feedback, where it is clear, purposeful, meaningful and compatible with a child’s prior knowledge, is perhaps the most powerful influence on the learning process.
Remember, the growth mindset is a journey. The end goal is to improve and learn through hard work and persistence.
Tips for parents
- Praise your son for his strategies (e.g. “you found a really good way to do that”).
- Praise your son for his persistence or effort (e.g. “I can see you’ve been practising” or “your hard work has really paid off”).
- Praise your son for taking on a challenge outside his current abilities – help him to understand that the challenge led him to making mistakes that he can learn from, and praise the strategies he used to respond successfully to those mistakes.
- Use your own experiences and stories to empower your son.
- Encourage collaboration, strategic thinking and problem-solving.
- Replace the word ‘failing’ with ‘learning’.
- Value the process over the end result, and emphasise growth over speed.
- Use the word ‘yet’ – when you see your son struggling, just tell him he hasn’t mastered it ‘yet’.
Ultimately, when children feel more successful, they tend to be more successful. As Carol Dweck puts it: if parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.
Kate Casey is a former lawyer and is now Associate at the Crowther Centre at Brighton Grammar, an all-boys school in Melbourne. This article is about Education
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