Health Educator Explaining the SHAPE application Process to a High School student interested in becoming a Peer Educator

Praise the Effort, Not the Person

Which would be more beneficial to hear? “You’re so smart!” or “You worked so hard!”

Interestingly enough, there is substantial information on how statements praising effort, rather than praising the individual, have significant positive impacts on young people.

Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford University, is one of the world’s experts in the study of motivation. Her research has found that certain types of praise can help motivate students to try harder and take on new challenges, while other types of praise can lead to students choosing easier options and believing they don’t need to put forth the effort. These differences highlight fixed versus growth mindsets.

A fixed mindset can form in a young person if they are too often praised solely for their intelligence or talents. This fixed mindset could lead to someone believing they do not need to work hard for what they want because things like school, sports, or special skills have come naturally to them. It focuses more on abilities, which can backfire if a student believes they inherently have what they need to succeed, and then fails a test or doesn’t make the team at tryouts. This can be detrimental to their motivation to try again next time or continue working towards their goals. 

A growth mindset forms in a young person who is praised for their effort and progress. An adolescent with a growth mindset is more likely to develop into someone who works hard when they have a goal because they believe effort leads to achievement. It focuses more on hard work, which encourages young people to focus, practice, and persist through difficulty. If they end up failing or not reaching their intended results, they are more likely to try again or try something different.

We can see the benefits of fostering a growth mindset over a fixed mindset, but how can we change our language to support this positive development in young people?

Consider providing positive and corrective feedback. Meaningful positive feedback requires altering what we notice and what we bring attention to. It’s easy to react with praise for an individual, but taking a moment to be intentional with praise could be more meaningful on the receiving end. Corrective feedback is key to encouraging a growth mindset when a young person gets something wrong. This could be especially useful for parents who need to inspire their youth to accomplish chores around the house or put in effort in school.

Can we change our internal messages to develop a growth mindset for ourselves, too? YES.

In the book, In Other Words: Phrases for Growth Mindset: A Teacher’s Guide to Empowering Students through Effective Praise and Feedback, the authors discuss how to respond to our own fixed mindset self-talk.

If you think “I’ll never be as good as them.” Tell yourself, “I did better than I have done before!.”

If you start to tell yourself, “I don’t have what it takes,” remind yourself, “I’m just not there YET.”

Instead of saying, “This is too hard,” say, “If it were easy, I wouldn’t be learning.”

With this change in mindset, both for ourselves and for the young people we interact with, we can develop a basis for positive self-motivation and a sense of control over what someone can achieve when they put in the effort.

For more about the benefits of teaching a growth mindset, watch this video, featuring Carol Dweck, from Stanford.