Praise that encourages growth

I teach a social skills program in Kindergarten every year, and there’s this tricky part of the curriculum where we discuss what it means to ‘praise’ someone. Many of the children understand the word in relation to worship songs or prayer, but they struggle to connect that idea to also offering words of recognition, approval and encouragement to others.

We’re coming to the point where our students will face a reckoning for the work they’ve put in over the year – school reports, awards given, class competitions wrapping up. Some students have had a good year, and it will be easy to find positive words to say about their work and attitudes. Other children may have had a few rough patches – illnesses leading to many days off school, significant events outside of school disrupting concentration, or even simple friendship problems can make giving your best at home and in classroom difficult. It is important to evaluate honestly what went wrong and what could improve. It is also important to recognise the things that went well and use these to guide improvement in those other areas.

As our Director of Primary,  Mrs Ruth Brown shared with us earlier this year, a fixed mindset faces a challenge without seeing room for improvement – e.g. “I didn’t get top marks, I must be stupid, I’ll never be good at school.”  A growth mindset approaches the same challenge as an opportunity to learn – e.g. “I didn’t get top marks, but I know I didn’t try hard this year. Next year I know what I need to do to do better.” It’s “never will” vs “not yet” thinking.

The research also says that the way we praise children can reinforce a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. If we praise and encourage children for their achievements based on something that seems to be a fixed attribute, such as “You’re so smart,” “Wow! You didn’t even have to try!” or “Some people just aren’t good at that, don’t worry,” then it reinforces the idea that achievement in that area is based on an innate ability, and there’s nothing they can do to change it. Praise that stems from a growth mindset however, focuses on the effort and the process, rather than what was achieved. Here are some examples of “growth mindset” praise:

  • “I noticed how hard you worked on that question.”
  • “I know this wasn’t something you really wanted to do – I’m proud of you for having a go.”
  • “I can see that checking your work helped you fix some mistakes, what a great idea!”
  • “You’ve improved! How did you do it?”

I’m not saying we need to make things up and be falsely positive or that every child should get an award. My point is that if we encourage children to develop learning skills, rather than focus on learning content then we give them an environment that motivates them to keep going even when things are difficult.

If you’d like to know more about the research into effective ways to praise children, check out this video: