Praise Effort…Not Smarts

Want to motivate your kids to do better in school?  Wishing your “smart” child would get better grades?

Recent research suggests parents and teachers need to stop saying “good job.” Eliminate “you’re really smart” from your vocabulary. Bite your tongue before the words “you’re an A student” come out.

Instead, praise the effort your child or student puts into something. The results, the experts claim, will be amazing.I’ve heard this rhetoric but I never reviewed the research or understood the why behind it until recently. I’m now convinced.

Psychologist Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, is an expert on the subject. Her research shows that focusing on a child’s effort or how hard they work – called a mindset of growth – rather than how smart a child is  - a fixed mindset – produces higher achievers and better grades.

In one of Dweck’s studies, 400 kids were given a simple task to do. When they  finished, they were randomly divided into two groups. One group was told, “wow, you’re really smart.”  The other was told, “wow, you must be working hard.” Dweck was testing whether these simple words could alter a students’ mindset.

Each group was then given a choice. They could take a hard test or an easy test.

Ninety percent of the hard working group wanted to take the tougher test – they wanted to show how hard they could work. Two thirds of the smart group chose the easier test. They did not want to risk losing their “smart” label.

“These were some of the clearest findings I’ve seen.” Dweck said.

Then they repeated the first test. Though it was no harder, the scores of the “smart” group dropped 20% while the “hard working” group improved by 30%.

The results surprised even Dweck. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of a child’s control and it provides no good recipe for responding to failure.”

Kids who think they are smart, she explains, often feel that they don’t need to make the effort. They can rely on their natural “gifts.” When the smart label is continually reinforced, they are less likely to take on new or difficult challenges for fear of not looking smart. They can’t control the outcome.

Kids who believe they are hard workers are more motivated to focus on learning. The result is a more resilient kid who gets good grades. A kid with a mindset that says “I’m a hard worker;  I can do it.”

Similar studies in neuropsychology, behavior and sports motivation are also showing that effort trumps talent. It makes sense given that the brain is a muscle that grows and gets stronger when used, just like a bicep muscle. Maybe that IQ test discovered in the early 1900’s isn’t so valid after all.

Here’s an acronym to help you keep your language focused on your child’s effort and hard work rather than the outcome or the smarts: STAC

S – Be SPECIFIC in what you praise

T-  Keep it TIMELY

A – Be AUTHENTIC. Don’t praise effort if there was none

C – Praise only what your child can CONTROL

So STAC your praise on your child’s efforts. If the theory holds, the grades will follow.


  1. Excellent advice!

  2. ABSOLUTELY!! When can you get this message across to schools – makes you think about giving more weight to AP classes and Level 1 classes when kids get A’s in those classes – in fact an A in an AP class may be achieved with less effort than a B in a level 2 class. Maybe schools should be sending home reports on effort grades rather than ABC. I know plenty of under achievers whose report card looks pretty good – yet they are just cruising.

    Thanks for sharing!


  1. [...] Comments « Praise Effort…Not Smarts [...]

Speak Your Mind