To Praise or not to Praise

How to praise children

By Marina Oswald

When your child does well in an exam or gets a gold star from school the usual responses may be along the lines of the following:

·      ‘Well done!’

·      ‘Good work!’

·      ‘Look how clever you are!’

 Whilst all of these responses acknowledge a child’s success, these forms of praise are fundamentally limiting. A throwaway comment may seem harmless, but studies (Mueller & Dweck, 1998) have shown that the focus on success rather than effort or learning can have a negative effect on a child's performance.

 Over the past few years, Carol Dweck's teachings on Growth Mindset in particular have been applied in schools throughout the UK. There are also ways in which parents can encourage the development of a child's mindset outside of school walls. In the late 80s-90s, Carol Dweck found that children who focus on end results over effort made more mistakes by not seeing the importance in how they got to those end results. By changing the way in which we praise children, we can help them to associate effort with achievement.

There are three types of praise:

·      Basic praise - 'Well done'

·      Intelligence praise - 'Look how clever that was'

·      Effort praise - 'I can see you put a lot of effort into that and have learnt a lot, you deserve that result'

By focusing on effort, we are teaching children how to be successful - working hard rather than resting on their laurels (which children tend to do after being told they are clever or gifted a number of times).

 Oppidan directors, Henry and Walter, were recently invited to talk on an episode of The Parent Practice podcast with Elaine Halligan, which included a discussion on ‘descriptive praise’. Similarly to effort praise, by changing the way we praise children and becoming more descriptive we are telling them specifically why they have achieved success. Descriptive praise is not exclusive to academic success, it can be used in lots of different circumstances to develop good habits.

 Examples of descriptive praise:

·      ‘You worked so hard to produce that, the time you put into it has paid off’

·      ‘Thank you for letting your brother choose first, that was very patient of you’

·       ‘You were very kind to hold the door open for that person’

 Learning about the best techniques and approaches to education is at the forefront of Oppidan’s ethos. Oppidan regularly hosts workshops for mentors on themes such as Growth Mindset, Mindfulness, Game Plan and Motivation. We learnt about how to praise children in the last workshop theme mentioned – How to Motivate Children. The next installment of the Motivation Workshop will take place in November.


·      Mueller & Dweck (1998). ‘Praise for intelligence can undermine children's motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology’