By: Emma Glasgow

For many years, educators, coaches and parents alike have been relying on praise to encourage and motivate children to work harder, to build confidence and approach challenges with vigor. As an educator and coach, I myself have fell into this trap of constant praise and often wondered whether it had a positive, neutral or negative impact on performance. Was there a way I could improve my praise? Was there a way I could make my praise more specific? The answer is yes, one can always improve, but there are small changes that could be made to deliver more effective praise.

Psychologist Carol Dweck has been studying the power of mindset for decades. She has specifically looked at the effects of praise on mindset, particularly whether praise encourages a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. A growth mindset refers to the belief that abilities such as athleticism or intelligence are plastic and can always be improved. Conversely, a fixed mindset refers to the belief that those same abilities are innate, and can not or will not change.

In the video below, Dweck and her team test the effect of praise on mindset. They ask 5th graders to do a series of puzzles beginning with a set of easier puzzles then issuing a more difficult, nearly impossible set of puzzles. When the first puzzle is complete half of the group is praised for their intelligence, “Wow, you must be really smart”, while the other half is praised for effort, “Wow, you must have worked hard on this”. Check out what happens when the “smart” kids and “hard-working” kids approach the second, more difficult puzzle!

The results are a bit shocking. Though the children are only issued one line of praise, it has a profound effect on how they view themselves. Those praised for their intelligence quickly want to return to the easier puzzles feeling as though they are not good or smart enough at the more difficult puzzles; those praised for effort, generally enjoy the harder puzzles feeling smart when they are working hard on something and making progress. Dweck explains, in the article “How Not to Talk to Your Children” by Po Bronson, that “emphasizing effort gives a child a variable they can control”. When we praise intelligence however, we send children the message that they are being judged on their smartness so they feel they must look smart and not make mistakes. She goes on to explain that when we praise abilities like intelligence and athleticism, and place emphasis on them, we stigmatize effort. We make working hard at something less desirable. The power of praise inverts itself causing harm. In fact, children who are praised for their abilities are often less likely to take risks, experience a decline in performance, are highly sensitive to failure and more likely to give up when challenged.

So how does one stop praising ability, especially in the world of sports, where it’s always “good shot” and “you played great”? Be more specific with your praise! According to the article “Why Praise Can Be Bad for Kids”, there are three things you can focus on when offering praise that are helpful to children!

  1. Effort–“Nice hustle!”
  2. Concentration–“I love your drive and focus!”
  3. Strategies–“Great shot selection!”

By praising the these three things, you are giving children more control over their performance. You are rewarding how hard they try and removing the stigma when they fail. This creates a better environment for learning and performing. Never forget that “kids are exquisitely sensitive to what people value and what they are being judged for” and how you praise does have an impact. Remember to have a growth mindset, you can always improve your praise! Let’s all work hard to be better praisers! The kids will appreciate our effort!

If you would like to read more on the subject of praise, I encourage you to read the articles below! If you would like to read more about growth and fixed mindsets, check out Carol Dweck’s book Mindset!

Bronson, Po. “How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The inverse power of praise”. New York Magazine.

Dweck, Carol. Mindset.

Moroney, Robin. “The Praise a Child Should Never Hear”. The Wall Street Journal.

Pleshette Murphy, Ann & Jennifer Allen. “Why Praise Can Be Be Bad for Kids”. ABC News.

Source: Steve Nash Youth Basketball Blog
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