Last week our administrative team was participating in some training that discussed the instructional practices that have the highest impact on student achievement. One of those practices is “Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition”. Like most parents (and many educators), I thought I was pretty good at recognizing my children for their successes. And like most parents, I’ve thought from time to time that my kids were pretty smart or naturally gifted at certain things; and I didn’t have a problem saying so (to my kids at least) in an effort to boost their confidence. What I didn’t realize is that an increasing amount of research is showing that praising kids for their ability does not enhance a child’s capability to perform. On the contrary, it might impede it.

WHAT? Praising my child is the wrong thing to do? No, but the specificity and sincerity of praise is important according to Dr. Carol Dweck, the ground-breaking researcher who’s pioneering work started what now seems to be a national discussion. And the praise should focus on a child’s effort rather than their abilities. Dr. Dweck’s research shows that children who receive constant praise based on their abilities tend to become risk averse because they don’t want to be in positions where they aren’t viewed as being smart by others. In short, when a very bright child who has been over-praised regarding their ability meets a significant challenge, they give up so they don’t look bad.

For the past month, my kid’s favorite movie has been Despicable Me. When Dr. Gru, the villain turned hero in this movie, gets a great idea, he audibly announces “LIGHT BULB!” Upon hearing the specific instruction in our seminar on how to praise children for their effort rather than their ability; and the explanation as to why we should avoid over-praise regarding ability, the proverbial light bulb certainly appeared. If you believe the research, and I do, both parents and school districts need to reconsider how we go about praising children. You can read more about Dr. Dweck’s work and get access to additional information below.

Article in New York Magazine – How Not to Talk to Your Kids

An Interview with Dr. Dweck

Dr. Dweck’s Book – Mindset: The New Psychology of Success


About Jay Harnack

Superintendent of Sublette County School District #1
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