Giving Good Praise to Girls: What Messages Stick

| April 24, 2013 | 70 Comments
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How to praise kids: It’s a hot topic for many parents and educators. A lot of the conversation around it has stemmed from studies by Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford who has been researching this specific topic for many years.

“My research shows that praise for intelligence or ability backfires,” said Dweck, who co-authored a seminal research paper on the effects of praise on motivation and performance. “What we’ve shown is that when you praise someone, say, ‘You’re smart at this,’ the next time they struggle, they think they’re not. It’s really about praising the process they engage in, not how smart they are or how good they are at it, but taking on difficulty, trying many different strategies, sticking to it and achieving over time.”

But what some might not know is that this paradox is strongest for girls.

Dweck’s research, which focuses on what makes people seek challenging tasks, persist through difficulty and do well over time, has shown that many girls believe their abilities are fixed, that individuals are born with gifts and can’t change. Her research finds that when girls think this way, they often give up, rather than persisting through difficulties. They don’t think they possess the ability to improve, and nowhere is the phenomenon stronger than in math.

“Of all the subjects on earth, people think math is the most fixed,” Dweck said. “It’s a gift, you either have it or you don’t. And that it’s most indicative of your intelligence.” This attitude presents an especially sticky problem to educators working to boost girls’ interest and passion for science, technology, engineering and math – STEM subjects. For many boys, believing math is a fixed ability doesn’t hamper achievement — they just assume they have it, Dweck said. But girls don’t seem to possess that same confidence, and in their efforts to achieve perfection, Dweck’s research shows they shy away from subjects where they might fail.

[RELATED READING: Girls and Math: Busting the Stereotype]

“We have research showing that women who believe math is an acquired set of skills, not a gift you have or don’t have, fare very well,” Dweck said. “Even when they have a period of difficulty and even when they’re in an environment that they say is full of negative stereotyping.” This research suggests parents and educators should rethink what implicit and explicit messages are being sent to young girls about achievement.

If adults emphasize that all skills are learned through a process of engagement, value challenge and praise efforts to supersede frustration rather than only showing excitement over the right answer, girls will show resilience. It also might help to provide a roadmap to correct the gender imbalance that already exists in fields requiring math and science, jobs that often involve setbacks, “failing,” and overcoming challenges.

“The kids who are getting this process praise, those are the kids who want the challenge.”

Dweck has found that socialization and beliefs about learning ability are developed at early ages. “Mother’s praise to their babies, one to three years of age, predicts that child’s mindset and desire for challenge five years later,” Dweck said. “It doesn’t mean it is set in stone, but it means that kind of value system — what you’re praising, what you say is important — it’s sinking in. And the kids who are getting this process praise, strategy and taking on hard things and sticking to them, those are the kids who want the challenge.”

Dweck understands it isn’t easy to praise process and emphasize the fun in challenging situations. Kids like direct praise, but to Dweck lauding achievement is like feeding them junk food – it’s bad for them.

[RELATED READING: How Important is Grit in Student Achievement?]

An implicit argument here is that failure in small doses is good. Dweck’s not the first person to make that argument; advocates of game-based learning say one of its strongest attributes lies in a player’s ability to fail and start over without being stigmatized. Students learn as they go, getting better each time they attempt a task in the game. But the current education system leaves little room for failure, and consequently anxious parents often don’t tolerate small setbacks either.

“If you have little failures along the way and have them understand that’s part of learning, and that you can actually derive useful information about what to do next, that’s really useful,” Dweck said.

She believes families should sit around the dinner table discussing the day’s struggles and new strategies for attacking the problem. In life no one can be perfect, and learning to view little failures as learning experiences, or opportunities to grow could be the most valuable lesson of all.

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  • Sacramento

    This is a great piece. Even top ncaa men and women basketball teams utilize carol dwecks teachings. Specifically from “Growth Mindset” by professor dweck.

