The debate of praise versus encouragement continues. A quick google search will toss-up over 7,000,000 hits. No doubt, the seminal research by Alfie Kohn, Carol Dweck and others have taught us that by offering primarily praise, we create kids who crave approval and validation by adults, rather than developing the confidence and persistence requisite to self assessment, self-regulation, and learning.
Instead of offering empty, vague or cursory praise such as “good job!” or “I like that!”, specific feedback shows kids the value of their effort and persistence. Kohn begged us to Stop Saying Good Job! years ago. We’re still learning what else to say. Then he told us We (were) Punished By Rewards. But why should we offer honest encouragement to children? For a more up to date discussion on the value of encouragement, listen to Rae Pica’s BAM! Body, Mind and Child podcast on the topic “Creating Praise Junkies: Are You Giving Children Too Much ‘Positive’ Reinforcement?”
By leading children to discover the problem solving process or understand the rules, we are enabling children prosocial skills and information they can use in other settings. This often allows them to uncover new information or solve a problem or to build skills they can transfer to other situations. If children hear specific feedback about their effort, their skills and their ability to work well with others, they are armed with the skills to forge ahead with new learning, without looking to adults for approval. In Tips for New Teachers Goodbye to “Good Job!”—The Power of Specific Feedback, Margaret Wilson offers concrete steps teachers can take to identify the behaviors in neutral and constructive ways. This type of language is rooted in honest and authentic relationships and observations. It’s an essential tool for teachers, if our goal is for kids are to have a growth mindset and develop greater self-control.
What’s equally important is the encouragement and questions we pose to children that allows them figure things out – part of developing a growth mindset (Flashback: Read how Carol Dweck’s research helps guide how I interact with both my own kids and students here.) By teaching kids that they can try new things, learn new things, and that their brains are wired to change and grow, we arm them with the tools for life-long learning. It’s powerful stuff that increases productivity, happiness, and resilience. Dweck’s research shows that it’s not how smart you are, but rather how whether or not you have a mastery-mindset. Teachers and parents can read more about tapping a growth mindset affects kids. This is very different from praising them for simply being “smart.” The University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development conducted research study which examines the effect of a growth mindset in early childhood suggests that process-focused feedback is a more constructive approach than simply praising a child for an accomplishment. Engaging a child in the process can reinforce the value of effort and persistence and help a child understand that mistakes are part of learning.
Five Quick things you can do to help develop a growth mindset in kids:
- Ask open-ended questions to solve a problem or achieve a goal. “What do you think will happen if…” or “Why do you suppose…” These questions build logical thinking skills and often lead to rich discovery.
- Use specific feedback that identifies what the child accomplished. What small steps led to a larger outcome? Be supportive when your child attempts something new. It might not be the way you’d try to solve a problem, but if it works, acknowledge it honestly and without judgement. Pick your battles. Hair done by a three-year old might not be ready for the runway, but it brings a child great satisfaction to say, “I did it myself!” Skills that build persistence simultaneously allow children to feel confidence and independence. WHen frustration rears it’s head, offer an encouraging word about what steps worked well.
- Encourage kids to take a risk. Watch and listen to your child so you can take cues about what else they are ready to tackle. Vygotsky calls this the “zone of proximal development – when we gently nudge kids to use what they know to try something just a bit out of their reach, but yet developmentally appropriate. By offering small but achievable challenges, confidence and persistence emerge .
- Be persistent and growth-orientated yourself. Narrate your thoughts as you try something new or frustrating (with a G-rating, of course!). Your child may even be able to offer some helpful tips. This allows children to see we all have to work hard to solve problems and we all continue to learn new things.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. Accidents, and mistakes happen. Show your child that there’s something to be learned when we don’t achieve what we set out to accomplish. Maybe someone else lends a hand. Maybe you return to the task at another time. Maybe it’s best to abandon things for a while or break things down into smaller steps. Be specific about what worked, identify the emotions involved, and offer encouragement for the next time.