Helpful v unhelpful praise

We want to encourage our children, so we praise them for being smart, or being good at things. But when they next stumble on a challenging problem they may conclude: “My past success made me smart. My current struggle makes me dumb.”* In this article, we demonstrate how praising the process is more valuable than praising the outcome or ability of the child.


Courage in the face of challenges comes from knowing we can improve


In a previous article we referenced Mueller and Dweck’s famous 1998 study of fifth graders in a test situation, illustrating how different kinds of praise can encourage either a ‘fixed mindset’ (I can’t do some things, this is how I am) or a ‘growth mindset’ (‘I can learn and get better’). The key was in the feedback children received on their test answers. The important point here is that praising for hard work is better than praising for ability – i.e. Not ‘You’re so smart!’ but ‘Nice job, you worked so hard’. The study found that praising for hard work correlated with willingness to choose more challenging problems in future. Are we helping children adopt a ‘fixed’ or a ‘growth’ mindset? Are we helping them see learning as a journey, and ability as something that can expand?


Thinking outside the box


There are many ways to tackle a challenge, but our language doesn’t always express that to children. In focusing on praising the process and not simply the outcome, we should encourage students to look for more than one way to solve any problem – instead of saying “No, you have to do it this way”, we could say “Have you thought about looking at it from a different angle?”  How you reach the correct answer should be a journey of learning that concludes in the correct end-result. This encourages children to see possibility, to think creatively and analytically, and to understand that we all learn in different ways.


Tips to praise the process, not person


To affirm the belief that hard work is the cause of success, we must pay attention to our everyday language. In this video, you can watch a teacher in action as she works to create a culture of goal-setting and continuous improvement in her learners. Her feedback to students focuses on what they are trying to do better and how they are working towards their goals. She helps them see themselves as real ‘writers’ – even in the first grade – by using positive and affirming language about their efforts.


Here are some further examples of helpful language of praise:

  • ‘I like the way you… (took time to write your name clearly at the top of the page etc.)’
  • ‘I can see you are working hard on improving…’
  • ‘Great work challenging yourself with…’
  • ‘Excellent work setting out your problem to show your thinking’
  • ‘Well done revising your answers’
  • ‘Good on you for giving this a go!’


Reinforcing this language means students start using it too.


But what about my unique talents?


It’s not to say children can never be acknowledged for their personal, innate talents, but focusing on language that labels students is ultimately limiting. Consider how limiting your child’s view of themselves can be if they witness others being told they are good at something while your child is less often encouraged for trying to improve in that area. If one child is told, ‘You are a brilliant artist!’ – does this mean another can’t develop creativity? This may be what we suggest with the words we repeatedly use.


Is that all I am?


“You’re so athletic!”

“You’re so pretty!”


Leading with or regularly reinforcing praise like this runs the danger of supporting outdated stereotypes and teaching children to identify with one category of ability, instead of understanding they are a complex person capable of many great things. There is plenty of research to support the idea that focusing on a girl’s attractiveness can cause her to believe that this is where she holds value. In a similar vein, boys who are not naturally sporty may grow up feeling something is ‘wrong’ with them. While this may sound extreme, stop and think about how many times recently you heard someone praise a child within these or other outdated categories.


This isn’t just for kids!


Labels affect how we perceive ourselves right throughout our lives. Becoming aware of how they might limit us and trying to change some of our language to focus on a growth mindset are the first steps in helping create environments where everyone’s confidence and ability can thrive.


* ‘Never say you’re smart’




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *