How to praise your child: why simply saying ‘well done’ is not helpful

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How we praise children is important in shaping the ways in which children see themselves. from www.shutterstock.com

How do you react when you hear expressions like “well done”, “another A grade”, “aren’t you clever” and “great work”?

Maybe you use them yourself with your children in the belief that it will encourage them to work hard and do well.

It turns out that praise like this is not helpful and can actually damage children. Stanford University researcher Carol Dweck has shown that generalised praise of this kind can all too easily create learners who have what she calls a “fixed mindset”.

These children are afraid to make mistakes, unlikely to put in the necessary effort and, most importantly, unwilling to really practise because they have a fixed view of how smart they are.

When you label a child as “clever” you are not helping them. For smart kids can all too easily think that effort is something that only those who are less clever have to put in to achieve results.

Instead we need to be specific with our praise and focus on how the outcome was achieved:

I really noticed how much effort you put into selecting interesting vocabulary in your opening paragraph. Well done!

Or we might want more explicitly to connect the effort and the result in the child’s mind by asking:

Tell me how you organised your practice so that you managed to play that piece so beautifully.

How to give effective feedback

Praise which helps children see that success is a function of effort or practice or certain learning strategies develop a “growth mindset.” With this mindset, children believe their intelligence can increase through hard work and they value learning over performance.

Why does that matter? Young people with this mindset outperform their peers on tests and examinations, as well as develop vital capabilities like persistence. In short they become better learners.

In the same spirit, when children tell us that they can’t do something we need to firmly rephrase their pessimism by suggesting they can’t yet do it.

As parents and teachers it is helpful if we present learning as an activity which almost always involves a level of struggle to achieve mastery.

At dinner time, this could be an opportunity for parents to share something which they are struggling to learn in their work. Or a teacher might take the opportunity to praise a group of students for sticking with a tricky maths problem rather than giving up.

The teacher might also encourage them to share the methods they used with the rest of the class.

She or he might also encourage students to share their essay drafts or design prototypes so that everyone gets the message that successful learners review, reflect and improve everything that they do.

By explicitly modelling learning as a process which requires effort and strategy, students begin to see that discretionary effort is the key to success in life and in examinations or tests.

Feedback consistency between parents and teachers

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