How to praise children and set them up for later success

Oct 05 2023

How to praise children and set them up for later success

“And though she be but little, she is fierce.”
-William Shakespeare.

2023 National Merit Semifinalists

Keystone students punch far above their weight. By that, I mean their level of recognized achievement far surpasses what one could reasonably expect from a PK-12 school of approximately 500 students.

While this is not meant to brag, just taking a look at our weekly newsletter, the Keystone Communiqué, demonstrates our students’ accomplishments: four seniors named as National Merit Semifinalists, 13 receiving National Recognition, a recent alum being named Commander of Basic Training at West Point, a 9th grader winning national poetry honors, an 11th grader going viral on TikTok for a moving essay, just to name a few. Every year, Keystone students regularly excel in Science Fair, and Model UN contests. The Cobra Academic World Quest has won the regional competition 14 years in a row and the national championship twice. In our first year of participation, the 7th and 8th grade students in the Speak Up: Speak Out program came in 1st and 2nd in the region and 2nd in the state. Two weekends ago, the Upper School Model UN team of 22 students took home 9 awards, significantly more than any other team, all of which were much larger than the Cobra contingent.

Each spring, Keystone seniors receive acceptances and scholarships to the finest colleges and universities in the country and continue excelling when they arrive on their respective campuses. While the number of students at Keystone may be small, individually and collectively, our Cobras are mighty.

So, with all of this good news, how do we continue to challenge and encourage our students to excel in a way that will serve them well? I think about this regularly when hearing parents praise children who get high marks or a good grade on an assignment.

With the best of intentions, we may tell our children, “you are so smart!” As research has shown, though, complimenting children on their intelligence rather than their effort can be counterproductive.

This insight goes back to the late 1990s and bears repeating today. Researchers Carol Dweck (author of “Grit”) and Claudia Mueller created an ingenious study that showed why the way we praise children makes a big difference. In their study, the researchers tested some 400 fifth-graders. According to an article in the New York Times about the study, the children received an exam and were told they did very well on the test, regardless of how they actually performed. “Some were given statements like, ‘You must be smart at these problems,’ while others were told, ‘’You must have worked hard at these problems.’ They were then given more problems, and all were told they did not do as well on the second set. Children praised for effort attributed more of their low scores to effort than did children praised for intelligence, the researchers found. Children praised for intelligence said a lack of ability was to blame. They also enjoyed taking the test less. Virtually all the findings were similar for boys and girls and among children from several ethnic groups.

Dweck summarized the findings, ‘Praising children’s intelligence, far from boosting their self-esteem, encourages them to embrace self-defeating behaviors such as worrying about failure and avoiding risks,’ said Dr. Dweck, lead author of the study. ‘However, when children are taught the value of concentrating, strategizing and working hard when dealing with academic challenges, this encourages them to sustain their motivation, performance and self-esteem.’”

In addition, when we compliment and encourage children based on their effort rather than their intellect, we teach them that they have agency in their success. Rather than explaining achievement or lack thereof as resulting from something immutable and fixed, we show them they control their destiny and empower them to do well. Instead of saying when they stumble “I’m not good at math” or “I’m not really an artist,” they can acknowledge that they have work to do and they will improve as a result of their dedication. They learn that as the poet Wiliam Ernest Henly said, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

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