Helping Children Understand That the Effort is Worth It
The following article was published in the October 2010 issue of OCD's newsletter Developments. To download a PDF of the issue, click here. 

For some 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.

But when 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.

Research into such issues has led to a growing awareness of the importance of encouraging effort and persistence throughout childhood.

The 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 help.

The good 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.

Junlei 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.

“You 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 subject areas.”

A Matter of Mindset

Research 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.

“There is 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.”

Research 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

Somewhat 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.

When, for 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.

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 ‘that’s nice’.”

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 ‘that’s nice.’

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.”

Practical Interventions

Separately, 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.

OCD is 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.

Researchers 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 socioeconomic backgrounds.

“We’re 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.

During 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.

With such 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 effort into.

It’s all 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.