January 3, 2012

The Power of Praise

Why We Shouldn't Praise Kids for Being Smart ... and How to Use Praise Effectively

Caring teachers are lavish in their praise; they know that praise has the power to motivate reluctant learners and to build self-esteem. So who would have thought that praise could actually be harmful? Believe it or not, research has shown that one type of praise in particular can have unintended but highly damaging consequences. Before you reject this conclusion, let me tell you about about the research and share my own personal experiences with praise.

A few years ago, Dr. Carol Dweck published an article in Educational Leadership called The Perils and Promises of Praise in which she described several studies she and a colleague conducted that had astounding results. This research was also referenced in a terrific article in the New York Magazine called How Not to Talk to Your Child: The Inverse Power of Praise. I urge you to read both articles; I guarantee that you'll be fascinated by this information.

Praising Intelligence Versus Effort
In a nutshell, Dr. Dweck and her colleague divided groups of students into two subgroups and gave them a task to complete. Then they pulled the students out one by one to give them their results and also offered a single specific line of praise to each student. Kids in the first group were praised for being smart. Students in the second group were praised for working hard and putting forth effort. Then they gave the students another task, but this time the students were allowed to choose between a challenging task and one that was obviously much easier. Guess what? A full 90% of the kids who were praised for effort chose the challenging task while most of the others chose the easy task! Then later when the students were retested on the original material, the ones who were praised for effort improved their scores and the "smart" kids did worse!

When I first read about this study several years ago, I immediately thought of my two daughters who are both extremely bright. Through the years they were praised repeatedly for being smart. What else is a teacher supposed to say when a kid easily masters every concept? Yet problems arise when children spend the first 10 years of their lives being told they are smart, and they hit middle school where things become a little more challenging. You can see how a child's self-esteem might take a hit when they've always been told they are smart - yet now they have to struggle to make good grades.

Interestingly, my older daughter Wendy discovered the New York Magazine article herself the other day and forwarded it to me. She could really relate to the study results and felt that repeated praise for being smart may have had a negative impact on her willingness to take risks and tackle new challenges. She understood on a personal level how when your identity is wrapped up in feeling "smart," the idea of struggling and perhaps failing is difficult to face. Wendy is now a successful engineering student at NCSU, but she's learned that being smart doesn't mean you are perfect. In fact, one sign of true intelligence might be the willingness to take risks, occasionally fail, and learn from your mistakes.

Classroom Implications
As teachers, how can we use this information? In my opinion, this study has tremendous implications for education. Remember that it's not praise itself that's the problem - it's praising intelligence alone that leads to negative consequences.

So what if instead of telling kids they are smart, we praise them for putting forth effort? What if we teach them that we aren't just born smart - we become smarter through hard work and persistence?

This might seem to be an effective solution, but it only addresses part of the problem. When gifted kids master every academic task with ease, praising for effort becomes meaningless. Perhaps when that happens, it's time to take a look at our own teaching practices and ask ourselves why everything is so easy for these students. What can we do to make sure every child faces new challenges every day?

Discovering the Power of Pride
Instead of offering a steady diet of whole-group instruction, it's up to us to offer other options like learning centers, small group instruction, and reading workshop - strategies that provide sufficient challenges for all students. Ironically, as students experience personal challenge, they will also experience the satisfaction of overcoming those challenges. As a result, their sense of pride will boost their self esteem more than external praise ever could - the power of pride will trump the power of praise!

Teaching Resources ~ http://www.lauracandler.com


  1. This is a great article, with a very important point/philosophy! In my family, I was the 'smart one' and my sister was the 'pretty one' - to this day, I have limited confidence in my looks, while my sister questions her intelligence.I was a student who was considered 'smart' ..of course, in the 70's, that meant the ability to memorize and regurgitate. Then I went to university and whoa! I actually had to think! Talk about a come-uppance! Since, I've raised 7 kids, all with different strengths and abilities.I have learned that encouragement reaches much further than praise. I caution applauding effort though, because in this day and age, students think their grades should reflect their EFFORT, regardless of the quality of their conclusions. Not sure if this happens as much at elementary, but in secondary, when we are concerned about preparing them for college/university/workplace, we evaluate the results, the thinking,etc and give a passing nod to effort. I often hear ..."But I worked so HARD on this project, why don't I have a 95%?" Even if we use rubrics .... the Level 4 (in Ontario, that's 80 - 100%)becomes subjective.

    Again, I think this is a great comment that could encourage effective dialogue! Thanks!


  2. Very well said! I've often thought that "empty praise" can be a problem for many children. "You're doing a good job", when all they're doing is sitting in a chair... what is the child learning from that?

    I much prefer to give the children specific praise for something that will bring the child to the next level... that can be so many things to so many children, but ultimately, working hard and taking risks are valuable skills.

    Thanks for sharing this!

    Sally from ElementaryMatters

  3. Both the article and Janet's comment are fuel for thought. I do my best to differentiate so that even my more capable students don't find it "easy" all the time, but that's not always easy. I agree that we need to praise effort, especially in struggling students, but they also have to accept, as I did, that even if they do their very best they may not score 100%. I tell my kids that so long as they are doing their best a 3 is definitely OK, but convincing the parents can be a little more difficult.

    As for rubrics, I love them, but at times they make it really hard for kids to get a high score, or maybe my standards are just too high for 4th graders.

    Thanks for the thought provocation Laura.

  4. Thanks for your comments! Praise is not an easy issue, is it? I agree that we shouldn't be praising for effort unless they are actually putting forth effort! Even then, they need to follow directions and do quality work, not just try hard. But I really liked how the article pointed out that praising kids for being smart can have unintended negative effects.

  5. Laura -

    I could not agree more with your post! I often reflect on my word choice for praising students - whether they are the young kinders I have worked with or my current middle schoolers. Great insights into the matter as well. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Thanks for posting a comment, "HoJo"!

  7. No problem! And - now that I've had more time to think about this - I've also realized that in the past two years I tend to ask the students to analyze themselves. I may say, "How do you think you did?" or "What do you think you could have done better?" It gives the students ownership of their actions, and it often gives me insight that I had not even thought of!

  8. I appreciate your input here and heartily agree with you... encouragement is always very important... we always encouraged our kids to do the best that 'they' could do and that we learn from our mistakes so don't be afraid to make some.

  9. I am blessed to work in a Christian school, where I can tell them that God gave each of them an incredible brain that can do many things, but that they must put forth the effort. I agree with your stance on not praising for being "smart", and do remind students that they may be stronger in one area than another. As each of us strive to put forth our "best" effort, this looks different for each person. Thank you for a thought provoking post.

  10. Thank you for sharing this! Thought-provoking, to say the least!

  11. One of the new "concepts" I am using with my fourth graders this year is it is ok to "take a risk!" I will ask the kids who is willing to take a risk to solve or answer a problem and the results have been great! They will say right back to me, "I am going to take a risk, but I think the answer might be..." I have wanted to push the kids to problem solve more than they have in the past and this seems to really be working with this group. Thanks for sharing the articles! Good food for thought.

  12. There is one thing that I disagree with in the article... It says, "What if we teach them that we aren't just born smart - we become smarter through hard work and persistence?" This could be hurtful to a lot of children, because they will think that if they aren't smart then they just aren't trying hard enough, which isn't always the case. Many children try very, very hard and still don't make the grade they want, while others barely try at all and get straight-A's. This will send the wrong message to many hard-working children.


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