The kids affectionately dubbed him ‘Bozie’.
Described by his parents as ‘very bright’, instead of performing well,
Bozie transformed himself into the classroom clown.
Greg Nicholson’s book, ‘The ICing on the Cake! Independence and Confidence’ for parents of pre-schoolers preparing their youngsters for school, reveals surprising aspects about praise of which you may not be aware. Following, is an excerpt.
Praise -Beware! A Two Sided Coin
Over the years, countless parents have come to me, starry-eyed, to tell me how smart or intelligent their child was. Yes, some were bright, one or two even highly gifted, but truth to tell, the majority struggled to live up to the labels their doting parents had imposed on them since they had walked at ten months, or reeled off the alphabet from the age of three.
One such little boy was Alexander who was thrust through my Prep classroom door one year, the day before the first day of school as I was organising desks and learning aids. He was followed by his mother and two smiling grandparents who all proceeded to tell me as the boy looked on, how advanced he was for his years, and to ask what they could expect that would ensure the blossoming and growth of his special gifts. As evidence of his ‘special gifts’, Alexander was then encouraged by his mother to recite the capital cities of various countries of the world, which he parroted with admirable ease.
In view of his entourage, I gained the impression that young Alex, an only child who could do no wrong, was the apple not only of his mother’s eye but also those of his grandparents. I wondered, having already been down a similar path with other families, how the coming term would unfold. As it happened, I didn’t have to wait beyond the first day to find out.
The kids were enjoying a lively exchange in class on what they’d done over the public holidays and I noted that Alexander, who’d been raised at home to believe he was a very clever boy, was one of the quieter ones; his mouth was closed tight as a clam and when I glanced at him, he quickly dropped his eyes.
Later in the week, during developmental role playing in small groups, he sat on a chair and watched as the other children pretended to be market stall holders and customers selling and buying produce. Had I not intervened, I believe Alex would have continued to lay low hoping not to be noticed, minimising his presence in class and becoming increasingly less engaged with classroom activities and learning.
The year before Alexander, I’d taught another child whom the kids had affectionately dubbed, ‘Bozie’, described glowingly by his parents as ‘very bright’ but who, instead of performing well, transformed himself into the classroom clown to mask his anxiety over a need to live up to his ‘smart’ tag by getting all his answers right.
I used a similar strategy to manage both situations.
Although their secondary behaviour had manifested in different ways, the underlying issue was that each child had been afraid to take risks for fear of failing—for fear of being embarrassed or thought of as ‘dumb’ when confronted with new learning on unfamiliar ground. Their parents had done the boys no favours.
Unwittingly leading them to believe they were so smart they could wing any topic—that with natural ability they didn’t have to think or put in any effort was, and is—even for the majority—just not so.
Learning is multifaceted, demanding far more than a quick intellect. Drawing on our environment for information, it takes curiosity, character and our vast pool of mental resources to achieve its end. Without persistence and resilience, the walls of challenge can readily block our path and, without confidence, there is barely a breath of wind to lift our wings.
To redress the issue and encourage Bozie and the following year, Alexander, to find their classroom confidence—during discussions and simple problem solving I ignored the quick-answer kids and gently asked the quieter children in a non-judgmental way what they thought, giving positive acknowledgement of their responses in front of the class. When I then asked Alexander to be a class monitor for the week, and later, because he was ‘being so responsible’, if he could teach his successor, Rachel, what to do, it was as if a different child had walked into the room.
Both Alex and Bozie opened like flowers in bloom. In a rush of self-belief, they began to join in spiritedly to our discussions and became eagerly engaged in story writing and other class activities. No longer having to hide behind masks of disinterest—as had Alexander—or zany disruptive behaviour—as had Bozie—both boys became active classroom participants.
If you’ve guessed by now from this discussion on praise that all praise is not equal, you’re right. Praise is a two-sided coin.
Praise for effort has the power to motivate and build confidence in a child, while words that praise for intelligence alone, although well intended, have the potential to undermine or even destroy confidence; it can deliver a heavy burden and produce, as I found in my classroom, undesirable behaviour.
Memories of Alexander and Bozie came back to me recently when I read of studies by Dr Carol Dweck, a social psychology professor at Stanford University.
