Praise – A Double-Edged Sword

 –by Julie Beem

I read about some interesting research on praise in an educator’s blog that cited a study done by Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford on praising 5th graders. (These were neurotypical 5th graders, BTW.)

The experiment went like this. They gave 400 5th graders a simple puzzle in which everyone did well and was praised. Half the group was praised with “you’re so smart,” and the other half with “you must have worked really hard.” Then each child was asked if they wanted to take a very difficult test or one that was as easy as the first one.  The children who were praised for their efforts, instead of their smarts, were much more likely to choose the more difficult test.

Here’s where things get really interesting. They gave a difficult test (two grade levels above) to all the students and everyone failed. But… those who had been praised for their effort tried much harder than the group who simply heard they were smart.

Furthermore, when all the students were given a third test, as simple as the first, the “trying-hard” group improved their original score by about 30 %, while the “smart” group saw their scores go down about 20%.

What did this tell the researchers, and what does it tell us? If children are praised for being “smart,” this feels unchangeable and so the scores and task difficulty really have nowhere to go but down. Being praised for “effort,” on the other hand, is something within the child’s control. They can always try harder, and so scores are likely to rise. What’s more, those who are praised early on for effort are more likely to attempt more difficult things.

It’s interesting to contemplate the use (and dangers) of praise in “typical” children, knowing how badly children with trauma and attachment issues struggle with praise. Praise is hard for them to hear – their poor self esteem means they cannot believe such a positive message about themselves. For them as for neurotypical kids, however, there is hope: praise about what they do vs. who they are can and does help, mainly because it’s more believable. Most of our children don’t believe they are smart; but they might believe that they’ve done well or worked hard and that their efforts have paid off.

In other words, praise the action, not the attribute. After all, even if they believe they are smart; they can just as quickly believe the contrary if circumstances point in that direction. Yet we can’t be this owl: none of us can change how smart, how cute, or how tall we are. What we can control is how hard we try, how long we work, the number of steps we take in the right direction. And praise should be about something we can control.

The moral of the story? Praise often, even on the hard days when the good is hard to find. Don’t worry – we get it, we know, they’re called “hard” for a reason! But you’ve got this: just remember to praise what you see your kid do, rather than who he or she is (or thinks she or he is…). Maybe then our kids will learn to believe not only us, but also, perhaps most importantly, in themselves.

Julie has been ATN's Executive Director since 2009. She joined the organization in 2004 after finding incredible support from fellow ATNers when she was searching for answers about her own daughter's early childhood trauma and attachment disorders. Julie leads a staff of passionate professionals and acts as spokesperson for the organization. Prior to ATN, Julie was the president of a marketing and communications consultancy, The Epiphany Group, and has over two decades of experience in professional services marketing, strategic planning and communication strategies. As a graduate of Partners in Policymaking and through personal experience, Julie has garnered a great deal of experience in the areas of special education, school issues, and disabilities advocacy. A published author, Julie wrote a chapter in the EMK Press Adoption Parenting book and was the special needs blogger at for two years. She frequently presents workshops on attachment and trauma to local and national groups. Email Julie. Julie holds an MBA from Avila College in Kansas City and was a Certified Professional Services Marketer. Julie, and her husband Dave, are parents to four (bio, step and adoptive), including their youngest daughter, adopted from China. This daughter’s attachment difficulties and developmental trauma disorder have changed their lives significantly…in amazing ways.