Good Work: How to give children the proper praise

Children love to learn — their minds seek stimulation, new information and skills. Yet, even in the best of schools with the most gifted of teachers, this love can be diminished by the pressure to perform and excel. Fortunately, an exciting body of research provides a simple strategy for protecting and enhancing the love of learning, even in the most competitive of school environments.

The research has been conducted over a decade by psychologist Carol Dweck, Ph.D, at Stanford. She discovered that one type of praise encouraged a lifetime of learning no matter how difficult the challenge. Another type of praise, though equally well-meaning, created risks for the process of learning becoming more frustrating as a child moved through the school system and into adulthood.

The type of praise she found essential was acknowledging a child's efforts rather than the results. This gives the child the message that learning is a lifelong process and as school becomes more difficult, they will work harder and with enthusiasm. The child grows to believe that effort and perseverance are the tools of success. She called this a growth mindset.

The other type she called a fixed mindset. It includes praising a child for being brilliant, talented, smart or gifted. This inadvertently gives the message that learning should always be easy for them, given their abundant natural talents. The problem arises when setbacks or difficult tasks occur, which call that "innate" talent into question. As a result, the child may withdraw from the challenge or blame others for his or her perceived failings.

Children raised with a growth mindset evolve into adults who take initiative, see difficult tasks through, are eager to learn and undaunted by setbacks, and open to and able to act positively on criticism. Sounds like a recipe for a successful life.

Robert Maurer is a Spokane psychologist, consultant, teacher and author of several books, including One Small Step Can Change Your Life and Mastering Fear.

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