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February 26, 2009

Praise Doesn't Pay

Praise doesn't pay, according to some researchers. ABC news just published an article highlighting the work of Dr. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University researcher who has found that certain types of praise do not help kids. In fact, it can hurt them. I am sure that many pre-k teachers would agree. However, the article described Dweck's study done with hundreds of 5th graders. I think the results would be different if it was conducted with preschoolers. The effects of the same types of praise might cause positive effects on young children. I have found that positive praise can make or break a child's day in preschool.

"Contrary to popular belief, praising children's intelligence did not give them confidence and did not make them learn better," said Carol Dweck, a professor of developmental psychology at Stanford University and author of "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success."

Dweck found that students who were told they were smart did less well than students who were praised for working hard, after completing a test. These same students were less likely to want to take a test that was described as "harder" than the first test and did less well on the second test when they took it. It appears the smart students thought that only "dumb" kids had to work hard to be successful.

If you're like most parents, you offer praise to your children believing it is the key to their success -- those flattering words can boost a child's self-esteem and performance. But according to a new study, praise may do more harm than good.

I am not sure though that parents offer praise only because they believe it is the key to their childrens' success. This makes it seem that praise is only a manipulation of children by parents. But, I think that most parents actually offer praise because they are genuinely proud of their kids. I have struggled with the conflicting messages of praise that I give my own children. My 8 year old is in a gifted program. It was strange for her to see that many of her friends who were recommended for the program did not get accepted. We struggled with redefining the word "smart," what it meant, and how smart can be represented in different people. I have always subscribed to Howard Gardener's definitions of multiple intelligences and tried hard to pass that on to my children. This definition of intelligence is complicated even more when we realize the racial and gender biases associated with many gifted assessments and the disproportionate ethnic and racial representation in gifted programs.

This labeling is a part of our educational system, especially now that teachers are expected to use ability grouping in reading instruction, even at the preschool level. But, I think that there is a gap in the reporting of this study. There may be developmental appropriateness of certain types of praise. When kids are younger than six or so, I think that telling them they are smart may not cause the same inverse relationship to a child's performance. At four and five years old, kids are very dependent on adults for their self image. It is important for parents and teachers to make sure that their students' self image is positive. As kids start to differentiate themselves from their parents at about seven and eight, this dependence decreases. What their friends think becomes more important.

There is an important type of praise left out of the study. The difference between praise and pride.

In my classroom I try to use authentic praise as much as possible. Saying things like, "I like the way Benjamin is sitting" can be a huge help with compliance but it does not necessarily increase a student's positive self image. What I have found that increases students self esteem is when I say, "I'm proud of you." I have found pride to be an extremely powerful feeling for kids, especially for my students who may never have felt pride in themselves. Pride arises out of a feeling of efficacy. A sense of pride is an aspect of praise I would like to see researched. I doubt the same inverse relationships would be found.


Thanks for your post John! I reminds me of what we hear almost everyday at my school: "If you get your coat on, we can go to McDonalds!"

To which I reply, "If you get your coat on, you won't be cold!" or "Show us how you learned to zip and button all by yourself!"

I disagree, praise done in a balance way is good and builds good kids!

In EC education programs, we teach teachers to use encouragement vs praise. "I like the way" sets children up to please the teacher rather than be self motivated. Encourage children for working hard and when using praise be very specific. "You put away all the toys, so now our classroom is safe, neat etc." The bottom line is we want children to do their best, but for their own satisfaction and pride, not ours.

I agree with Kathy Marshall that we as teachers need to use more encouragement vs. praise, even in early childhood. When we "notice" something that a child has done or how he has worked or played, the comment made sets up his own evaluation of self. We use "I" messages, "I noticed that you put your puzzle together and that was hard work." His work then becomes his own satisfaction and we didn't have to say "I like the way.........." That really doesn't provide the child with anything but the fact that he pleased the teacher which could harm his personal efforts.

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