Friday, February 25, 2011

"Way To Go! You're A Genius!"

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.”

"You're nailing a bottle cap to a piece of wood."
He explained that a high percentage of parents who have their children tested also tend to be 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 something that hadn't occurred to me. He said that these tests are just snapshots 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, but they just don’t listen. If they get a high score, parents like sticking the label of genius 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.”

"You're painting with tiny, delicate strokes."

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.

"You're putting a red bead on a tan pipe cleaner."

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.

"You're sawing right through that cork."

Recently retired North Seattle Community College Instructor Tom Drummond takes it one step further. He recommends avoiding praise altogether unless it is absolutely 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.

"You're carefully balancing that MLK robot on the very top."

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 very high.”

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

In the end, it seems to me that this is really the most important gift we can give to our children: 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. “Way to go! You’re a genius!”

"You're climbing that tree."

(Re-posted, with editing, from 8/29/09)

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Scott said...

Great post, Tom. I agree 100%.

Juliet Robertson said...

Hi Tom

In my 3rd year of teaching I had a really challenging class of 5-6yrs olds (Grade 1?) This was great in that I had to really change how I communicated with children.

I did use a lot of praise. I had to. It was an achievement for some children to walk from one end of the class to another without thumping 3 kids en route. But the behaviour was praised and not the child. And it was sincere.

However it does take practice. I remember some days literally walking out of the classroom, taking a deep breath and walking back inside to re-phrase and begin again with the children.

Oh yes, on a completely different note, I was showing teachers on a course your blog - both days the whole group gasped in a positive way when the photo of you came up - the superhugger one! I didn't realise it was such an effective image to have at the top of your blog. It was really funny!

Best wishes

Deb Chitwood said...

Great post! The new research on praise fits well with Montessori philosophy. I also enjoyed the chapter "The Inverse Power of Praise" in the book Nurture Shock: New Thinking about Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Deb @

Kate @ An Everyday Story said...

Nice post Tom.
As a high school teacher, I too have seen the effects of praise. Some kids (actually many now that I think about it) really seem to only perform when they know the teacher is watching or seek out ways to receive praise. Last year I had one student who would whisper to me the things she wanted me to tell the class, like 'Carla is doing a great job' or 'Carla has already finished'. It was very concerning.

I try as much as possible not to give praise believing that the intrinsic sense of accomplishment is much more meaningful for students. I do however believe in sincerely acknowledging effort and achievement.

Now, with my own son, I find it more important not to constantly interrupt him with 'good job'. I smile if he looks at me but the most rewarding part is when he smiles to himself (without looking for me).

I prefer 'keep trying' when he is having difficulty with something and it seems to be having a positive affect on his perseverance and risk taking.

Great post. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom,
This post is a fantastic read. I'm all for focusing on the process of learning new skills, rather than spending too much time on what is there already. Sure it's good to know a baseline, but the fun is in where the child's learning journey goes next :)

Ofélia said...

Hello, I'm Portuguese and I agree 100%.
I'm in


Ofélia said...

Hello, I'm Portuguese and I agree 100%.
I'm in


Play for Life said...

Beautifully put Tom!
Donna :) :)

Kristin said...

I've recently found your blog and shared it with as many people as I can. You touch on so many great points and I'm truly inspired by you. I have an almost 2 year old that I'm teaching on my own for now and many of my activities come from your words or pictures. Thank you for talking about this to the world! Since I've found you, I literally get up every morning to see if there is a new post.


Unknown said...

I remember when my now 20 year old took the kindergarten entrance exam. One of the questions was: "You are outside playing and it begins to rain. What should you do?" Her response was: "Go inside." Apparently, they were looking for: "open an umbrella". Since then, I haven't put much stock in those early IQ tests.

As an exercise in a NJ ECE class, we took an IQ test. Apparently, I was one of the few who had any type of intelligence, according to the test. It was skewed towards persons living in the south. One of the questions asked us to identify a "rug beater", common in older southern households, unheard of up north. As a Southerner, I was not smarter than the others in my class, just better prepared to answered those particular questions due to my background.

I am working on my "teacher talk" trying to choose my words carefully. We were taught to praise for so long that now it's tough to stop and think before "praise" words slip out, but I'm working on it! :)

Launa said...

I have heard this particular wisdom before, and I try really, really hard to eliminate the "good job"s and "beautiful"s from my teaching vocabulary. Most days I do well with this because I work at it, but I find that if I'm a little tired or distracted, they still slip out--they are a kind of shorthand for finding something meaningful to say to a child. It's interesting to me that these meaningless words are still "at the ready"--I think they must be deep in my mental recordings of my own childhood. I fully believe that they are not helpful things to say, and even harmful. Thanks for the reminder to create meaningful conversations with children around their work, not just knee-jerk filler words.

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

I agree with your thoughts on this Tom, and it is a very good reminder, as sometimes in my effort to be kind, or helpful, I overdo it, and I agree it is so much more healthy for the child's self esteem, and self concept, to be given sincere, honest evaluation describing the effort of the child.Your photos, and comments reinforce the concept you are conveying in a very solid way.
Thank you for this.

BSK said...

Thanks for this, TT. I was just referring a parent to the first study mentioned, but couldn't remember the specifics enough to offer the actual article. I can now pass this, and the others along, and help myself, my parents, and my colleagues better understand this important approach.

BSK said...

Having read to the end (I was far from genius when I made my first post), I see that what you are advocating is known in some circles as descriptive praise. I know of some great resources on this approach, for both parents and educators, I can pass along to anyone who is interested.

Unknown said...

We were talking about worrying in a SS discussion this morning. Someone pointed out that sports players perform better when they are playing just to play, and are not concerned about scoring. Same with children, they'll be far more likely to reach their highest potential when they are not just trying to score points with adults.

Granny Tanny said...

With my 1st child I began my education for REAL!. I realized that, when she was learning to walk & would fall, she would look to me for my reaction before having her own. I was freaking--my BABY falling & hurting herself--so she would freak. I began gritting my teeth &, if there was no blood or the sound of breaking bones, would say "Well, get up & try again". 1 day, out on a concrete walkway in the yard, she tripped going after a beachball. She went down pretty hard on all4s. She looked down at the gritty concrete & told herself "Get up; try again". I had to hold onto the door frame to keep from jumping up&down. Of course, I never really calmed down, kept having to clench my teeth, but I've been proud of both of us since.

Saya said...

I agree with you.
Have you read "the education of children" by Alfred Adler? As far as praise goes, he is the same way - no praising unless it's truly genuine. There are other things I agree with in that book... He is one of the people who inspire me.

Mag said...

What you said about praising intrinsic ability really resonated for me. My older daughter is a talented artist. I have had some formal art training, though I am no where near as talented as my daughter, while my husband has little art experience. She'd show him a drawing and no matter what it was, it was "beautiful." I would describe the drawing to her in order to give my impression; I would offer bit of gentle criticism if I thought it would help. We've been at odds with our approaches; I think he's patronizing, and he thinks I'm a bit harsh.