Older research had suggested praising a child for being smart or intelligent buoyed their confidence. Questioning this widely-held view, however, Dweck, a scholar of motivation, intelligence theories and childhood learning over four decades, tested 400 fifth-graders (equivalent in Barbados, Class 3’s) and found a quite different and disquieting story: she and her team identified two mindsets in the students about their own abilities which ran counter to one another, and showed the impact of those mindsets on student motivation.
Analysing the fifth-graders’ responses during a series of easy and hard tests over several days, the two opposed mindsets were what Dweck calls a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.
Kids with fixed mindsets tend to think, for example, that their ability is something they’re born with; that their talents are a fixed trait—that they’re an inherent, unchangeable feature of who they are.
Dweck observed that fixed mindset students believe they have a certain amount of intelligence and that’s that. ‘Then,’ she said, ‘their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.’
Students exhibiting a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe their talents and skills can be learned—that they can be developed through effort and good teaching. ‘They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it,’ said Dweck, who repeated her experiments with similar results.
Professor Dweck noted that although her extensive research has involved older children whose maturity allows their articulation of feelings and beliefs, such mindsets have also been identified in preschoolers of three or four years of age. (My emphasis.)
Dweck’s fifth-grader study started with a non-verbal intelligence quotient (IQ) test comprising a series of easy puzzles, where most kids performed well. Delivering the marks individually outside the classroom, the researchers—randomly dividing the students into groups—offered three different sets of praise:
- praise for intelligence: ‘Wow, you got eight right; that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this!’ (Experimental group)
- praise for effort: ‘Wow, you got eight right; that’s a really good score. You must have tried really hard.’ (Experimental group)
- praise for results: ‘Wow, that’s a really good score.’ (Control group)
The follow-up revealed dramatic results, identifying the different mindsets: the kids were asked what puzzles they’d like to work on next. They were told they could select easy tasks, or ones posing challenge and likely mistakes, but that great things could be learned through attempting them.
Most of the students praised for being smart chose—the easy puzzles! During a talk at Stanford, Dweck commented, the kids weren’t fools. ‘They wanted to keep on looking smart,’ she said. ‘They wanted to keep that label.’
The majority of youngsters praised for effort, however, rose avidly to the challenge and became engaged in the tasks. They were motivated to learn, in spite of being told they’d probably make errors. Some even said later that the hardest tasks were their favourites.
Being confronted by tests or conditions that could produce failure or embarrassment in front of others can have a numbing or otherwise negative effect on children with a fixed mindset. We saw the reactions of Alexander and Bozie, raised on a pedestal by their parents for their ‘giftedness’: they tried to dodge under the radar or clowned around to cover their fears.
When Dweck’s fifth-graders were given yet another test—one beyond their years, at which, as the research team predicted, all the kids failed—the fixed mindset students, having rejected the significance of effort, believing their innate ability was their only resource, fell into a heap. Without a perceived framework for dealing with failure, they simply had nowhere to turn.
These kids believed they’d failed because they weren’t smart after all. Critically, this undermined their confidence and motivation to the extent that Dweck’s final task—designed to be as easy as the first—sent their scores plummeting by some twenty per cent, compared to the start.
Meanwhile, the growth mindset youngsters had their hands firmly on the controls and motivation was high. They believed that exercising some mental muscle would throw up solutions, even if it meant a temporary setback or two along the way.
Learning and skill-building are of course about effort. But they’re also as much about getting something wrong as getting it right. I said recently to a Year 7 tuition student who was stressing over a routine problem solving exercise: ‘Slow down, take a breath and see the problem for what it is: it’s a great opportunity to refine your skills. So, test an idea! If it doesn’t work, guess what? You’ve learned something! When you then try a premise that does work, guess what again? You’ve learned something else and can move on.’
That’s what Dweck’s growth mindset fifth-graders did. In their last easy task—in which the fixed mindset kids had fared worse by some twenty per cent—this group of young risk-takers showed a thirty per cent increase on their first test scores.
When I show my students—kids of all ages across a broad demographic, seeking to sharpen their academic skills—that they can step beyond their innate ability to make their own success, many have an ‘aha!’ moment. Learning how to learn and to think for themselves is exciting and empowering! The light suddenly dawns that by concentrating and working at it, they can be a force to help shape their own outcomes.
But what about teaching a growth mindset? In her scientific endeavours on learning, motivation and the diverse effects of praise, Carol Dweck explored this, too: whether students’ poor academic performances could be enhanced through learning about intelligence. Again, her results were impressive.
