Imagine that a family member is in fourth grade, and she runs up to you to tell you that she just finished her math homework on adding fractions. She has completed 10 problems in just 10 minutes, and her answers are all correct. You are proud of her and want to tell her so. You might be tempted to say something like, “Wow! You finished that so quickly, and your answers are all right! You are so great at math!”
Praising kids (and tweens, teens, and adults, for that matter) for doing a good job can help motivate them to work hard and do their best. We all like to hear kudos and to know that someone is happy with our work! However, a seemingly kind comment like the one above may actually cause more harm than good. Why?
By praising your fourth grader for her speed, her correctness, and her being “great at math,” you may unintentionally promote a fixed mindset.
Having a fixed mindset means thinking that intelligence can’t change much and that people are naturally “good at” or “bad at” some skills. The problem with having a fixed mindset is that it tends to lead learners to be motivated by rewards that come easily (like a perfect score on the math homework) rather than by the pleasure of learning itself.
When the learning itself is challenging and the rewards don’t come easily, someone with a fixed mindset often gives up.
The well-meaning compliment about your fourth grader’s talents may therefore actually be setting her up to be discouraged when she encounters work she cannot do quickly or 100% accurately. It may also send the message that she is naturally “great at math” but may be “bad” at other things that she cannot do as quickly or easily. For example, if it takes her a lot more time and effort to write a paragraph about the causes of climate change, she may decide she is “bad at writing” or “bad at science.” If she earns a low grade on her paragraph, she may also claim it’s because she is “bad at” that sort of homework, and she may not put in as much effort on her next writing assignment. Putting in less effort on that assignment may lead to her not doing well on it. So begins a negative cycle of less effort-less success-less effort.
What can you say to a learner that avoids these pitfalls? Try praising process and persistence. Valuing process and persistence is part of embracing a growth mindset, which means believing that everyone can grow intellectually through effort. People with growth mindsets tend to seek out challenges and to embrace them as opportunities to learn for learning’s sake. And even though they are less focused on things like test results and grades, they also tend to perform better than those with fixed mindsets do in school, in their professions, and even in their personal relationships. How do we know that having a growth mindset truly leads to achievement? Watch this short video to learn about some of the evidence of the effectiveness of growth mindsets, especially in young learners.
Let’s return to our fourth grader and her math homework. Here are some examples of more effective praise we can offer her:
- “I can see how you were applying the strategy of looking at the denominators to see whether they matched.”
- “Can you show me how you solved the problems? I’d love to learn about the strategies you used.”
- “I like how you worked really hard on these challenging problems!”
- “Way to keep going on that homework!”
Notice that none of these examples focuses on being “good at” math, and none focuses on speed or correctness alone. Instead, all of the examples highlight process, effort, and persistence. Unlike being “good at” or “fast at” a particular subject in school, using strategies, working hard, and persisting when facing a challenge are all strengths that will serve our fourth grader well in every learning situation.
The Power of Yet
Psychologist Carol Dweck coined the terms “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset,” and she talks about mindsets and their effects in a clear and inspiring way. For a deeper dive into her work, we recommend her TED Talk, “The Power of Yet.” In this talk, she emphasizes the power of an “I can’t do that yet” mindset when we are faced with challenges.
Adults may not yet be experts in modeling a growth mindset for children, tweens, and teens, but we can work on it! Many of us were praised as kids for earning high grades or for completing tasks quickly, so it takes effort to shake old habits and be conscious of our language when we praise the young learners in our lives. We need to work to develop growth mindsets ourselves in order to model these mindsets to young people, but as we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s never been a better time to put in this effort. During a period of great challenges for kids, tweens, teens, and adults alike, we can all benefit from the power of yet.
To learn more about the power of growth mindsets, check out the following items in the Pima County Library’s catalog!
This book is geared toward teachers, but is interesting to non-teacher caregivers, too.
For Kids and Teens
our Homework page for even more great resources, including:Visit
- Free online tutoring
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- Skills Sheets for common homework assignments