Tag Archives: praise

Wow! Congratulations for Being Human

I have written about this before. It’s time to go a bit deeper. We have become hooked on a weird interpretation of praise. Afraid that our children might grow up with a less than optimal sense of self-esteem, we lavish them with praise for the oddest things. Little Mary comes home with 10/10 for spelling – yet again – and we tell her what a clever girl she is. Johnny wins the grade three running race and we frame his medal. But what has Mary really got to be proud of if she just happened to be born with the kind of memory that easily remembers and recalls visual spelling patterns? Why should Johnny feel a sense of achievement because he was born with longer legs and the kind of musculature that makes it easy for him to run fast? They really didn’t have to do much more than turn up in order to do well.

If we want our children to become people who strive to improve, who are prepared to put in the hard work it will take to solve the serious problems we face as a society, let’s start praising our children for something more than simply existing. Let’s praise them for the efforts they make.

We have far too many bright children in chains because we told them how clever they were for nothing more than being who they were. They are the ‘gifted under achievers’ whose sense of worth got all confused and mixed up with the innate gifts they were told they had, rather than the use they made of those gifts. These kids face the risk of losing who they think they are every time they face a challenge they may not be able to lick easily. Who wouldn’t back away when the odds are so high?

So what do they do instead? They deliberately fail by not turning up at tests, by failing to hand in work, they feel sick when there is an exam or they decide that they have a lousy teacher, a disruptive work group or too many personal problems. Their school reports are filled with comments about how they have “not reached their potential”. If my sense of self is tied to someone’s idea about my potential, it becomes a very risky business to try and reach it. What if it isn’t actually as high as everyone thought it was? What if I fail along the way? That will mean I am a failure.

Meanwhile the kids who knew that they had to earn praise by actually doing something are working hard to improve, seeing mistakes as pointers to the next things they need to learn. For them failure isn’t any threat to their self-esteem because they understand that their sense of achievement comes from getting better at things that are really hard in the first place. When these kids fail at something, they only become ‘failures’ if they give up. Carol Dweck describes this as having a ‘growth mindset’ rather than a ‘fixed mindset’. Check out her book “Mindsets’, it is well worth the effort.

It’s hard, but not impossible to help these kids remove the chains that hold them back, but it is far better not to forge them in the first place. Part of the secret is to praise effort rather than ability. Ability is more or less what we were born with. Why would we expect praise for something that had nothing to do with us? Being lucky enough to come from a particular gene pool, be born in a particular social stratum in a prosperous country may be cause for gratitude, but not for pride. So keep the praise for what our children DO rather than who they are.

The very act of providing praise can restrict growth and learning. Carol Dweck explains how it is that students who are praised for being clever can actually perform more poorly on tests, including IQ tests, when compared with those who are praised for putting in effort. Dr. Arthur Costa, in his teachings on Habits of Mind advises us to hold back on judgmental responses when a student answers a question in class. Praise for an answer is praise for an end product rather than a process. Keep the praise for evidence of thinking going on, not for answers. I have seen thinking simply shut down in the room when I have responded to a student with something like, “That’s great Mary, good answer.” Everyone thinks “why bother? Mary’s hit the nail on the head. No more work needed”.

We certainly need to acknowledge the responses of students in class, but save the praise until the thinking work has been concluded. And even then, direct it towards effort not just cleverness.


Filed under Behavior management, Thinking

Pollyanna, Move Over!

It’s all about optimism. Not the ‘walking about with a mindless grin on your face’ sort of optimism. Not the Pollyanna version either. It is the kind of optimism that underlies the belief that I can probably solve this problem, and even if I don’t, I will have learned a lot along the way.

When my daughter was six she went through a tough time at school. It was no different from the kinds of problems most children face as they learn how to get along with people. Every day we would ask her about the problems she was having. And things kept getting worse.

As a circuit breaker we decided that from now on we would not greet her with questions like “Did Christy give you a hard time today?” Instead we would ask her to tell us some of the good things that had happened. Only when we had a couple of those on the table would we give her the opportunity to explore any of the problems. It worked. Gradually she began to enjoy school again and the morning grizzles disappeared.

I started thinking more about this a few years back. I was attending a couple of lectures as a wifely duty.  You know the sort of thing – it’s important to him so I must fly the spousal flag. Sitting in the lecture theatre it occurred to me that I had a choice. I could maintain my ‘bored but supportive’ stance, or I could look for something interesting. I could make a choice, and I did. There was a lot that I didn’t understand, but within that unfamiliar territory I discovered several fascinating way points. And it got me wondering.

Why do we bother? What is it that makes some people bound through life while others lurk in the shadows? Why do some kids stride forward bravely at every challenge and others stand at the back, scuffing their feet and looking at the ground? Maybe it is because they have lost their optimism, the belief that they will succeed and even if they don’t they will have enjoyed trying and will have learned some new things along the way.

