To praise, or not to praise…that is the question!!!

“I praise my son all the time, but he still doesn’t seem to be motivated!”

“I encourage my daughter to work hard. Hard work will ensure she gets the results she wants. But it doesn’t seem to be working!”

“I try to teach my daughter that hard work will pay the bills. But she doesn’t seem to be interested!”

Shouldn’t praise enhance feelings of competence and self-determination in anyone who receives it? Shouldn’t praise serve to reinforce positive behaviours, and thus increase the likelihood of those behaviours reoccurring? It should, shouldn’t it?

Before I elaborate further on these issues, it is important that concept of “praise” is better defined:

The term “praise”, in an educational context, refers to the act of providing approval or reinforcement. As you would imagine, there is more than one way of providing praise. These include non-verbal and verbal manners. One can debate “ad nauseam” which of these types of praise works better with children. Yet, in reality, the most important aspect to this praise debate is not how the approval is being provided; by a high five, a wink, a “well-done”, a good effort”. Rather, the question of “what is being approved”, or what is being praised, is the most salient one.

When receiving your report card your parents notice that you got a good grade in Mathematics. As they hear the news they utter:

“Well done!”

You feel proud as your good result in mathematics is earning you approval. This is called “performance praise”. In this case the praise was used to encourage you to obtain further results in the future. The praise here was contingent upon you performing well on a test.

On another occasion you receive the results for your O-Level examinations. You obtained a very good grade in English. Your parents acknowledge this result and pat you on your back whilst telling you:

“Bravu! You are such a smart young man”.

Again, you feel proud, as your parents’ praise was indicative of their approval of your achievement. Their praise also implied that you are indeed a smart young man. This type of praise is called “ability praise”. In this case you are being encouraged to continue studying since you are a bright and intelligent young man. In this case, the praise received was also contingent upon performance. However, the message was that you were able to obtain this result because you are smart.

It has been suggested that both types of praise, i.e. ability and performance praise, may cause children to develop a “performance goal orientation”. Children with performance goal orientations tend to view tasks as tests of competence (Dweck & Leggett, 1988). I.e., they see every task they are asked to complete as an opportunity, sometimes even an obligation or duty, to perform positively. Children with a performance orientation tend to conceptualise praise as being contingent upon positive outcomes or performance. Thus, they reason, that the only way they can obtain their parent’s approval, or praise, is by performing well.

As you can imagine, this situation can bring with it a great deal of stress and added pressure on a child. Together with such stressors, performance goals could also bring about negative self-cognitions, negative affect, high anxiety levels, and subsequently even impaired performance (Weaver et al., 2003).

Research here is pretty hazy. In fact, this type of praise does seem to work with some. However, what research seems to indicate is that praise that focuses solely on performance could more often than not lead towards emphasising outcomes whilst overlooking process. Thus, the focus on performance could be a missed opportunity; a missed chance to increase competence and acquire new skills.

Praise for ability also seems to present with perils of its own. Praising a child for ability (i.e. praise which suggests that success is related to that child’s intelligence) may “persuade” that child that success depends exclusively on innate characteristics such as intelligence.

What would happen then when a child fails at a particular task, which most probably will happen at some point in time in any individual’s life? Would that mean that they are not as smart as they thought? Research, such as Mueller & Dweck (1998), suggests that ability praise may lead towards the internalisation of the notion that intelligence is a stable trait that is not amenable to change. If this belief is adopted, why would a child persevere in the face of failure, particularly since that failure in the first place is a confirmation of their lack of ability? What would be the use of trying again?

Effort-praise

The other type of praise which is frequently discussed is “effort praise”. Effort praise is related to the process of engaging in an activity. This is when children are praised for trying hard; for putting in the effort; and for giving it their all.

“You really studied hard for this exam, you totally deserve the result”.

Praising children for effort could help with focusing more on the process of learning rather than solely on the outcome. This could in turn help to reduce performance anxiety and produce higher levels of engagement in a particular activity. This could also increase the “joy” of learning. Another positive outcome of this “style” of praise is its’ effect on attributions. Effort praise could in fact imply that success is dependent on hard work. In this way, performance could be seen as a product of effort (which can fluctuate and is not innate) rather than ability (which is static). Could this lead to a feeling of control, or even responsibility, over performance or achievements?

As mentioned earlier, there does not seem to be agreement on which types of praise are mostly related to positive outcomes. In fact, some theorists argue: what if after putting in the effort, the results are nowhere to be seen? Would that lead to feelings of inadequacy? Could children’s self-belief and self-worth be effected if they constantly fail after putting in the effort?

Weaver et al.’s (2003) study seems to indicate that the impact of effort or achievement praise on attributions, motivation and self-evaluation of children could be related to personally traits. However, their study was a very small study (n=7). The very small sample used in their study does cast some doubts on such conclusions.

On the other hand, Lam, Yim & Ng (2008) propose that effort praise could lead to more positive outcomes. Lam et al., (2008) posed the question: “Is effort praise motivational?” Their research sought to investigate the effects of effort praise on positive self-evaluation and intrinsic motivation. Their conclusions were extremely interesting. They concluded that the effects of effort praise depended greatly on the extent to which individuals believed in the effort–ability relationship. Lam et al., (2008, p. 700) postulate:

“Effort praise can be motivational when the recipient believes in a positive relationship between effort and ability. However, it can be demotivational when the recipient believes in an inverse relationship.”

