The school report can elicit many feelings among parents and students; feelings of failure or feelings of achievement. As an educational psychologist, I often get asked the question: “How should I respond to my child’s school report?”. Carol Dweck’s work on how praise impacts a child’s academic performance has a fascinating answer to this question: Don’t tell your kids they are smart!
The way we praise our children about their academic achievements shapes the way they view intelligence, which impacts their performance. Let me elaborate. In their study Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck studied Grade 7 learners and measured their school marks for two years. The students that believed that intelligence is malleable showed an upward trajectory in their marks going into high school. Contrastingly, the students that thought intelligence is fixed showed a flat trajectory. In other words, the students that believed their intelligence is something that is flexible and that can be developed were able to improve their marks. Those that believed their intelligence is unchangeable did not increase their scores. Therefore, it is essential to make our children believe that they can raise their intelligence and that intelligence is malleable.
So, what role does praise have? Mueller and Dweck discuss this and points out that the way you praise your child impacts their attribution and goals about their performance. Stated differently, the way you praise your child affects what they want to get out of an activity and the reasons they provide for their success. For instance, if you praise your child’s ability or intelligence (telling them they are smart), they may want to continue to prove that they are smart by receiving high marks. In the short term, this may be useful but becomes unsustainable as the workload and academic demands increase. As the work difficulty increases students that were praised for their ability will often not take on challenging learning opportunities in fear of not looking smart. This limits their learning opportunities which make the marks go down and affects their self-confidence. Furthermore, praising intelligence after your child gets good marks will make them believe that intelligence is a stable or fixed trait determined by genetics. They will believe their success is directly related to an attribute that is outside of their control.
If you think about this carefully, when you praise your child for being smart, then you take their control away. Their successes and failures will be linked to something outside of their control, which in the long run can cause a sense of helplessness. I see this often in my practice where parents tell me, “I don’t know what happened. My child is so smart and is struggling to pass Mathematics. In Grade 6 his/her mark was in the eighties, and now he/she is barely passing”. By this time, I find that their child is already in the cycle of believing they are not smart enough and avoids any reminder of it, in the form of tests and homework activities, which logically will make the marks go down.
So, what should parents do? Praise effort, persistence and the process of learning. Make the goal of their schoolwork to learn and not to achieve. Make your child believe their brain is a muscle that can be exercised by seeking out challenges. Don’t tell your child they are smart, instead say, “I am so proud of you for demonstrating the ability to learn, reflect and persevere this year, I can’t wait to see what challenges next year will bring”.
Hannes is an educational psychologist that provides therapy, assessments and career counselling in Johannesburg. He aims to enable his clients to make their highest contribution despite the obstacles and pain they might experience. Therefore, he works closely with his clients and applies life design counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy principles to help his clients live productive and meaningful lives.
 Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention. Child Development, 78(1), 246–263. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.00995.x
 Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance (Vol. 75). Psychological Association, Inc. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/25ab/297c17a87c8a0f79e109be531fe9c7da97b8.pdf