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Reader Response: Techniques for Praising Effort
Written by Miguel Cura
In last month's newsletter Sherryann Sylvestre explored the powerful impact that praise has on effort. She explained why “children praised for their intelligence ("you're so smart") are less likely to choose challenging tasks or to remain resilient in the face of failure or difficulty than their peers who are consistently praised for their effort.” But how do you actually praise effort? Here are some documented techniques that I've used with my own kids (both in the classroom and at home):
Shifting the center of attention to the learning process (rather than the grade or outcome) allows children to focus on their efforts. As a math teacher I help my students do this by having them focus on what they put into the task; I coach them to use the strategies they learned in class, to do practice problems on their own, to study, to not give up when the work feels hard, and to try different ways to figure it out. When I observe these behaviors, I praise their work ethic; therefore, when we check class work, homework, or correct tests, my students then believe, "My effort led to this result." Consequently, this technique helps my students work hard, gain confidence in their abilities to learn, and ultimately helps them appreciate the process of learning.
It is never too early to start focusing on the process. For instance, when my son started to bring his drawings home I engaged him in conversation, using questions like: “Tell me about your picture.” “Why did you choose these colors?” “What materials did you use?” In other words, we spent several minutes talking about the process. Eventually, I praised the effort my son put into the drawing, being careful not to say things like, “You’re a great artist" or simply “This is great.”
Furthermore, for praise to be effective it must be specific. Our children need to know what exactly they have done to earn the commendation. For instance, when a student attempts every single problem on the homework, instead of simply saying “good job,” it is better to acknowledge the student's commitment to hard work by saying “These were a lot of math problems—you were focused, you kept at it, and you didn’t give up.”
And believe it or not, there are times when the best practice is not to praise at all. This can seem like a hard strategy to implement because we typically feel obligated to praise everything our children do. However, too much praise can make them praise-dependent because they get used to hearing “good job” or “you’re so smart” after almost every step. Rather than seeking praise, students must be focused on the learning process—motivated to work hard, independent of praise.
Undoubtedly, learning is a challenging task. Therefore, encouragement is a key factor. However, if we truly want our children to grow into life-long learners who enjoy challenges and remain resilient in the face of failure, we must praise them effectively. Remember to praise the learning process, be specific when praising, and be careful not to offer unnecessary praise.
Share your insights or questions on our discussion forum –
How do you praise the effort of your children (not their intelligence)?
Guest contributor, Miguel Cura, is a father of two children, and a Secondary Math Coach at Randolph Public Schools in Massachusetts. He is also currently engaged in an Efficacy Train-the-Trainer process to become certified in teaching Efficacy to parents and families. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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