February 22, 2007

The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids

Posted in articles, classroom management at 8:09 pm by mrsmauck

I don’t know who posted a link to this article in New York Magazine, but thank you so much! It was extremely interesting. I posted a while back on my hesitation in using positive reinforcement and elaborate reward systems, a la Harry Wong, in my classroom. The above-linked article isn’t about rewards, though, it’s about the more abstract idea of praise. The gist of it is that students who believe themselves to be smart–who are told they are smart from a young age by parents, teachers, grades, and test scores–don’t have as many coping mechanisms for failure. To build up their willingness to work toward long-term rewards, instead of toward short-term praise of their natural abilities, they need to understand that the brain can grow, like a muscle. Kids who believe themselves to be naturally smart apparently believe intelligence is predetermined: they work hard at things they’re good at, and quickly abandon the things in which they can’t succeed immediately. They develop a subconscious understanding of this fact when they are praised for their processes, not their natural abilities. When we use specific praise–you know, the kind that sounds really corny when you first try it out–kids begin to formulate strategies for future success. So, instead of saying, “You’re so smart; I’m so proud of you,” say something like, “I can tell you worked really hard on these metaphors–they’re great: so creative and insightful! Keep it up!”

When we praise their intelligence in general, they are not motivated to work harder. This article points to a foundational 1969 study called “The Psychology of Self-Esteem” that essentially has some faults, and has led to some ineffective parenting and teaching strategies in the last 40 years.

As a future high school teacher, I found this particularly interesting:

And teens, Meyer found, discounted praise to such an extent that they believed it’s a teacher’s criticism—not praise at all—that really conveys a positive belief in a student’s aptitude. In the opinion of cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, a teacher who praises a child may be unwittingly sending the message that the student reached the limit of his innate ability, while a teacher who criticizes a pupil conveys the message that he can improve his performance even further.

Teens work harder in response to criticism, not praise! So interesting! You’re challenging them to work and try harder when you criticize them, I suppose. This bit about cheating rings true to me, as well:

Students turn to cheating because they haven’t developed a strategy for
handling failure.

Teachers, you know better than I: Do high-achievers cheat as much or more than low-achievers? This seems to mean that if students grow up hearing nothing but praise of their intellectual abilities, they’re more likely to cheat than students who have heard praise of their efforts and their processes, and even criticism.

What do the real teachers out there think? Parents are certainly more influential in this realm than teachers, but we have lots of opportunities to show students that their brains can become stronger with hard work, that trying hard is not an indicator of failure. How can we/do we do this in the classroom, consistently and sincerely?



  1. Mrs. T said,

    Sometimes, I think the high achievers cheat more, because they are more competitive and have more at stake. The low achievers don’t care as much, so don’t have much incentive to cheat.

  2. little light said,

    that is so true. children who are repeatedly told they are naturally bright begin to believe that intelligence is everything. but we know it is not. even intelligent people have to study, too. and i am speaking from personal experience. 😉

  3. graycie said,

    Praise is important, but it can’t be empty praise — You have to tell them why something is good. Then they’ll try to replilcate what they did.

  4. Brian said,

    Pointing out that praise must be specific as to not make the student feel they have “arrived” is great. The specific praise lets them know exactly what they have accomplished.

    I would like to know more about cheating. I haven’t experienced it really in my classroom but who knows if they’re copying at home. All the worksheets I give have the same answers so there’s no real way to tell.

  5. Courtney said,

    I have found that yes, gifted children cheat just as much as more as the others… Some of this, at least according to the kids themselves, is that with their tough course loads and all the work they have to do, there’s just not enough time, so they cheat to save time. While not OK, obviously, their explanations seem credible.

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