    • LT

      I agree…I play for a Division one basketball team and we apply this to our practices all the time. Our coach gives us a goal and says “we need 5 excellent possessions of offense” and gives us a time to complete it. In these drills what matters is the process not the outcome. We could make a shot but if we didn’t run the offense correctly or didn’t take a disciplined shot we don’t get to count it as excellent. On the other hand if we run everything correctly and well, but miss the shot we can earn an “excellent” count because the process was correct and it’s unrealistic to expect us to make every shot. Our coach is always quick to praise our processes not just our end successes.

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  • Petaluma

    Really interesting! Dweck’s perspective may also be helpful for adults. As we talk ourselves through the day, we can focus on valuing effort and persistence rather than quick, easy achievements.

  • http://twitter.com/mzteachuh Melanie Taylor, M.Ed

    It can also change the classroom climate for the positive when girls are encouraged. And at home, an occasional, ‘You are a beautiful girl’ works like miracle grow for the soul.

    • Arreyn Grey

      Or better yet, the occasional, “You’re so determined,” or “I love your initiative.” Things that don’t just focus on her looks. I was told I was beautiful frequently; it wasn’t until I grew up that I really learned to value anything else about myself.

      • AnonyMISS

        deserteacher said “occasional”, not frequent. Everyone likes to hear they look nice now and then. But hearing that you are smart and can figure things out….that’s even better.

        • deserteacher

          I was always validated for academic work–and that has paid off with confidence. But validating the value of the whole person will also create confidence for life’s challenges in general.

    • Superman88

      But, I don’t want to lie to the poor girl…

      • deserteacher

        Well, Superman, every student has positives. We teachers comment on them.

  • Lori Ferrick

    You’re smart at this,’ the next time they struggle, they think they’re
    not. It’s really about praising the process they engage in, not how
    smart they are or how good they are at it, but taking on difficulty,
    trying many different strategies, sticking to it and achieving over
    time.”
    I agree with this 100% ,..
    We don’t necessarily need to hear how smart we are, but how well battle the challenge. Our minds need feel “We” have control over the situation not the situation itself. “Smart” varies from day to day. And can never be on relied on.

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  • Sharon Bender

    Praise is always a tricky thing. To create a positive atmosphere in the classroom, students need to know what they are doing right. Reacting only to what they do wrong creates the wrong mood. The key is to focus on the work they do not on whether they are smart or look good but on the quality of the work and the level of effort. Encouraging effort and not allowing not trying is the way to go. Once they see trying creates success they are more likely to make a greater effort in the future.

  • Debbie McLaughlin

    How does “failure” play out in a school or educational system where so much of what one does, almost everything actually, is graded? Even formative assessments. Traditional grading practices seem to put learners in a bind: we tell them that failure will help them be resilient, but when the failures show up as grades, that forever remain and fold up into a bigger grade, how much room is there for a cycle of practice-fail-practice-succeed? I would like to see a conversation about the impact of grades on motivation, resilience, and achievement. There is data about this, isn’t there?

    • Susan E

      I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but our middle and high school have a retake policy on most tests — sometimes even final exams. The kids can retake a test if they want a better grade. I’m not sure it really works as it should, but theoretically, my daughter could get a D, get help understanding what she did wrong from the teacher and re-study, and go on to get a better grade by retaking the test.

      • NQ

        American high and middle schools do, even universities. But we are not all American on the Internet.

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  • maryam

    I agree with the praise of children, especially girls., I’m a girl and I praised her daughter’s success is very effective. Way to show the children, using the most punishing will praise the way.

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  • NancyEH

    When there isn’t a lot of time to engage in discussing strategies for coping with failure or disappointment, a couple of specific examples of good wording would have been helpful. Is “good work” OK? How about “Nice going”?

    • Laura Wenham

      Specific praise is better – “You did a good job of buttoning your coat on your own this morning. You missed one button, so let’s practice buttoning again. Can you see which button you missed? Which buttons do you need to move to fix it?” “You drew a great drawing but a little bit got on the table. What could we do next time to keep the table clean?” Sets up the idea that it’s not a big deal to make a mistake, that you need to evaluate what didn’t work, and figure out how to fix it. Much better problem solving skills, and emphasizes that there are solutions, such as practicing and thinking ahead, that may be required to solve the problem.

