Praising effort vs praising intelligence

Apr 2024

As children continue along their educational journeys, they look to teachers, parents and peers for approval and to provide reassurance that they are taking the correct steps towards educational development both at school and home.

When children struggle with understanding a concept, it can leave them feeling incredibly disheartened and put a dent in their self-esteem, whereas praising children when they have the courage to share their answers, tackle new problems or participate in activities that they may not normally be adept at has a significant impact on helping children build a positive self-image.

Teachers regularly deflect from children's incorrect answers in the classroom by using phrases such as 'good try' or 'almost there' and you can always see a visible shift in a child's posture as they soak up the positive praise. The praise also acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and children who may underachieve but are still regularly rewarded for their efforts tend to go on to produce work that makes the best of their abilities. A study by leading psychologist Carol Dweck seems to support this idea.

In the study, Dweck gave 400 students a simple puzzle to tackle. After the puzzle was completed, students were each individually given six words of praise. Half were praised for intelligence: "Wow, you must be really smart!" while the other half were praised for effort: "Wow, you must be hard working!"

The differences in outcome for the two groups of students who received the subtly altered phrases of praise were astounding.

After the initial test, the students were offered the choice between taking a hard or easy test.

Two-thirds of the pupils who were praised for being 'smart' selected the easy task as they didn't want to take the chance of losing their intelligence label. But 90% of the group who were praised for their effort selected the harder test as they wanted to maintain their hard-working images.

The group praised for intelligence demonstrated a 20% decrease in performance in comparison with the first test, though it was no more complex. The effort-praised group increased their score by 30% - failure had actually spurred them on!

"These were some of the clearest findings I've seen," Dweck said. "Praising children's intelligence harms motivation and it harms performance."

The website offers the following ways in which parents can praise their children:

Emphasise the effort, not the outcome: When your child is learning a new activity, don't comment on how well he/she does it. Instead, compliment her enthusiasm and progress ("You worked really hard in ballet, and I noticed your pirouette is starting to look better.")

Point out the positives: It's easy to fall into the pattern of pointing out your child's mistakes while overlooking their little successes. But when you make an extra effort to praise your child's achievements and good behaviour, you'll help reinforce them.

Share their achievements with others: While you shouldn't boast about your child in front of your friends, there's no need to hold back when you're at home. In fact, making your spouse aware of your child's achievement can be good for them, says Lawrence Balter, PhD, professor of applied psychology at New York University.

Tell the truth. Even young children can see right through false praise. Your best strategy is to be honest - and diplomatic - when commenting on your child's ability. "If she's learning to dive and does an awkward belly flop, don't say, 'What a beautiful dive,' says Miller Shivers, PhD, clinical child psychologist at Children's Memorial Hospital, in Chicago. A better form of praise would be: "I see you're working on your diving." By not defining the action as good or bad, you're being truthful - while letting your child know they have your attention.

While praise for effort has a demonstrably positive effect, parents also need to be careful to correct children's mistakes to aid them on their learning journey. Teachers often talk to children about the next steps in their learning so that they understand exactly what is needed to reach the next level in their learning. For example, a child who is a '1a' in their writing may have already begun to use adjectives and basic punctuation in their work, but they will need to go on to use more complex punctuation and a range of connectives to reach the next sub-level.

Praising what children have already achieved, while gently letting them know what more they have to do, will help to keep children's confidence levels intact.