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STOP: Don’t tell your students they are smart!

In this growth mindset series, we've talked about encouraging mistakes in your classroom, engaging students in meaningful learning, and now we'll talk about praising students the right way!

Why wouldn't we want to tell students they are smart? You might be wondering…

Well, friend… being smart is certainly still a goal! However, I'd like for us to delve deeper into the idea of praising students the right way.

Here's a thought to consider, praising a child for being smart is no different than praising a child for being tall. You either are, or you are not. Being tall or short is something that can't be controlled. It's genetic. Similarly, praising a child for being smart, runs the risk of giving the same impression; either you are (smart) or you are not! The student might attribute success to a fixed trait that he/she was born with.
praising students, growth mindset

Do you see where I'm going with this? If you only praise a student for being smart, he/she begins to believe that it just is. There is nothing he or she can do about it. On the reverse, if a child doesn't get praised for being smart, then they might assume that they are dumb. And again, there is nothing they can do about it. Simply put  “you are smart” does not recognize any action on the child’s part.

Now, what will happen when a student faces a difficult challenge? The child that believes he is smart will usually shy away from anything that doesn’t come easy or requires effort for fear of not “looking smart.”

What about the child that believes he/she isn't smart. He/she won't try it either! He/she might not believe enough in himself/herself to give it a try.

Praising Students the Right Way

Instead of praising a student for being smart, or any other personal attribute, it’s better to praise students for their efforts.

When a teacher praises actions or tasks that a student “does” the child will attribute his success to his own effort!

“Children praised for effort and hard work value opportunities to learn. Children who are praised for their intelligence learn to value performance.”-David Sousa (How the Gifted Brain Learns)

So how do you praise effort?

When complimenting a student, tell him/her what they did that is worthy of the compliment.

A simple formula to follow is to

___ praise___ + ___student's action___

For example: “Great job Tess on finishing your story. I noticed when you got stuck you asked Karen for feedback.”

Want to take it one step further? Add a positive consequence.

___praise___ + ___student's action___ + ___positive consequence___

For example: “Great job Tess on finishing your writing your story. I noticed when you got stuck you asked Karen for feedback. You've figured out a great way to work through a challenge.”

A lot of times, even if a teacher agrees that praising effort is important. Getting started is a little bit harder than one would expect. Below are some tips that will help to praise your students a lot easier!

Here are some quick one-liners:

    • When something is hard, I want you to keep trying.
    • Your effort and hard work will make a difference.
    • If it’s hard or challenging, recognize that it is and then we’ll find a way to keep working at it. Your effort will get you through.
    • Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you give you, this is your chance to show some perseverance.
    • When things get tough, we can’t give up. That just means we are going to learn from the experience.
    • If it’s too easy, you're not learning.
    • Your hard work is helping your brain grow. 
    • I can tell you worked hard at _____.
    • When you took the time to _____ it helped you ______.
    • Can you share how you thought through the problem?
    • Now that you can do ____, it will help you with ____
    • The better you get at ____, the stronger your brain grows.

Have you tried praise?

If you have tried praise with your class, I'd love to hear about it! Please comment below and let me know what you have found works with your students!

Need more ideas?

If you are interested in using praise and giving your students positive notes, I've created a resource called Growth Mindset Positive Notes! These notes encourage a growth mindset in four areas: Effort, Celebrating Approximations, Brain and Goals and Challenges.

These notes will help you praise your students for their effort, actions or tasks that they do. With time, your students will attribute their successes to their effort.

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praising students, growth mindset

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