Friday, May 04, 2012

The Gift Of Motivation

When my wife Jennifer and I were kindergarten shopping one of the schools we looked at required an I.Q. test. I recoiled at the idea, phoning a child psychiatrist friend, looking for support for my knee-jerk response. Of course, testing the intelligence of a 5-year-old is a bad idea.

Richard responded by saying he’d spent his entire career around these tests and had never seen them damage a child in any way. In fact, the kids he tested usually enjoyed taking them. “But,” he added, “I’ve see a lot of parents use the tests to hurt their kids.”

He explained that parents who have their children tested also tend toward being of the high strung, hovering variety, and that these tests just give them one more way to pass their anxiety on to their kids. That’s kind of what I’d expected him to say, but then he went on to add that these tests are just snapshots of a period in time and not predictors of the future. “I try really hard to make sure parents hear me say that I.Q. test results for a 5-year-old are only valid for 6 months." If they get a high score, he said, some parents stick the genius label on their kids as if it’s a badge they get to wear for the rest of their lives. "Then they burden them with praise."

Praise is a tricky thing, especially when it comes to our children.

10-year study of New York City 5th graders conducted by Carol Dweck while a professor of psychology at Columbia University, found that praising kids for their intelligence might actually be causing them to underperform academically. It seems that children who have been praised for their innate intellectual gifts tend to give up more easily when challenged, suffer more emotionally when they fail, and avoid taking risks when they perceive there is a chance their genius could fail them.

Teachers should focus on students' efforts and not on their abilities. When students succeed, teachers should praise their efforts or their strategies, not their intelligence.

I would assert that this is not only true for intelligence, but also for anything that could be construed as “innate,” like beauty, athleticism, or artistic ability. Effort is where praise is best applied because unlike inherent traits, it is something a child can actually control. In Dweck’s study, the children who were praised for their effort rather than intelligence were far more likely to persevere, try new things, and be less hard on themselves when they failed.

But what about self-esteem? How do we help our children build that without praising them?

. . . it is more likely that good performance leads to high self-esteem rather than the other way around . . . (T)he researchers found that efforts to boost self-esteem have not been shown to improve academic performance and may sometimes be counterproductive.

In other words, self-esteem is not built though hollow praise, but rather from mastering skills, which can only be done through experience and hard work. We help our children build confidence by giving them the opportunities to try, try, try again. Encouragement, not praise is our greatest tool.

Retired North Seattle Community College Instructor Tom Drummond takes it one step further. He recommends avoiding praise altogether unless it's spontaneous and genuine, claiming that children, even very young ones, know the difference between sincere and insincere praise. He asserts that an endless barrage of “Good jobs!” teaches children to seek external validation rather than looking into themselves for motivation. Instead, he advises teachers and parents to concentrate on observable facts about a child’s activities.

Instead of, “What a beautiful red circle!” one might simply say, “You used a red crayon to draw a circle.”

Instead of, “You’re a terrific jumper!” one might say, “You’re jumping up.”

Instead of, “You’re so smart!” one might say, “You worked hard at that.”

In the end, it seems to me that this is the gift of motivation: the capacity to continue to strive even when things are difficult. And ultimately that can only come from within.

So now you’re at the end of this post. “Good job! You’re so smart!”

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Kyle Miller said...

I've been working with Galinsky's book, Mind in the Making.She uses Dweck's study as support for much of what she's saying. There's a dvd that goes along with the book, and on it there's a clip of Dweck's study. It's very impressive, seeing the children's theory of mindset in action, resulting from the words spoken to them as they complete a complex task. We adults just don't see how what seems to be the most subtle action on our part has such major impact on the developing child and so we tend to focus on having large sweeping impact.

Kristina Hansen said...

I am a lifelong student of the early childhood field and recommend avoiding all standardized tests if possible. But when my daughter was 4 and was exhibiting some concerning developmental issues I sought to have her evaluated through the early intervention system. One part of this evaluation was an IQ test. This test was very revealing, she scored high on everything but she had one peculiar anomaly the testers pointed out. Her ability to solve novel problems was off the chart and the testers commented they had never run across this situation before. She ended up being "diagnosed" with an anxiety disorder. This explained a lot. Having the IQ test results helped me understand why she was experiencing such high anxiety as a 4 year old. Her high ability of novel problem solving makes her over-think everything. She is now 10 and deals with life much better, but her special gift of novel problem solving still surfaces from time to time. I believe as she gets older she will gravitate towards philosophy, ethics, medicine or engineering. Time will tell. As far as the IQ test goes, I threw away the results and don't remember her official score- those mean nothing to me. But I am forever grateful for the very useful information I gleamed through this test. I understand and can support my daughter much better because of it.

Barbara said...

How can it be that you so totally and eloquently express my philosophy of early childhood education? Could you please go to Capitol Hill and help them understand the RIGHT thing to do? Keep writing and "feeding" me. :-)

Mandy said...

Thank you for reposting this from last year. I am a middle school teacher and many of my students become so discouraged when they are unable to easily accomplish a task. It takes a lot of goading for my students to realize that it takes time (and brainpower!) to work things out and be successful. Many want instant gratification or quit on things way too quickly.

Thanks for sharing, Teacher Tom! I appreciate your dedication and thoughtfulness for our children.

Mandy @ The Chockboard said...

I am a psychologist and I have done some assessment work with developmentally delayed pre-schoolers. I would have to agree with your friend - the testing doesn't negatively impact the kids in and of itself, it's definitely what the adults do with the results and the labels that do the harm.

Your post caused me to reflect on my own childhood as a bright kid who did well at school (but not much else). I do fear failure now and I don't like to try new things unless I am sure I can do "well". My parents always overtly focused on effort and 'as long as you try your best' but under that, I knew they expected straight As. I was motivated to make them proud, not always by what I was learning along the way. Thank you for the reminder to be careful of the feedback and the underlying messages (coming from my own attitudes) that I give to my son.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I agree with Dweck's ideas about the "growth mindset." People tend to do better at learning things when the stakes are low--i.e., when their personal worth and reputation don't hinge on the outcome of whatever they're trying. The stakes are going to be lower for kids who equate outcome with input than for the ones who see it as a personal reflection on their worth, so it makes sense that the "effort-oriented" ones will perform better simply because they'll be less stressed out. But the reality is that outcome is a measure of LOTS of different things--partly input and effort, partly individual ability (innate and learned), partly external circumstances (controllable and uncontrollable), partly stress level and psychological preparedness, etc. So actually, both the "growth mindset" and the "fixed mindset" are factually wrong. (Or factually right but incomplete, depending on whether they're categorical or come in degrees.)

That said, you're probably right that praising effort is more important than praising other stuff the kids can't control. But I don't think mastery is the only thing that builds self-esteem: recognition definitely helps, and in its absence it's often quite easy to mistrust yourself and get discouraged. In my first job, I performed extremely well, easily mastering everything that was expected of me, but was constantly criticized and micromanaged and praised only in terms like "I don't know how someone as smart as you can fail to understand my directions." I did *not* emerge from that experience more confident than before, to put the case mildly. I think it's important that our evaluations reflect what's actually happening--that they be statements of fact, like you say elsewhere when discussing giving up "command language."

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