parents, the idea that praising a child for intelligence or an accomplishment
can do more harm than good seems counterintuitive. "I feel like I’m being asked
to abandon praise, and I worry that it could negatively impact his
self-esteem," said a parent during a workshop in which the use of praise was
among the topics.
it comes to promoting the value of effort and persistence, studies suggest it
is better to lead a child to explore the process of figuring out a math
problem, for example, than it is to praise the child as “smart” for coming up
with a correct answer.
into such issues has led to a growing awareness of the importance of encouraging
effort and persistence throughout childhood.
effort and persistence seen in very young children are wonderful traits for
learning and development. A one- year-old, for instance, learns to walk through
a series of trips, tumbles, and falls. For many children, however, the link
between effort and ability tends to fade with age. A fifth grader struggling
with math, for example, may give up trying, write-off math as something he or
she will never grasp, and abandon the notion that a little more effort may
news is that research is not only deepening the understanding of effort and
persistence in children, but also suggesting ways that parents, teachers, and
other adults in children’s lives can help them sustain the belief that trying
to get better at something is worth it.
In one of
its current projects, the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development
(OCD) Division of Applied Research and Evaluation is collaborating with The
Fred Rogers Company to explore how parents and teachers can help young children
embrace effort and persistence in school and in life. The project, Something
Worth Trying, focuses on children from age 3 years to the third grade.
Li, PhD, director of the Division of Applied Research and Evaluation, said he
became puzzled by how some children had developed a mindset that they were
incapable of learning certain subjects when he taught middle school science for
low-income minority children in a previous research project.
would see students who were struggling and no longer believed they would get
any better,” he said. “They would start to act out in the classroom or would
appear to be bored with the subject matter because they no longer believed they
could do something to make a difference in their own accomplishment in these
A Matter of Mindset
suggests that with a “growth mindset” children and adults link effort and
persistence with improvement in ability. But with a “fixed mindset” children
tend to discount the value of effort in improving an ability they are
struggling to develop. “The fixed mindset is ‘I’m only as good as I am today.
If I’m lousy at math, I’m never going to be good at math. It’s not my thing.
Art, maybe, is my thing. But my mom is not good at math. Nobody in my family is
good at math. So, I’m not going to be good at it’,” Dr. Li said.
a shift from early childhood through elementary school age in many children
from embracing a growth mindset to a fixed mindset, whether they are gifted or
not gifted. Our argument, based on the research, is that a lot of why they
develop that kind of thinking comes from their environment. It comes from how
schools or parents or teachers interact with children, particularly in how we
empha intelligence, natural ability, performance, and competition. We
overlook the painstaking but ultimately rewarding process of making small,
incremental progress each and every day.”
provides examples of interventions that show promise in helping promote effort
among children. One study, for example, focused on teaching minority, at-risk
middle school students about how intelligence is a malleable trait and how
effort begets ability. After two weekly sessions, their academic motivation
improved as did their year-end math grades.
Praise for Effort
surprisingly, praise can contribute to weakening a child’s embrace of effort.
Studies find that, while praising a child for effort is fine, praising a child
for his or her intelligence can lead to a counterproductive mindset.
example, a child demonstrates he or she can add two plus two and arrive at
four, a parent might respond by saying something like, “You’re so smart.” But
researchers have found that such praise of intelligence over time can make a
child anxious, afraid to make mistakes or take risks, and leave them ill
equipped to handle failure.
Something Worth Trying, workshops with parents of preschool and kindergarten
children suggest such praise is common. “I’ve noticed that praise is
ubiquitous, especially ‘good job’,” said one parent. “My daughter is praised
constantly by me, by people in stores, everywhere. She seems to get praised
just for going with the flow, or not causing a disturbance.” Another said, “I
noticed that when I’m busy or distracted, I fall back on ‘good job’ or ‘that’s
In Something Worth Trying, workshops with parents of preschool
and kindergarten children suggest such praise is common. “I’ve noticed that
praise is ubiquitous, especially ‘good job’,” said one parent. “My daughter is
praised constantly by me, by people in stores, everywhere. She seems to get
praised just for going with the flow, or not causing a disturbance.” Another
said, “I noticed that when I’m busy or distracted, I fall back on ‘good job’ or
Research suggests that process-focused feedback is a more
constructive approach than simply praising a child for an accomplishment.
Engaging a child in the process can reinforce the value of effort and
persistence and help a child understand that mistakes are part of learning.
In the case of a child adding two plus two to get four, for
example, a parent might have the child explain the way he or she figured out
the answer, then ask whether the child is able to use the same method to add
other numbers correctly.
Parents in the Something Worth Trying workshops seemed to
understand that concept, said Alan Friedman, program manager with The Fred
Rogers Company. “In talking to them, the challenge is how to practically
integrate it into their day-to-day life. We heard from some parents that they
felt a little guilty about not showering their kids with praise for
accomplishments. It took a little conscious consideration to think about ways
of praising the process kids were going through versus just the outcome.”
“And it’s tough,” he said. “It isn’t as if there are easily
accessible lessons or strategies. That’s the challenge we’ve taken on.”
this team is applying to the Institute of Education Sciences—the research arm
of the U.S. Department of Education—for a development grant to work with
teachers to bring evidence-based methods of improving motivation, engagement,
and achievement into their classrooms and to create collaborative professional
development to improve upon and sustain those practices.
trying to develop and adapt interventions to promote effort and persistence in
the classroom and home as part of Something Worth Trying. Working with The Fred
Rogers Company, researchers have begun to explore how parents interact with
young children when it comes to achieving various tasks and to develop simple
interventions to help parents encourage effort. This work is supported by a
grant from the Frank and Theresa Caplan Fund for Early Childhood Development
and Parenting Education.
have held a series of five workshops with parents as a first step toward
developing interventions to help promote effort and persistence in children.
The children of the workshop parents attend preschool and kindergarten at one
of the local university laboratory preschools. The group spoke openly about
topics such as the role of praise in their parenting, how their parenting
encourages effort in their children, and how learning is supported in their
homes. Researchers will also conduct workshops with parents of lower
well into the stage of talking with parents about how these things play out in
their own families and lives, collecting those comments, and working with them
to develop something that would be a practical tool for them,” Friedman said.
the first year of Something Worth Trying, researchers identified several
messages that both underscore the importance of effort and resonate with
parents. One is that effort is valuable for its own sake, regardless of its outcomes.
Another is that interest and willingness to participate in activities and
learning experiences will serve children well throughout life.
messages in mind, a prototype parent-child interaction vehicle was designed
called The Trying Box, a concept similar to scrapbooking that allows children
and parents to collect mementos symbolizing things the child tries or puts
part of an effort to instill in children a lasting understanding of the value
of effort. “If you end up with a more effortful child who is persistent, even
when the child isn’t doing well in something, it will benefit the child in the
long run,” said Dr. Li.