In her study, 100 underperforming 7th graders (equivalent in Barbados Form 1’s) were randomly divided into two groups. Group A (the controls) were tutored over several sessions on study skills only. Group B (the test group) received study skills, but also two sessions on how the brain works.
The Group Bs were captivated! They read an essay that told them they could grow their intelligence: ‘New research shows the brain can be developed like a muscle,’ said the essay. When the brain gets a work out, the Group Bs learned, it forms new nerve cells and, over time, gets stronger—gets smarter.
‘This riveted the students,’ said Dweck. ‘They loved learning about the brain! They’d never thought about it, how it worked . . . that what they did had a direct impact on their brain and the connections it made.’
These students later markedly improved their maths results. But the Group As, who’d learned nothing on the wonders of the brain—how effort could make them smarter—lacked the inspiration to apply their new study skills, and continued to under-perform.
Professor Dweck’s research is a gift to the complex world of raising children. Most of us have probably told our kids—particularly in their early learning phases—how ‘clever’ or ‘smart’ they were to learn even a small step of a new skill. It’s natural; you’ve probably done it; I know I have, and no harm done—my kids have grown into confident, resilient young people.
The message, however, is in the detail. It’s about balance; about the words we use, about moderation, our manner and being alert to the fact that little ones will take what we tell them at face value. If we say, ‘You’re so clever! You’re the smartest kid I know,’ a four-year-old will puff up and believe he’s king of the castle. Say it too often and we must ask ourselves whether a child is at risk of forming an over-inflated sense of his intelligence—of developing a fixed mindset—and all that it implies.
There is much more to be learned from this interesting topic that is beyond the scope of this book; you may wish to explore further. Notes for Professor Dweck’s work are at the end of the chapter to assist you, while below, is a handful of children’s titles you may wish to share with your child, highlighting achievement through effort, perseverance, positive thinking and self-belief. Find them on Amazon.com.
- The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper
- Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss
- Long Shot: Never Too Small to Dream Big by Chris Paul and Frank Morrison
- The Very Clumsy Click Beetle by Eric Carl
In summarising—a last word. If in the past you’ve sought to inspire your preschooler or older child, by perhaps telling him he’s the smartest kid on the block, save a thought for Alexander and Bozie. At four, Alex could perfectly parrot the capitals of the world, yet had no understanding of what or where Washington, DC, was and no concept of London or Beijing or Paris or Rome—to him, they were just a bunch of new words. Bozie, for his part, could do brilliant headstands and walk on his hands. Neither child was gifted! Yet both had been led to believe they were so bright, life would be a cakewalk—that was, until they faced the unsettling reality of the classroom.
So avoid misunderstandings. Think before you speak and don’t smother your youngster with praise at every turn. Bestow it where it is truly due and steer clear of generalisations like, ‘What a nice picture!’ That is, make it more meaningful: you can heighten the impact and build greater confidence by pinpointing a particular part of a task or skill to show you noticed. ‘I like the way you coloured in the lady’s hat. Well done! It looks quite special.’ Your child knows that he gave his all to that hat, and your recognition of the fact will find its mark. Just watch his face.
Remember the aim: your child’s autonomy—the ability to achieve on his own. So don’t rush in to help too soon. Step back and let him work things through. Challenge and frustration are a natural part of learning. When he masters a skill unaided, his instincts will tell him your words are deserved.
Actually, I’d venture to say, this business of praise may not be that complicated. If you forget, and make a blunder with, ‘Wow, you’re smart!’—relax. You can get out of jail fast with a swift escape clause:
‘I’m impressed; you worked so hard at that, son!’
Psychologist and Educator, Achieve Tutoring Barbados
Dweck, C.S. ‘Self-theories: Their motivation, personality and development.’ Psychology Press, Philadelphia, 1999.
Dweck, C.S. ‘Mindset: The new psychology of success.’ Random House, New York, 2006.
VanDeVelde, C. ‘Carol Dweck: Praising Intelligence: Costs to Children’s Self-Esteem and Motivation.’ Bing Nursery School, Stanford University, November, 2007.
Bronson, Po and Merryman, Ashley. ‘Nurtureshock.’ Ebury Press, an imprint of Ebury Publishing, a Random House Group company, 2009.