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Monday, July 13, 1998 Published at 21:21 GMT 22:21 UK


Praising gifted youngsters may backfire

Schools may have to reconsider the way they praise children

Praising children for their intelligence may backfire and leave them ill-equipped to cope with failure, researchers have warned.

A new study suggests complimenting children for their intelligence and academic performance may lead them to believe good test scores and high grades are more important than learning and mastering something new.

Vulnerable to setbacks

While praise is intended to encourage children, it leaves them ill-prepared for coping with setbacks, according to the research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Psychologists at Columbia University, New York, conducted six studies of 412 11-year-olds in which they compared children praised for intelligence with those praised for effort and hard work. They looked at children under conditions of failure as well as success.

They found commending children for their intelligence after good performance might backfire by making them highly performance-oriented and thus extremely vulnerable to the effects of subsequent setbacks.

On the other hand, children who were commended for their effort concentrated on learning goals and strategies for achievement.

The researchers found children commended for their ability when they were successful learned to believe that intelligence is a fixed trait that cannot be developed or improved. They blamed poor performance on their own lack of intelligence.

When children praised for their hard work performed poorly, they blamed their lack of success on poor effort and demonstrated a clear determination to learn strategies that would enhance subsequent performances.

High achievers worry
[ image: The theory may explain why bright girls underachieve]
The theory may explain why bright girls underachieve
Study head Dr Carol Dweck said: "Praising children's intelligence, far from boosting their self-esteem, encourages them to embrace self-defeating behaviors, such as worrying about failure and avoiding risks.

"However, when children are taught the value of concentrating, strategising, and working hard when dealing with academic challenges, this encourages them to sustain their motivation, performance, and self-esteem."

The studies demonstrated that children who are praised for their intelligence learn to value performance, while children praised for their effort and hard work value learning opportunities.

Bright girls overpraised

The researchers believe that their findings may demonstrate why bright young girls who do well at first often perform poorly in upper grades.

They note that in their desire to bolster young girls' confidence in their abilities, educators have praised them for their intelligence which, these studies have shown, could have an undesired impact on their subsequent motivation and performance.

Labelling children as gifted or talented may also have a negative impact on them.

Such labelling may be the cause of children becoming overly concerned with justifying that label and less concerned with meeting challenges that enhance their learning and mastery skills.

They may begin to believe that academic setbacks indicate that they do not deserve to be labelled as gifted.

Teaching implications

The authors advise that teaching programmes should emphasise meeting challenges, applying effort, and searching for new learning strategies.

When students succeed, attention and approval should be directed at their effort and hard work. Children should be praised for how they do their work rather than for the final product or their ability, the researchers say.

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