  • Léo Lee

    I learned something similar when I was taught how to teach. I “only” teach art, but we were always told never to praise the work or the child in a final, qualitative way (if i am using that word right). SO we’d never say “You did a great job” or “That is a beautiful picture”. The comments must always give something to build on: “Those colors work well together” or “Your struggle to get this right is apparent and these tentative marks next to the bold ones show the viewer…” Anyway, it was strongly drilled in us that comments that help a child understand their process, and identify the strong elements and weak elements was the only way to give feedback.

    • Mark

      You never ‘only’ teach art. You teach problem solving and emotional expression through creativity. You teach kids how to have a voice and how to share it.

    • anongirl2012

      That’s great that you praise the process. I wouldn’t say, “Your struggle is apparent,” though. I think that would make the child feel bad, like you are saying, “You were struggling, and it was obvious.” Even as an adult, if my boss or someone said it was apparent I struggled, I would not feel good about what he or she was saying…

      • good coop

        I work in a behavior LAB (learning appropriate behavior) for elementary students. We (teachers and students) make comments when others are having a hard time during the process. ” What is so changeling ( or upsetting) to you about this activity?” I might inquire. Or a simple, “Are you stuck?”, lets (the kids) realize that you are teaching, “a process”, and observing and supporting their learning. As with all learning…..intense emotions need time to calm so we can attend to the task. With completion of a challenge, we all rejoice and laugh together! One student might have much difficulty admitting, “oops! I make a mistake.” And then reflect, I don’t know why that was so hard to say……..

      • Service-is-the-rent-we-pay

        I agree. I see “struggle” as an important, valuable, necessary process that every person should be a part of in order to become more resilient. Struggle should be sought out, not avoided. To me the best compliment roughly amounts to, “Clearly you struggled with _____, but you worked really hard, you overcame those challenges and you accomplished so much.”

    • Lin

      This makes so much sense and explains why I enjoyed the feedback from my art teachers. I never realized how it helped me build resilience in life. Thank you for your insight.

    • MooseInOly

      I don’t fully agree with this particular approach. Doesn’t this start on the path of “never being good enough”? If it is a beautiful picture then why can’t you say so? Why can’t the end product be quantative in praise? If every project I ever finished in my professional career was judged and feedback given along the path that was stated above, I’d find a new career. A pat on the back is only a few vertebrae removed from a kick in the butt, yet is miles away in results.

      • 2nd year teacher

        I’ve read a significant amount of Dweck’s work, and it definitely impacts the way I praise in my teaching – there is a lot of good stuff there. But I also wonder if it varies from child to child. I think that praising process is probably always a good thing to do. However, I don’t think praising students with more static compliments like “smart,” “compassionate,” or “creative” is necessarily harmful, especially if it’s in combination with process praise. I haven’t done all the research Dweck has, but I think making a child feel genuinely loved and appreciated (however the compliment is worded) has positive value, even if it doesn’t directly correlate with persistence and problem solving skills.

  • Danielle Fuligni McKay

    Process praise + acknowledgement of who our daughters are being in choosing challenge, trying hard, getting back up (e.g. courageous, persistent, resilient) = recipe for lasting self confidence! For more, visit me at http://www.mygirlcoaching.com

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  • Rudy

    I was in a second grade elementary school in Houston Tx in the 70s. I had very poor grades and a speech impediment. My parents were told I was slow and were advised to have me repeat the second grade. My older brother and sister were Honor Roll students all through school. My parents knew that I was not slow, yet understood that I did not learn as quickly as my siblings. At 43 yrs of age I can still hear my mother and father encouraging me to always give my best, 110%, never quit, never give up. If you fall get up, you never fail if you’ve learned a lesson, it’s not over until I win. They always praised my efforts more than the results. I carried that determination with me in everything I’ve done. I have an attic full of trophies, plaques, certificates, awards, achievements etc. from everything I’ve ever done. My annual income is close to 250K a year. I give morning meetings where I motivate and teach others to be successful in business. I have a wonderful family full of love and joy. My oldest daughter finished High School a year early and off to college. My youngest daughter will start taking college classes at 14 yrs of age. My son is following right in their footsteps.
    That’s not bad for a slow kid from Houston.
    ABILITY and TALENT are worthless without PERSISTENCE and ATTITUDE.

