The Science of Success of Children in Pre-K
Praising a child for a task well done seems like a no-brainer, and most of us could do it with our eyes closed. In fact, many of us literally do it with our eyes closed, half awake at 6am on Saturday morning when our kid rushes in full of energy to show off a new skill. Great job, we say … now back to bed please!
More and more, however, research shows that children learn best when we acknowledge their efforts rather than praise the outcomes.
Consider a child learning to read. In some cases, children who are praised for being “smart” due to early reading success may shy away from attempting to read more challenging material out of fear that the “smart” label could be taken away.
At first glance, this kind of praise — “Oh my goodness, you’re so smart!” — seems totally harmless. How could it hurt? When you dig deeper, though, you can see that labels (like “smart” or “quick learner” or even “hard worker”) take some of the ownership of these skills away from the children. In our culture’s view, you don’t get smart through hard work; you are either born with high intelligence or you aren’t.
As parents and educators, we want ALL children to feel confident enough to tackle new challenges, both academic and personal. How can we keep Sophia, who has experienced early reading success, motivated to continue building her skills even when it involves the risk of making a mistake? And how can we support Sophia’s continued academic risk-taking while simultaneously encouraging Charlie, who takes one look at the alphabet and buries his head in his lap because he cannot make sense of the letters?
The answer – acknowledging the effort – is simple, but it requires us to completely re-wire the way we instinctively respond to children. Acknowledging the effort means that we need to devote 100% of our attention to the child in that moment, while praising the outcome can be done with just a fraction of our focus.
When your son brings his latest artistic masterpiece to you, an outcome-based response would be, “It’s beautiful! I’m going to hang it up on the fridge!” An effort-based response, on the other hand, might be, “I see you used the red crayon to make these lines here that go up and down. You must have worked very hard on this!”
There is a difference between labeling someone a hard worker (an innate trait, out of our control) and acknowledging the hard work that went into a specific project (something a child can control). When we tailor our responses to the specific actions that went into an effort, we encourage children to continue putting forth that effort in future endeavors. When we offer vague praise of an outcome, we inadvertently lead some children to only put forth that effort when they are sure of a successful outcome.
Here are some more ways to rework your responses to be more effort-focused:
– Outcome-based response: “You’re such a good reader!”
Effort-based response: “I noticed the way you slowly sounded out the letters to yourself before putting the whole word together. That‘s a good way to learn how to read!”
– Outcome-based response: “What a pretty picture. That looks like a tree!”
Effort-based response: “You chose to use such bright colors in your art. Tell me about this green spot here.”
– Outcome-based response: “You’re so smart.”
Effort-based response: “I saw how carefully you were counting the number of apples on the page. That took a lot of concentration!”
– Outcome-based response: “Good girl!”
Effort-based response: “Thanks for following the rules. I know how hard you had to work to stand quietly in line when your feet were wanting to jump around.”
Effort-based responses require us to keep our eyes open when interacting with our children, not always an easy feat but one that is definitely worth trying. These responses are key to helping children truly embrace the old adage: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
If you are interested in learning more about the psychology behind building children’s motivation and confidence to face new challenges (and how praising outcomes can do just the opposite), New York Magazine published a well-researched and informative article several years ago that you can access here: http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/. For even more information on the science behind success and its associated character traits, check out the book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough.
Sarah McLanahan, M.S.Ed., LICSW, lives in Gloucester, MA with her husband and two daughters. She has worked for several years supporting families of very young children through the daily highs and lows that accompany the transition to parenthood. With her own family, she tries to make sustainable and healthy choices when time and budget permit, a journey you can read more about on her blog, Tales of Expansion.