Growing the Growth Mindset! The Perks and Pitfalls of Praise...

‘The difference that makes the difference’ is seldom the stuff of targeted interventions, but usually the day-to-day approaches which should be embedded in all our practice.
I was reminded of this last week while I was creating a course around Growth Mindset; it’s such a simple yet effective approach to build resilience.

As is often the case though, ‘approaches’ struggle to gain the traction, or keep the momentum that they deserve, because in themselves, they’re not going to directly solve the problems of the day; i.e. poor school attendance, record CAMHS waiting lists, 35% increase in youth suicide… (The problems that; despite the promise of action or change or having more money chucked at them; still never seem to get better.)

And while I’m not suggesting any approach; Growth Mindset or something else; can ‘fix’ all – or any – of these problems, there’s always a question to ask about what can be done; anytime and anywhere; without waiting for the next initiative, programme or funding stream.

Whichever way we approach resilience, it needs way more attention in childhood than it’s getting; for a decade, the research has been saying that resilience is the single biggest skills gap in the young workforce.

As many of us know, at the heart of Growth Mindset is the ‘praise for effort, not achievement’ principle, but my question for today is less about what we offer praise for, and about more about how – and, in fact, if – we give praise at all.

Because, while there’s nothing inherently wrong with praise, our reasons for giving it, who we give it to, and how we give it can yield great power, positively and negatively.

Yes, everyone likes a bit of praise every now and then; knowing you’ve pleased someone else is the message of ‘acceptance’ our brains are constantly scanning for. It can make us feel deeply and primitively safe (as long as our ego doesn’t rely on it).

But praise can also backfire. I’ve heard more than once about the child who gets awarded the same recognition over and over, in an attempt to ‘incentivise’ the rest of the group to aspire to the same standard, and subsequent reward…

The result, unsurprisingly, is a bunch of disenchanted kids. Bar one, of course, who’s become so accustomed to validation that they struggle to cope without it.

Ill thought-out ideas like this aside, praise is often a very natural response when a child – especially one who struggles – finally achieves the goal, or makes a breakthrough.

And sometimes that’s just the ticket; the subsequent dopamine hit makes the action worth repeating. So, if praise is encouraging and affirmative, by all means give it.

But we don’t always need to; much less make a big song-and-dance of sharing praise. In fact, praise – or too much praise, or the wrong kind – can sometimes be counter-productive. WHY?

Because, for some young people, especially those more emotionally fragile, OTT praise can bring about deeply uncomfortable pressure. When we make lots of noise about their success, we can firstly; albeit unintentionally; give the expectation that they must maintain it, that it’s not acceptable to struggle again.

We can also inadvertently communicate that, in surpassing our expectations, we didn’t actually have much faith or belief in the child to begin with.

Sometimes, of course, achievement is worth celebrating with all the bells and whistles. But other times the best approach in the longer-term is not to magnify, but downplay the gravity of the situation; to desensitise it with an ‘It’s not a big deal’ attitude.

Not in a ‘So what, it doesn’t matter’ kind of way; it’s still important to acknowledge, to build the child’s awareness and sense of competence. But in a way that’s more about ‘affirmative feedback’ than praise, specifically.
It’s about offering the same level of validation, in a subtle and quiet way, so it’s less vulnerable and more palatable;

‘Of course you did it, I never expected anything less’…

I never doubted you for a moment’…

‘I had complete faith in you’…

‘Tell me something I don’t know’…

Try it next time you’re tempted to turn the volume up on the praise, especially with those young people who are all too quick to dismiss positive feedback, to rebuff your efforts at self-esteem building, those who find all of that just too awkward.

If this perspective interests you, I explore it more through my Growth & Resilience CPD (as well as a few of my other sessions; find out more here).

And if you’re also a fan of simple approaches that work, have a look at my resource ‘Pip & Acorn’s Little Notes‘.
They work wonders for Growth Mindset. Enquire about bulk-buying for cost-efficiency here.

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