What does an inverse relationship mean? This refers to view that more effort needs to be done by individuals who have poor ability or intelligence. Thus, the less one’s ability, the more one has to make an effort for success. On the other hand, a positive relationship between effort and ability refers to the idea that the more one exerts effort, the more competent one will become.

A study by Zentall & Morris (2010) sought to investigate the effects of generic praise (praised generally related to one’s abilities) and non-generic (praise largely related to mastery motivation and effort) on children’s self-evaluation and task persistence. The outcomes of their study suggests that children who hear even a small amount of generic (ability or achievement praise) tend to present with reduced task persistence. Furthermore, they concluded even a small amount of non-generic praise may increase children’s positive self-evaluations. In contrast, a majority of non-generic praise is necessary to increase persistence after failure. Their results indicate that that non-generic praise (related to effort) promotes mastery behaviors, whilst generic praise (related to ability) promotes helpless behaviors.

effort 2

Studies like the ones cited above seem to indicate that effort-praise should be used more frequently than ability or achievement praise. However, scholars such as Professor Carol Dweck (University of Stanford) argues that we could have taken this recommendation (to use effort-praise) one step too far. In her book “Mindset: how you can achieve your potential” (Dweck, 2012) she argues in favor of using effort-praise to promote what she defines as a “growth-mind-set”. A mindset, according to Dweck, is a theory of “self” that people hold about themselves (Dweck, 1994). Believing that you are either “intelligent” or “unintelligent” is a simple example of a mindset. A growth mindset is the belief that an individual’s most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. On the other hand, in a fixed mindset an individual believes that basic qualities, like intelligence or talent, are fixed traits, and these traits determine success or failure.

Dweck argues for the use of effort-praise. In fact, she is of the opinion that when children are praised for their efforts, they tend to try harder and persist longer on difficult tasks. However, she also states that whilst praising effort, we should also keep in mind the outcome or the progress that child is demonstrating. She states:

“Our goal should be to teach students that effort is a means to learning and progress. The goal is not simply to make kids feel good about their lack of progress. When students try hard but fail to progress, we can begin by appreciating their effort, but then we need to sit with them and say, “Show me what you’ve tried, and let’s figure out what you can try next” or “Tell me exactly what your thought process was when you did it this way, and let’s see if there are other ways that you can try.”

(https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/praise-effort-not-outcome-think-again. Last viewed 25th August 2017).

 

effort 1 - mindset

 

Thus, whilst ensuring to promote a growth mindset, and using non-generic effort-praise and also encouraging positive effort-ability attributions, she also encourages educators and parents to refrain from reacting with false affect (i.e. empty or false praise) to a child’s struggle or setback. Rather, she recommends a “learning reaction”. This requires educators and parents to ask questions such as:

What did you do?’, ‘what can we do next?

Which strategies did you use?

These questions could be used to help the child develop a growth mindset when that child has experienced failure. This would help the child see that whilst effort is important, using the right strategies or using different strategies is as important. It is like saying:

“Hard work is great! But hard and diligent work is even better!!”

It is also important to keep in mind that there is a fine line between giving feedback and nagging. Unfocused and non-specific feedback could easily be perceived as nagging or complaining, and will most likely not help anyone obtain desired results.

With this regard, Dweck also recommends giving honest and non-generic feedback to children. This feedback should always acknowledge effort and persistence, whilst also encouraging seeking different ways to reach goals. In this way, they will internalize mastery orientations whilst not overlooking completely outcomes.

Thus, in order to teach children that brains are like muscles that can be strengthened through hard work and persistence, she recommends using the following statements: “Maybe math is not one of your strengths yet.” She insist on including the “yet” in this statement to send the message that we cannot always be successful after the first attempt. Sometimes we are also unsuccessful after the second attempt. Yet, slowly but surely, effort and practice will help our “brains grow”.

Conclusion

To answer the question, “should I praise my child?”

The answer is always yes. However, we should not see praise as a panacea for poor achievement. Rather, we should use it diligently.

Parents and educators should be more conscious of how their praise may be effecting their children. We should always ask: what am I praising; effort, achievement, or ability?

Praise should always be used! However, whatever we say to our children must be focused on increasing persistence, highlighting the process and “joy” of learning, and encouraging mastery rather that confirming or refuting ability or intelligence.

Finally, the answer to the question: “Could children’s self-belief and self-worth be effected if they constantly fail after putting in the effort?”

The answer is yes. This is a possibility. That is why I believe that effort-praise should be specific, descriptive, and at times “solution-focused”. i.e. it should encourage children to understand what they did well, be encouraged to do more of the good, and find ways to see stumbling blocks as opportunities to strengthen their “brain muscles”. In this way, their difficulties are seen as temporary, ability is seen as malleable, and success is seen as a result of diligent effort.

References:

Dweck, C. (2012). Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential. London: Robinson.

Dweck, C. S. (1994). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press/Taylor & Francis.

Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. (1988). A social cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95, 256-273.

Lam, S.f., Yim, P.S., & Ng, Y.l. (2008). Is effort praise motivational? The role of beliefs in the effort-ability relationship. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 33, 694-710

Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33-52

Weaver, A. D., Watson, T. S., Cashwell, C., Hinds, J., & Fascio, S. (2003). The effects of ability- and effort-based praise on task persistence and task performance. The Behaviour Analyst Today, 4, 127-133.

Zentall, S. R., & Morris, B. J. (2010). “Good job, you’re so smart”: The effects of inconsistency of praise type on children’s motivation. Journal of Experimental

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