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In Praise of Praise The Right Words Can Motivate Your Child

by Ann K. Dolin, M.Ed.

Praise is a powerful tool, especially when it comes to homework. Research shows that by simply praising effort rather than intelligence, kids will develop greater motivation to keep trying, even when the going gets tough.

Dr. Carol Dweck conducted a landmark study on the effects of praise on 400 fifth graders. One at a time, the children were given a fairly easy, non-verbal IQ test. After randomly dividing the children, some were praised for their intelligence (“You must be smart at this”) and the others were praised for their effort (“You must have worked really hard”). Remarkably, in a second round of testing, the children who had been praised for effort improved on their first score by about 30 percent. They did this by working diligently on each problem even as they became increasingly more difficult. They became very involved in solving each problem, trying every possible solution. But those who were told they were smart did worse. Their scores declined by 20 percent. These children did not keep trying when the problems became harder. Instead they gave up at the first sign of difficulty, not wanting to risk appearance of not being smart. Dweck stated, “Simply emphasizing effort gives a child a variable they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their own success.”

This affects homework because kids who feel in control are more likely to exert greater effort to get their work done well. They are more likely to persist in the face of difficulty.
Numerous other studies have found that specific praise is far superior to non-specific overtures. When words are too general, children discount their parents’ good intentions altogether, not feeling that their words are sincere. Given that praise needs to be specific and focused on effort, here’s how to make the transformation in your home:
One last thought about praise — use it in a 2:1 ratio. For every suggestion for improvement, start with praise and end with praise. Let’s say your son brings you his spelling assignment and there are clearly a few mistakes.

 
Consistently recognizing signs of good work, no matter how small they may be, is important. If you want your child to persevere and demonstrate good effort, you must acknowledge the good behavior when it occurs. By doing so, your child is much more likely to repeat it. In reality, however, you are going to need to correct your child from time to time. This is best done using the “P-N-P Sandwich” approach, or Positive-Negative-Positive. Begin with a positive statement, follow with constructive criticism, and end with another positive comment. Take a look at the following examples:

 

Keep in mind that your words will make a major impact on your child’s behavior, but this strategy will only work if you stick with it. I’ve worked with some parents of students in my tutoring practice who say “I’ve tried to praise, but it doesn’t really work.” The reason they experienced an impasse was because they didn’t stay the course. They tried it for a week, failed to see significant results, and then went back to their old ways. It truly does take 21 days to change a habit. If you stay with the strategies outlined here for 21 days, praise will begin to be part of the natural way you interact with your child and change will occur.

About the Author:

Ann K. Dolin, M.Ed., is the founder and president of Educational Connections, Inc., a comprehensive provider of educational services in Fairfax, VA and Bethesda, MD. In her new book, Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework, Dolin offers proven solutions to help the six key types of students who struggle with homework. 
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