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Teaching Strategies: The Best Way to Praise

Jordan Catapano

Want to say just the right thing to help students grow intellectually, emotionally, and socially? Then use teaching strategies that praise the process they put into their work rather than their innate traits.

This bit of wisdom comes to us from “More than three decades of research” and suggests that “Teaching people to have a ‘growth mindset’ which encourages a focus on ‘process’ rather than on intelligence or talent, produces high achievers in school and in life.” Carol Dweck, professor at Stanford and author of “Mindset,” indicates that the secret to cultivating successful students is to use teaching strategies that give them the right way to think about their intelligence and capabilities.

Our goal as educators is to help our students develop confidence in themselves and their ability to learn. We don’t want students to think that they are just incapable of doing something; instead, we want them to understand all success or failure as products of processes rather than fixed, immutable outcomes. And the way we treat students with our words makes a big difference in how we help them grow.

Teaching Strategies that Reinforce the Wrong Traits

Much of children’s development stems from how certain attributes are reinforced or discouraged by parents and educators. These well-intentioned adults typically desire for children to grow up and possess intelligence, confidence, amiability, and other positive traits. So what do they do to help children develop these characteristics? They tell the children they already are these things:

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“You’re so ____________!” (Insert the praiseworthy adjective here.)

At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with this phrase. It’s warm; it’s positive; it’s praising the child for possessing a desirable quality. However, the flaw here is that we use such phrases to tell children that they already possess certain qualities, as though they were innately born with them. The child, then, will be more likely to grow up believing that they have this fixed characteristic.

To illustrate the problem with this sort of phrase, imagine Jessica, a little girl who breezed through elementary school well ahead of her peers. She was regularly told by her parents and teachers things like, “You’re so smart!” “She’s advanced.” “She just seems to always know the answer.” Jessica progresses through school believing these things about herself – everything that she encounters comes more easily to her than her peers, and that’s apparently just because she was born that way.

Then, starting in 5th grade, something odd happens: Jessica begins to struggle with school. “Easy A’s” aren’t so easy anymore, and kids who used to struggle to keep up with Jessica are now starting to match or surpass her. Jessica resists asking for help, withdraws from her peers, and stops trying as hard as you had before. What happened?

As Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania point out in their 2005 study “Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents,” it’s not innate intelligence that determines how successful students will be in the long run. Rather, it’s the self-discipline they exercise. They observed, “Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than IQ,” and concluded that, “Programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to building academic achievement.”

But in Jessica’s case, what was reinforced with her? It was her IQ, not her methods. As she progressed in school and tasks become more challenging, it was her IQ that was called into question by her failures, not her self-discipline. In fact, the compliments paid to Jessica early in her academic life served to undermine her self-discipline, since her success was attributed to her innate abilities rather than her habits or methods. As a result, Jessica became more likely to avoid tasks – like homework or asking for help – that exposed her self-concept of her IQ as faulty.

So when we’re praising students in hopes of reinforcing their better qualities, we must be cognizant of the fact that the way we praise them contributes to how they form their self-concept. We must help students understand that their abilities – whether positive or negative – are not “built-in” and immutable. Instead, we must use our words to teach students that their success is founded on their actions and decisions.

How to Praise Your Students

So if that’s how NOT to praise students, then what should we say instead?

Carol Dweck reminds us that, “Teaching people to have a ‘growth mindset,’ which encourages a focus on ‘process’ rather than on intelligence or talent, produces high achievers in school and in life.” So when we praise students, it’s not about praising their seemingly innate abilities, but rather praising their processes used to arrive at success.

Here are a few tips to guide you:

  1. Praise what’s praiseworthy. Don’t go out of your way to praise something that isn’t true or so insignificant that we’d normally take it for granted. Sometimes students ask me, “I put my name on my paper, aren’t you proud of me?” Not especially. This (in the high school English class) does not merit any esteem from me. Don’t waste your praise.
  2. Praise the behavior, not the child. When we praise the behavior the student exhibited, then the student is being positively reinforced for what they did, not who they are. A student cannot change who they are, but they can control what they do. So if we reinforce what a student does, they are more likely to repeat that behavior over the long run.
  3. Choose non-generic phrases rather than generic phrases. Our temptation is to say something that’s quick and convenient, but the more specific we are, the better. Researchers distinguish between telling students, “You’re a good drawer” and “You did a good job drawing” as a focus in their research (Cimpian, Arce, Markman, and Dweck 2007). The implications of the research suggest that students feel a degree of helplessness when they are complimented on an ability, because an ability suggests either they can or cannot do a task. When complimented on a non-generic process or behavior, they have more control and will demonstrate more positivity and persistence in the long run.

Here are some examples of praise directed towards a student’s characteristics vs. their actions or processes.

“You’re smart” vs. “Good job studying the notes you took yesterday.”

“You are a good communicator” vs. “I like how you clarified your point with examples.”

“You are very kind” vs. “The way you shared that toy just now was perfect.”

“You’re a great reader” vs. “Nice work sounding out all of those words.”

Praising in this way takes practice, to be honest. Our default seems to want to jump straight to the adjectives and it takes work to accurately and specifically praise someone’s process. But that practice is worth it. As students grow and develop, it’s important to make sure that we use our words to teach them the best self-concept possible. And that self-concept is one that reinforces how every student can enjoy success when they apply the right behaviors and processes.

How do you praise your students in ways that reinforce a growth mindset? Share your examples with our community in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.