    • Eva

      Cannot agree with you more. Thumbs up to you. Hard work and persistence is more predictive to success than talent.

    • Kerry

      This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing!

    • Emilie

      My sister could relate a lot with you! I can still hear my parents telling her the exact same thing your parent said to you. Now that I have a daughter, I’m trying to encourage her to persist and never give up.

  • anongirl2012

    I disagree with the last paragraph. Meals should be upbeat and positive. Kids shouldn’t be expected to share their struggles, problems, and feelings with everyone at the table. The rest of the article makes good sense, though.

    • snowgirl

      I disagree, that perpetuates the idea that struggling is something to be ashamed of or hidden. The family support and encouragement are invaluable, both in terms of exploring solutions as well as giving the child confidence to seek help.

      • Iowacounts

        As long as it’s kept in positive atmosphere. I hated the dinner table because it would always come down to being reprimmanded about something I wasn’t doing well enough at. Therefore I learned not to share to avoid problems/being hurt/made to feel stupid.:(

  • Susan

    A SpEd instructor touted that it is important to praise/encourage in a manner such that the learner will not come to rely on praise for their self-worth. For example, the phrase “You must be proud of that” is not a judgement; it makes the learner responsible for their praise. I have found often, especially in math, many kids understand more than they think they do. I will often tell them, “You’ve got this–trust yourself.”

  • Ulla

    It is interesting for me to read that every comment relates to a comparison to others and does not encourage reflection with oneself. Are you happy with your work? Or I think this is nice what do you think? …..

  • Paula Popper

    I would have liked to see a few examples of phrasing in praise that shifts the message to the positive qualities discussed here. I am getting the concept, just not the application.

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  • SGN

    “I can see you worked hard at that! Are you happy with how it turned out?” lights up the face of every child you say it to. They then hasten to tell you all about their process and that gives you many opportunities to slip in the problem-solving questions that get them thinking.

  • Jader G Z Avila

    i gave Money to my daughter to invest. all by her own. initially i gave her 15k. i was prepared to see her lose it. and to give her more for the second try. but the girl surprised me and not only did not lose the Money, she made a profit out of it. the best incentive is to teach commerce and how to make Money.

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  • Cecilia

    It all sounds like good old Maria Montessori. Don’t praise the result, but the process of getting there. And the joy of achieving the result.

  • Michaela Daniels

    i was highly encouraged in Math & Science as i grew up. the world was my laboratory. Math & Science were always my best subjects. i studied hard, was praised often. Graduated from high school at 16 (had my first associate’s – chemistry – 5 months before i graduated from high school). Had my BSN at 19, took the MCAT scoring a 39.75, currently going to medical school (started at 19). i encourage girls everywhere to study hard. It’s OK to be smart and pretty!

  • http://www.pins.uk.com/ Trisha Proud

    As the mother of two daughters I found this to be an interesting read; however I firmly believe that praise for children (in any form) and regardless of their sex is essential for their growth and general well being; I am not entirely sure that the praise approach has to be different for girls and boys; possibly different per child maybe.

    Ditto when it comes to sitting around the table discussing the day’s ‘struggles’….how depressing! Surely just sitting around the table in general discussion should be the main focus.

    Trisha Proud
    Managing Partner
    Partners in Solutions Ltd
    https://twitter.com/proudtrisha

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  • KoachnRef

    Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code & The Little Book of Talent would go a long way with the discussion in this topic. Nobody is born with more talent than another. It’s what the individual puts into their learning, despite what people say, is how talent is derived. One needs to understand really the definition of talent.

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  • Andrew

    Fail forward.