The Wrong Praise for Low Self-Esteem Students

from Daniel Willingham: Science & Education Blog & Journal of Experimental Psychology

[Michael’s note: As one of today’s leading cognitive scientists, Professor Willingham has a gift for making technical research understandable for those of us in the classroom. His blog is excellent; see the link below.]

A new report (Brummelman et al, 2013) shows that the consequences of certain praise for kids with low self-esteem can be particularly destructive.

In response to a task completed by students, children with high self-esteem were less likely to receive person praise [focusing on the child’s personal qualities, e.g., “You’re such a good writer”] than children with low self-esteem. Children with high self-esteem were more likely to receive process praise [focusing on what the child accomplished, e.g., “Your essay was well organized”].

Further, it seems that person praise makes children with low-self-esteem feel more invested in a task, more like they have something at stake on a task. So when they perform poorly, they feel more shame. The high-self esteem students, in contrast, shrug off a disappointing performance, because they generally feel more secure about their abilities.

Bottom line: Adults are biased to do exactly the wrong thing—try to “buck up” kids with low-self esteem by offering person praise (“you’re a great kid!”) when these children will actually suffer more after a failure if they receive person praise.

Daniel Willingham is a University of Virginia psychology professor & author of numerous books, including Why Don’t Students Like School?

See also in ClassWise: “Mindset Author Carol Dweck on Student Motivation”

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