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A Note from the Principal: January 2017

I received report cards throughout my elementary school years. But by the 1980’s, someone had gotten the message that the traditional American grading system might be inappropriate for younger children. So instead of As, Bs, and Cs, we received Os, Es, and Gs. I’m sure that whoever invented this new grading system was trying to protect children’s self-esteem. The self-esteem movement was at its height in the late eighties, so many education and parenting experts were pushing flawed research pointing to the critical importance of enhancing self-esteem at all costs, even if it meant insulating children from accurate descriptions of their current skills and knowledge. However, it turns out that unearned self-esteem, or self-esteem based on the indiscriminate praise of adults, does far more harm than good.

Research conducted by Carol Dweck and her colleagues in the late 90’s upended the commonly accepted notion that all praise is good. In a series of studies, she demonstrated that ability-based praise (You’re so smart! You’re a good artist! You’re such a good reader!) decreased motivation and persistence rather than enhancing it. This is because children who are praised for ability tend to believe that it is a fixed trait, and so are less likely to persist in the face of challenging work. For example, children who are routinely praised for being intelligent come to believe that they have a set amount of intelligence, so if a task feels difficult, they assume that it must be because they are not smart enough. The result is often a child who is anxious about his or her abilities and avoids difficult work. After all, why would you want to challenge yourself if every failure is a referendum on your intelligence?

Thankfully, there are better ways to praise and provide feedback; parents and teachers don’t have to bear silent witness to children’s achievements and challenges. You can provide the kinds of praise and feedback that lead children to develop what Carol Dweck calls a Growth Mindset, or the belief that your abilities aren’t fixed, that you have the capacity for growth. The most straightforward way to promote a Growth Mindset is to praise children for effort rather than ability. So if a child shows you a stunning piece of art, you might try, “Wow, it looks like you worked really hard on that,” rather than, “You’re a fantastic artist.” This kind of praise sends the message that accomplishment is the product of effort, which is within a child’s control. In studies of praise, children who are praised for effort choose more difficult work, persist longer in the face of challenges, and even score higher on tests than children praised for intelligence.

But of course, praise for effort is only a starting point. It’s better than praise for intelligence or other abilities, but alone it’s not sufficient for growth over time. If you praise me for putting a lot of effort into learning to play the piano, I’m still going to be a terrible pianist without more specific feedback. And what’s more, I’m going to suspect that you have a low opinion of my capacity for growth. Effective feedback needs to be specific and accurate. And it should focus on process. I know nothing about playing the piano, but I’m assuming that effective piano teachers provide targeted feedback on the individual components of a player’s performance, from correct posture to the precise force of each key strike. It’s this kind of feedback, targeted and incremental, that promotes growth. So in the artwork example above, you might follow praise for effort with a description of what you appreciate about the child’s process, “I noticed how you used the edge of the brush to create a fan-like design for those leaves.”

The self-esteem movement was well intentioned and appealing. It’s an attractive idea that we can praise and protect our way to more confident children. The trouble is that a self-concept based on unearned praise is likely to do the opposite. Children are savvy; they come to recognize when an adult’s praise is insincere or doesn’t match their behavior or achievements. In the face of insincere praise, some children will learn to discount the adult, but many will simply assume that adults have low expectations for them and that they should have low expectations for themselves. What we really want is for our children to believe that they can grow, through hard work and the slow acquisition of specific knowledge and skills.

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My son and daughter love to push their baby doll strollers around our block. The trouble is that we live on a very steep hill, so it’s a rough journey, with many challenges along the way. One night, my daughter’s baby doll stroller got caught on some roots pushing up the sidewalk, and she fell back on a classic three-year-old problem-solving strategy: scream until someone helps you. But in a rare moment of parental clarity, I told her that she’d have to sort it out by herself; I’d wait. It took a few minutes and a few tears, but she got her stroller over the roots. And now it’s a story I tell her almost every time she encounters a challenge, “Do you remember when your baby doll stroller was stuck? You cried and cried and you wanted help. But then you tried; it was hard and you had to try lots of different solutions, but then you did it! You didn’t think you could, but you did! I bet this is just like that.”

This is the story I want her to have about herself, that she is the kind of person who tries harder in the face of challenges, and often succeeds because of it. And it’s a story I’d like our students to believe about themselves, too. But it takes effort, on the part of teachers and parents, to build this narrative, through judicious praise and feedback that promotes a Growth Mindset.

Best,
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