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Good Praise, Bad Praise

Judy Willis | Jan. 6, 2014

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Expert: Judy Willis

Judy
Willis
Jan. 6, 2014

Research reveals that children who are repeatedly praised for their inherent intelligence, instead of being praised for their effort or the use of good problem-solving strategies, are at risk for the negative consequences of that praise. If your children feel that it is their intelligence you admire, they may over focus on the things that make them look intelligent, especially grades.

Research by Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor, and others has shown that children who perceive their success to be the result of the intelligence with which they were born, and not qualities over which they have control, are more prone to what she called a fixed mindset. They believe that their abilities are fixed and not changeable by effort. This becomes problematic when they avoid opportunities to challenge themselves academically for fear of receiving a bad grade. When they are given a very hard assignment, they could lose confidence and give up because they do not believe their effort can impact their success. If a test seems very challenging, their fear of not getting a high grade could lesson their confidence and ultimately impair their performance.

Children who are praised for grades, points scored in athletic events, or blue ribbons risk becoming perfectionists who choose not to participate. If their identities are so connected to an outcome, they can become fearful of disappointing you and of not living up to your high expectations. Instead of praising their results, focus on commending their progress, effort, attitude, strategic planning, organization, and prioritizing of work. This kind of feedback promotes the willingness to persevere and take on challenges.

Planning Your Praise

Praise for effort: Praise that explicitly acknowledges the connection between children’s additional effort and their specific achievement, rather than praise for intelligence, increases their willingness to continue to apply effort and persevere through setbacks.

Specificity: It is not the quantity of the praise you offer, but the quality. The most effective praise is credible, specific, and genuine and relates to factors within your child’s control. Be specific about what it was that your child did that merits recognition. Instead of, “Your painting is pretty”, try a comment such as, “You blended colors well to show that the sun was setting.”

Avoid competitive praise: It is great to acknowledge your children’s improvement by comparing their progress to their previous challenges. “You seem to understand least common denominators much better now, and it shows in the way you can add fractions.” Avoid sarcastic or critical praise that negates their previous work such as, “This is such a careful, complete, and detailed report on spiders. Why didn’t you make your last report about the explorers this good?” If you’d like to help your child recognize the successful strategies they used on the spider report you could ask, “What strategies did you use to write such a complete and carefully illustrated report?”

Sincerity: Don’t praise your children for mediocre effort and work. Children know when they haven’t done their best and pick up on insincere praise. Children should not feel that you are lowering your standards to praise their work. It is better to wait for authentic success in effort or improvement than to give superficial praise for your children’s mediocre work.

Praise goals, but don’t make them contracts: If your child is enthusiastic and tells you of her plans to spend an extra 15 minutes reading each night beyond what the teacher assigns, it’s great to be supportive. You can even show you believe in her potential to achieve that goal with comments such as, “I’m glad you enjoy reading enough to want to do more. Would you like me to take you to the library tomorrow?” If some time goes by and your child does not stick to that goal, don’t make that a focus of criticism, which could cause her to regret that she shared her plans with you. Holding your tongue will encourage her to continue to have goals and share her dreams with you.

Praise that doesn’t embarrass modest children: Some children are uncomfortable with praise. You can make supportive comments that acknowledge their progress without using specific words of praise. “I notice that you are doing homework before watching television. How does it feel to finish your work earlier?”

Praise that is specific, sincere, and related to effort and progress will set your children on the path to being lifelong learners who will enjoy challenges – and even seek them out. They will develop the belief that effort and perseverance are the keys to success. These children will be prepared for their future, will learn how to be creative innovators, and will take on the work needed to achieve their goals.

Expert: Judy Willis

About the Author

Judy Willis
University of California, Santa Barbara

Dr. Judy Willis combined her 15 years as a board-certified practicing neurologist with ten subsequent years as a classroom teacher to become a leading authority in the neuroscience of learning. Dr. Willis has written seven books and more than 100 articles for professional journals applying neuroscience research to successful teaching strategies and travels nationally and internationally giving presentations, workshops, and consulting while continuing to write books and staff expert blogs for NBC News Education Nation, Edutopia, Psychology Today, and The Guardian.