“Praise Effort Not Ability” – Easier Said Than Done

Soon after posting Mindset Series: 2. Praise – Is it helping or hindering growth?, I felt like quite the hypocrite as I became more conscious about the praise I was providing to my 11 week old son.

As I played games with my little one and encouraged him as he tried to roll over or hold a rattle, I caught myself saying “what a clever fella”, “good boy”  or “good work”, whenever he achieved a task.

 

The sinking realisation:

You can imagine my dismay when I reflected on how often, as a school guidance counsellor, I have advised teachers and parents to use effort praise (eg. “I like how you kept trying” rather than “good work”)  and to be specific about praise (eg. “lovely manners” rather than “good boy/ girl”) and here I was falling in the very same trap!

I was forced to accept that using effort praise does not necessarily come naturally to us as most of us have grown up seeking or hearing ability praise. This is supported by what I see in classrooms all the time. In my experience, children within classrooms I visit are more likely to ask “did I get it right?” or “was I a good boy/ girl?”, then “did I work/ try hard?”

For a review of effort versus ability praise.

 

Yet research suggests that even babies benefit from process/effort praise versus ability praise (i):

In this study Carol Dweck and colleagues, analysed videos of mothers providing praise to their toddlers, tallying the type of praise and frequency of praise – with a specific interest to whether it was praise for effort or praise for the child’s ability as a person.

When the children were interviewed 5 years later to determine their mindset, it was found that children who had been provided mainly praise for their effort (eg. great throw) were more likely to take on challenges (supporting a growth mindset), compared to children who had been predominantly praised for their ability as a person (eg. you are great at basketball).

 

How to bridge the gap between knowing how we SHOULD praise and how we CURRENTLY praise: tips

If you are one of many who may unintentionally, yet automatically, provide ability praise such as “great work”, or “you are so good at that” and you would like to start praising effort, the following strategies may be useful:

  • Remember you are learning to do something differently – it may take a little time to retrain your brain. The important thing is to become more consciously aware of how you currently praise. When you catch yourself praising ability, quickly follow with an effort praise. For instance – “You are so smart Joe” …. followed with “I really like how you kept trying until you finished your work”.
  • Focus your praise on what the child is DOING well or HOW the child is working – for instance: being persistent, trying different strategies.
  • Teach your child/ class that we can all get better at something if we keep trying. If they don’t get something the first time and start becoming disheartened, remind them that they just haven’t mastered it YET.
  • Teach your children/ class how to give each other effort praise over ability praise, to help them understand that the focus should be on effort rather than personal ability.

 Share your experiences with ability versus effort praise in the comments below.

MINDSET SERIES:

Mindsets – Do you have a growth or fixed mindset?

Fixed vs Growth Mindset.

Praise – Is it helping or hindering growth?

Praise effort not ability – Easier said than done.

Fostering a growth mindset culture in the classroom.

References

(i) Babies whose efforts are praised become more motivated kids, say Stanford researchers.

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