Praise the Effort, Not the Result
Two weeks after report cards are distributed, Chatsworth School in Reisterstown holds an “excellence luncheon.” It’s a celebration for students who received top ratings in effort and citizenship.
Written By Linda L. Esterson
“It rewards not their grade, but it shows how they made an effort… (that) they worked hard and were being rewarded for that,” says Roz Rus, whose 9-year-old son, Barret, attended the party following his first quarter report card in November.
Mrs. Rus tells Barret and her 6-year-old daughter, Janna, that putting forth their best effort is what’s important. “If whatever grade they get is the best they can do, they need to be proud of themselves for that,” Mrs. Rus says. “It’s not always about the grade.”
Recognizing students’ efforts, versus merely their achievements, is a movement of sorts in the educational community. In some ways it is contrary to what had traditionally been the standard: praise for achievement that sometimes becomes excessive.
It often begins early on, when children are touted in preschool for everything from standing in line to drinking from the water fountain.
“It loses its value,” says Jennifer Grossman, a local educational consultant. “People praising for washing hands after going potty––The things we praise are comical. Then praise overall loses its value.”
When children are praised too much, becoming accustomed to being praised for everything they do, Ms. Grossman says, they experience difficulty when they face a task that is difficult. They don’t know how to deal with the frustration they feel.
Last summer, New York Magazine featured a team of researchers at Columbia University in New York who studied the effect of praise on children in a dozen schools. Part of the research consisted of dividing a class of fifth graders into two groups following completion of an assignment. The children in the first group were praised for their intelligence. The second group was praised for effort.
When the students were given a harder exercise to complete, the group praised for effort worked hard to find solutions to the puzzles. Students in the group that was called “smart” were seen straining and sweating in their attempts. Both groups failed the exercise, which was two grade levels higher than their ranking at the time. Those who were deemed “smart” assumed they failed because they really weren’t smart at all.
“We live in a culture of parenting that we worry about any harm or disappointment befalling our kids,” says Marie Allee, Ph.D., psychologist at McDonogh School in Owings Mills. “We are worried that their self esteem might be damaged if they are not praised enough.”
Children become desensitized to too much praise, adds Zipora Schorr, director of education for Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. “Kids who are told they are great and smart don’t believe it anymore. They shut down,” Mrs. Schorr says. “They need honest feedback and an honest opportunity to toil and see results from toiling. That’s what human beings need.”
Children constantly compare themselves to others on their own, whether it’s scores in class, prowess on the sports field, beauty of their art projects or the art of their dance moves. They are naturally challenged when surrounded by peers who are motivated. As they age, they realize when praise is false, indicating that “You’re just saying that because you’re my mother.”
Ms. Allee suggests instead of overpraising, parents work to build an honest relationship. This way, children will come to them for opinions about issues “knowing you’ll be straight with them.” For instance, a student playing football who is not necessarily a strong player should not be told he is great; instead, parents can encourage him to work hard if he enjoys the activity. The same holds true for academics; receiving feedback, especially of a constructive nature, generates increased effort and a valued process.
Students who are overpraised throughout childhood often find themselves struggling in high school and beyond when faced with difficult assignments and they experience difficulty in dealing with the associated frustration.
“Struggling is a new process for them, but it’s something we have to do in life,” says Ms. Allee. “It’s helpful for kids to go through this at younger ages.”
Mrs. Schorr adds, “Sometimes we have to sit back and watch him falter because he will drive himself back up. You can’t force a kid to succeed.”
Mrs. Rus refers to a quote that is posted on her branch chief’s board at her Social Security Administration office. It mirrors her philosophy. “Doing your best is more important than being the best,” was once said by the mother of gymnast Cathy Rigby… right before the 1972 Olympic Games.