As adults we can help our kids preserve their optimism. They certainly come with it into the world. No baby ever doubted he would talk, or walk, or run. Watch the determination of the toddler to climb up on the couch and you see optimism in action. Our five year olds enter school filled with optimism and eagerness to learn. When I taught a combined grade one and two I used to think I could walk into the room with large sheets of newspapers, tell them we were going to spend the next half hour tearing them up into tiny bits and they would all cheer. They were enthusiastic about everything in life, so optimistic. It’s around grade three that we start hearing them say “I can’t do that”. What goes wrong?

I think one of the things that goes wrong is that we start to focus too much on the end products of kids’ efforts, rather than on the processes. We do the same thing with adults. By doing this we create too many failures. Too much failure makes us into pessimists.

I am trying hard to be an artist. Not all my paintings work. Sometimes the best thing I can do with a finished work is to paint over it with white paint and start a new one. What was that painting? A failure? If that’s the case then I ought to put away my brushes because I have a lot of ‘failures’. But I learned so much about composition, about mixing colors and about what not to do next time. So the end product may not have been a success but the process certainly was. I learned stuff and kept my optimism intact.

A class of seven year olds has just had a spelling lesson that focuses on the spelling pattern ‘ph’. They have made lists of ‘ph’ words, and looked for ‘ph’ words in their reading. At the end of the week there is a spelling test and one little girl spells the word like this: ellephant. The teacher marks it incorrect and the tally of failures for the week goes up by one for that child. If mention had been made of the correct initial letter, the correct number of syllables, the correct terminal letter and the correct use of the ‘ph’ she would have had a 4:1 ratio of successes over failures and come out way ahead. Optimism preserved!

If we want our kids to become skilled thinkers, to exercise the Habits of Mind that characterize successful people,  we need to ensure they remain optimistic thinkers who believe that they will gain as much from the acts of thinking and trying as they will from the end product.


Filed under Behavior management, Language and literacy, Thinking

Please don’t praise me for breathing

My cooperative, bright, curly headed five year old daughter one day looked me in the face when I had insisted that she do something she really didn’t want to do. She announced “I am the boss of me!”

I was taken aback for a moment, but only a moment. I calmly told her “Actually darling, that’s not quite true just yet” and sent her off to put the Lego away before she could watch her favorite TV program. The struggle had begun.

We had negotiated the storms of passage that had got us to this point, the odd tantrum, the rebellions and battles of will. I had worked hard on my ’pickup and put’ routine when polite requests no longer worked. But this was something new. My little girl was growing a powerful sense of self.

Every parent and every teacher faces this. How do we nurture a child’s sense of self-worth and efficacy without creating unacceptable beliefs of self-importance? How was I to make sure that my daughter’s growing self-esteem didn’t ever come at the cost of someone else’s? And just as importantly, how was I going to make sure that she valued the things about herself that truly merited value?

I looked up the meaning of ‘self-esteem’ in Webster’s dictionary and found the following: ‘confidence and satisfaction in oneself’.

So let’s visit a primary school classroom where the kids are getting ready to do some mathematics. They are packing away their previous materials and getting out mathematics books, pencils, rulers, some manipulatives and they are moving into new groups. As the teacher supervises we can hear her saying ‘great job, fantastic, way to go’ to children who have so far done nothing that required any effort. The room is awash with positive affirmations. She believes that she is building self-esteem but what she is in danger of doing is devaluing praise.

I need confidence when I am facing a difficulty, something that taxes my abilities and stretches me, something that just might prove to be beyond me. I can feel self-satisfaction when I know I have met that difficulty head on, used whatever resources I can muster to overcome it and either succeeded or certainly given my very best shot. I don’t need confidence when I walk across the room to pick up a pen and self-satisfaction is not really appropriate if I manage to sit on a chair without falling off.

We need to have high expectations about the behaviors we accept in a classroom, but praise needs to be reserved for those times when it has been earned. When praise is given for real effort, not just for existing, children are more likely to come to appreciate the efforts of others as well as themselves. In doing so they will come to value the contributions of others. Valuing others is the key to demonstrating empathy, to thinking interdependently and to looking around for new sources of information and data.

We need to be careful that we do not encourage a generation of children who think that whatever they say or do is worth a round of applause.

I remember hearing a lecturer in behavior management once say that we need to make sure we say something positive about every child each day. He went on to comment that sometimes the best you say to some kids is “Wow John. You really breathed well today.” But that’s a cop out. If John managed every day to get through without a single struggle, without facing a single difficulty, then maybe it will be hard to provide any genuine praise. But that is unlikely. John’s struggles may be different from any else’s and the effective teacher understands that and makes sure that John gets a pat on the back when he struggles and overcomes, when he pushes beyond the easy and the soft option. Then John understands what real confidence can mean. He can be legitimately satisfied with himself for something more than simply breathing.

Every child is valuable simply because they exist. Good parents reinforce this with their unconditional love of their children. From that foundation we do well to build a sense of worthy self-esteem in our children. When they understand that praise is given for effort they are more likely to hold in esteem the efforts of others. When praise washes over us continually it begins to feel like a warm bath and we stop even noticing it.


Filed under Behavior management, Thinking