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First-grade tests could spell trouble

October 22, 2012 - Betsy Bethel
This post is more about proper encouragement than spelling tests. But my daughter's tests have shown me how messed up my thinking and reactions can be, despite my best intentions.

Let me back up. When we were in school, my husband Dave and I both did well in school and were considered "good students." Both of us will admit, however, we didn't put in a whole lot of effort but received a great deal of reward. To put it another way, we were good test takers and so we got good grades, for the most part.

Speaking just for myself now, I often was pleasantly surprised at the grades I received on tests in both high school and college because I hadn't studied all that much — and in some cases, at all. I used to think I was just lucky. Or even that I was "blessed" as being "smart."

But being smart and being wise are quite different. A wise person knows that a reward has more value when you earn it. And getting "something for nothing" was a mixed blessing, at best. I mean, what did I actually learn in those classes where I didn't study but got good grades? Not much. Did those good grades automatically lead me down a path of success? Hardly.

Fast forward to today. Now that she's in first grade, Emma has spelling tests every Friday. Emma is, in our limited knowledge of first-graders, a fairly average reader, speller and writer. We are happy with her progress. I go over her spelling words with her orally at home three or four times a week. I know we should do it every day, and she should be writing them each time, but with everything else that goes on in the evenings and mornings at our house, it just doesn't happen.

Dave and I also know from reading Carol Dweck's revolutionary book "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success" that praising Emma only for her results teaches her that the ends justifies the means. We should rather encourage her efforts so she knows that failing is actually a way to learn. Doing well on a test is not necessarily cause for celebration. Working hard to earn that grade is what's important. This instills a "growth mindset" in the child, one in which he comes to believe there is always room for improvement and that being challenged is exciting, as opposed to the "fixed mindset," which is when the child shies away from challenges because if she fails, she must not be smart after all.

My fixed mindset is why I quit calculus after one class in college and instead took a much easier statistics course. And why I gave up on my sociology major after realizing I was getting a D in research methods .

The fixed mindset mentality is the kind that leads to fear of failure, overly harsh judgment of oneself and the need to perform well at all costs. This is not what we want for Emma.

So back to the spelling tests. This is the first time that Emma has really been tested in class in the formal sense of the word. The first couple of weeks of school we worked pretty diligently and Emma got only one or two words wrong. I was happy with that. I told her, "Good job." What I should have said was, "See how your hard work paid off?"

The next couple weeks, she missed more words. One week she got nine out of 12 correct. Two weeks ago, it was eight out of 12. I didn't know this, however, because she didn't bring the tests home. I eventually emailed the teacher, looking for the tests. They came home with Emma the next day. Emma never admitted it, but I have a feeling she didn't want us to see those tests.

When I finally saw them, I was disappointed, but I never let on. Nor did I encourage her. I am kicking myself now because I see that what I should have said was: "I see you got some of these wrong. Let's practice them some more and I'll test you again on them next week!" This would have taught her it's OK that she missed some words and that the proper response is: "I'll work harder. I can do it!" not "I missed those words. I'm dumb."

Then last week, a very strange thing happened. She had a four-day break from Friday through Monday, and the word list was supposed to come home before the break, but it didn't (Emma is known for leaving important papers in her desk). The teacher emailed the list, but I failed to print out or write down the list until Thursday evening, the day before the test. Emma and I went over them Friday morning, on the way to school. I emailed the teacher a warning and an apology, stating Emma would probably do poorly because of lack of preparation.

Then lo and behold, she ended up with a perfect score. I was incredulous.

And despite all my knowledge and experience, before I could stop myself, I praised her up one side and down the other. I gave her a high five. I showed the test to her grandparents and dad as soon as I saw each of them that day. I posted the test right smack in the middle of the refrigerator door. I think I might have even said: "I guess you didn't need to practice those words after all!"

Old habits die hard. Face, palm.

This might not seem like a big deal to most of you. So you praised your kid for getting 12 out of 12 spelling words right. What's wrong with that?

Let's just say it was a wake-up call to me. Instead of congratulating and praising her, I should have said simply: "Wow. I didn't realize you knew those words so well! Well done. Now let's look at next week's words." Enough said.

Instead, I reinforced her belief that because she did so well without much work, she must be inherently smart. (That's a big pet peeve of mine: People always telling her how smart she is.) So the next time she doesn't prepare and does poorly, will she think she's not smart? And when she does work hard and still doesn't do well? Well, if that happens often enough, she might just decide she's no good at school and stop trying altogether.

Can you spell "tragedy"?

It's not so important to me that my daughter be "smart," but rather I want her to value hard work and ultimately be successful in whatever she decides to pursue. This requires Dave and I embrace a whole new mindset so we can instill it in Emma.

Here's how Dweck sums it up on her website:

"People with a fixed mindset believe that their traits are just givens. They have a certain amount of brains and talent and nothing can change that. If they have a lot, they’re all set, but if they don’t... So people in this mindset worry about their traits and how adequate they are. They have something to prove to themselves and others.

"People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, see their qualities as things that can be developed through their dedication and effort. Sure they’re happy if they’re brainy or talented, but that’s just the starting point. They understand that no one has ever accomplished great things — not Mozart, Darwin, or Michael Jordan — without years of passionate practice and learning."

I'm not saying I believe Emma will be the next Mozart if she tries hard enough. What I believe is that by encouraging her efforts and teaching her to work hard, we will put her on the right track to love learning, tackle challenges and develop to her fullest potential.


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