Giving children positive feedback is essential to their positive growth. Parents and teachers complement their children frequently, and now there is any interesting study that sheds light on how the quality of that feedback is interpreted by children.
A study was conducted by the Stanford University psychologist Carol Zweck that involved 400 5th grade students in the New York City Public Schools. One by one, each student was given a relatively easy, grade appropriate non-verbal puzzle to solve. At the end of the test, 200 children were told “You must be smart at this.” The other 200 children were told, “You must have worked really hard on this.”
What was somewhat shocking was the effect that these two different statements had on the children. Of the children that were told they must have worked hard, when offered the chance to take a second test, 90% of those children opted for the test described as more challenging while the children praised for smarts largely opted for the easier test.
The students then took the second test, and Zweck noted that many of those praised for their hard work remarked that this challenging test was their favorite. This was a test designed for 8th graders, and the hard-working 5th graders were able to achieve proficiency in many cases. This same phenomenon was not seen in the kids praised for their smarts.
A third test of the same difficulty was then given to these students. For the students who were told they must have worked hard, scores increased on the second round by 30%. For the students praised for their smarts, there was an average decline of 20%.
One of the goals that Zweck had when conducting her research was determining whether students are taught to learn from their mistakes. Many educators believe that the careful study of mistakes sets high achievers apart. Where positive feedback is concerned, the recognition that making mistakes is part of working hard can go a long way.
What is interesting is the difference in substance of the two remarks. One tells a student what they are, the other tells a student what they can do. Perhaps there is something about fixing a label, even a positive label like ‘smart’ on a child that fixes them to that spot and takes away the chance from leaving that comfort zone and making mistakes, that might look ‘dumb.’ On the other hand, telling a student that they worked hard at something allows for the possibility of mistakes, or looking ‘dumb’, and allows a child a chance to try without being fixed as being a certain ‘type.’
Psychologically, it makes sense from the perspective that children are growing, It is more in line to focus on doing, than on being a certain ‘way.’ Growing and developing is action-oriented, it may be more effective to note the successful ways in which children are doing that in the course of giving feedback.