Praising Effort over Ability
16 Oct 2020

Changing the Conversation: Praising Effort over Ability

Praise can be incredibly powerful. It’s that spark we see on our students’ faces when we offer a bit of useful positive reinforcement that can change the trajectory of their performance. However, the success of it comes down to how we deliver it. When we praise ability, “You are really smart!” instead of effort, “You must have worked really hard at that!” we may be building on a shaky foundation. One which doesn’t give them the stability they need.

Research shows that kids who are praised for “being smart” tend to focus only on performance — backing away from taking risks because they fear failure. It’s far better to create mindset which understands that failure is a learning opportunity. We need to rid ourselves of the negative connotation surrounding it. Of course, this can be a difficult shift in thinking. But when failure is seen as a step on the road to achievement, it all of sudden makes us feel safe to accept challenges and take risks.

Failing Forward

Take a moment and think back to the first time you remember experiencing failure. What type of feelings do you attach to it? For me, the one that stands out most is when I failed my first driving test. I sped through a yellow light in order to beat the red. I was embarrassed. Mortified, actually.

How do I explain this to all my friends? What is my mom going to say when I had to get out of the driver’s seat and tell her I didn’t pass? I immediately doubted myself and my abilities. I failed, and I dreaded the next time I had to do it all again. In fact, I waited an entire year to attempt round two.

Looking back, what that situation really afforded me was another opportunity to find success. And I did. “Failing” in that situation actually taught me to put forth more effort, be more focused (specifically, stopping on a stale yellow light when the driving instructor is sitting in the passenger seat), and have more confidence going forward. It took some time, but eventually I learned to take ownership over the situation and quite literally, hop back into the driver’s seat and try again.

Praising the Process, Not the Person

Praising effort is intended to further learning and ignite motivation. So, instead of saying “As long as you do your best…” it might be more effective to say, “You’re a hard worker, I know you can do this!” If we want praise to have an effect on future performance, it needs to be presented in a way that doesn’t imply that there is an end. Success is a continual process, and even when we reach a milestone towards achievement, we still have work to do.

This process of praise can serve as the motivation that kids need to persist through a tough task. When faced with a negative outcome, it teaches them to be resilient, to push on and keep chugging along. They learn that they can still feel positive emotions after a negative outcome. Why? Because their value as a person has not been called into question. It was the process that they took that needs to be improved upon, and that is something they can change.

We hope you are all staying healthy and safe during this difficult time. For more free educational resources, or ideas on how to promote healthy Social-Emotional Learning, simply follow this link!

*Today’s image is brought to you by Flight School by Lita Judge.