Changing the Way We Praise Children

Two-year-old Ella naturally asks, “What’s that?” She stares at her mom and wonders aloud, “What are you doing?” and then questions, “Why?”

As Ella enters preschool, this natural tendency to learn new things will continue. Like others, she will love to explore and discover in a classroom rich with funnels in the sandbox, seedlings in the nature center and a block tower that she swears can reach the sky. These multi-sensory activities encourage her to follow her curiosity and learn willingly while she plays.

Yet in elementary school this inclination to learn can change. Nine-year-old Jack is smart. Things come easily to him. He finishes his work quickly and effortlessly. In all areas of his life, Jack always wants to be first. At 9, he doesn’t seem as interested in learning as he is in finishing his homework or finding out what his grade was on the test. At the same time, not being first can devastate him.

There are many students like Jack in every elementary school in every town. As educators we ask why? How did the inquisitive, natural learner in preschool become focused on grades and outcomes? Could it be that the way we praised Jack affected this? Research suggests it is.

It is likely that Jack was told he was smart. A caring parent, a compassionate friend, a dear uncle, a good teacher all praised Jack for being smart. That is the label by which he came to identify himself. Undertaking challenges that risked failure became “dangerous” to him. The child’s thinking could go something like this, “If I am supposed to be smart, then having to work hard or achieving a low grade means I’m not smart” and calls into question who that child thinks he is.

Researcher Carol Dweck and her colleagues at Columbia highlighted this issue of praise. They did a series of experiments with 400 fifth-graders. They administered fairly uncomplicated puzzles to individual children. Following that, children were randomly told, “You must be smart at this,” or praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.” In either case, the feedback was minimal. “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”

The students were given a choice for a second test an easy puzzle or a harder one from which they could learn something. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test.

Then the fifth-graders were given a third test, which was difficult, and everyone failed. But again, the two groups of children responded differently. Dweck explains, “Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn’t focused well enough on this one. They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzle. Not so for those praised for their smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence that they weren’t really smart at all. Just watching them, you could see the strain.” Praise affected attitude and stress levels.

What is a parent to do? We adore and cherish our children and can’t help recognizing their strengths and praising them accordingly – as well we should. To be effective, however, Dweck’s research suggests that praise needs to be specific. We need to praise something a child can control like effort. “I liked the way you chased down that ball” or “You studied really hard for that test,” no matter what the grade was. Keeping our focus on growth, learning, and developing allows us to phrase our praise effectively.

Once a parent or teacher starts to pay attention to this, comments like “You’re smart” will still roll off the tongue, but it will come with the recognition that there might have been another (and perhaps more productive) way to phrase that.

Jack’s teachers and parents can help him develop a “growth mindset” as Dweck termed it, by keeping the focus on effort. Jack can once again be thrilled by learning – a value and a skill that will serve him well into college and for many years beyond. It looks like the 2-year-olds have the right mindset from the start. It’s our job to help them keep it.

Linda Krulock graduated from West Liberty State College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in elementary education and early childhood. She teaches senior kindergarten at Wheeling Country Day School. Elizabeth Hofreuter-Landini is head of school at Wheeling Country Day. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard University Graduate School of Education.