Praise the Process, Not the Outcome: Another Post on Growth Mindset!

In April, Christy Moses (one of our awesome OTs!) wrote a blog post on growth mindset that provided excellent insight and several useful resources. Growth mindset is a topic that has grown increasingly important to me as well and I’d like to add to the discussion! —

One spring day, several years ago when I was providing speech therapy at a public elementary school, I held the door of the speech room open while a squirmy group of first graders filed in and settled into their seats. As I joined them at the horseshoe-shaped table I announced that we would no longer be doing the activity I had previously mentioned. “Why?” one of my students asked. “Because I changed my mind,” I explained. At this, his eyes lit up as he enthusiastically pointed to his head and exclaimed, “Because your other mind was broken, right?!”

On the surface, this is simply an amusing anecdote of a young child trying to make sense of figurative language. However, his question has always stuck with me. How many times do we have the erroneous assumption that our brains (i.e. intelligence) are fixed rather than changing? How often do we fall into the trap of black-and-white thinking about ourselves—that we are smart or dumb, whole or broken?

In our effort to help our children be resilient, active, and enthusiastic learners we often praise them by saying how smart or talented they are. “You’re so good at math!” “Wow, you got an A on your test! You’re so smart!” “Whoa, look at that great drawing! You’re really talented.” We do this in an understandable and admirable effort to help children view themselves positively in the hopes that they will grow into hard working, resilient, and courageous adults. Ultimately, we hope that if our children see themselves as smart, they will eventually and ultimately be smart, in every sense of the word.

However, when we praise “smartness” or “talent” we are praising the outcome and not the process, and therein lies our mistake.

In Dr. Carol Dweck’s article in Scientific American, she illustrates that decades of research have shown that “an overemphasis on intellect or talent—and the implication that such traits are innate and fixed—leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unmotivated to learn.” She gives an example of a child who excelled in earlier grades and was praised for being smart over the years. However, during middle school when the required academic effort of his education intensified he began to experience difficulties and unfortunately disengaged entirely. He lost interest, did not complete his homework, did not study, and his grades plummeted.

Dr. Dweck noted that this can happen to children who excel while learning foundational skills and who are praised for being smart because this gives them “…the dangerous notion that no-effort academic achievement defines them as smart or gifted. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart. This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.”

So, when we say: “Wow! You got it right! You’re so smart!” Over time, this can be interpreted as: I’m “smart” when things are easy enough for me to be successful without a lot of effort. When I’m “smart” I get praise, validation, attention and maybe even love. I have to be “smart” to be successful and safely attached to my peers, teachers, and parents. I have to make sure things continue to look easy.

This is not a safe or healthy place from which to learn!

So, what can we do to ensure that our kids see challenges, mistakes, and the need for extra effort as opportunities to improve and not as a threat to their ego? We must make striving to learn more important and praiseworthy than being (or looking) smart.

Whatever we reinforce continues. If we reinforce the process (hard work, perseverance, creativity, resiliency) these behaviors and qualities will most likely continue. If we reinforce the outcome of being “smart” (e.g. looking smart, or looking like things are effortless), the effort to look smart or to accomplish things with little effort, will most likely continue. If we reinforce the outcome, eventually, when something isn’t easy, our kids may be in for a minor identity crisis and engage in some less-than-desirable behaviors.

Here are some ideas about what you can say to reinforce the process, not the outcome:

  • Don’t wait until a child gets something right to say, “You’re learning!”
    Highlighting learning after something is mastered is what we normally think to do. But that’s not the best idea according to Dr. Dweck. Instead, when a child makes a mistake, point it out enthusiastically and explain that they’re learning. “Hmmmm… That’s not it… Wow! You’re learning! You’re figuring it out! Let’s see if we can make some more mistakes and figure this out!”
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  • Celebrate mistakes and even failure.
    In the movie Meet the Robinsons, Lewis is a young aspiring inventor who tries out a new peanut butter and jelly machine but it fails spectacularly and makes a huge mess. He is surprised when those around him start to cheer, “You failed!” The message they tell him is, “From failing, you learn! From success? Not so much… Keep moving forward!” (Here’s a link to this great movie clip!)
  • Praise problem solving and creativity.
  • “Oh! That didn’t work. But that was a creative way to try to solve the problem. Nice mistake. Let’s make some more!”

  • Praise effort.
  • A child I know has benefited greatly when her parents and I praise the quantity of work she has done, rather than the accuracy of her performance. For this child, accuracy for some skills will be a challenge for a long time, so we have made a major emphasis on praising the hard work, perseverance, and quantity of practice she gets in. We have seen significant changes in her attitude toward practicing these skills because of this emphasis. Even if she can’t be successful with accuracy yet, she can always be successful regarding her effort.

  • Celebrate Change.
  • “Remember how many mistakes you made yesterday? You were working so hard and learning so much! Today, you didn’t make as many mistakes—it looks like you’re conquering the challenge! I think your brain is ready for some new challenges!

  • Begin to think of your brain as a “learning machine.”
  • Check out this great video that compares learning new skills to building stronger muscles! Did you know that as you build a skill your neural networks become more connected? Our brains are learning machines! The discomfort of learning means that our brains are literally, physically, changing!

  • Validate the negative emotions your child may experience, but remind them to “Keep moving forward.”
  • “Sometimes I feel frustrated when I make a mistake too. It’s ok to get frustrated, or upset. But I try to remember that my brain is learning! I won’t make mistakes forever! This is part of the process!”

    In the end, regardless of our physical, mental, and emotional strengths and weaknesses, abilities and disabilities, we all have the capacity to change and improve. Having (and teaching) a growth-mindset seems (to me) to be the secret sauce to leading an optimistic and creative life and will hopefully help our children to do the same.

    “Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” -Walt Disney

    Written by:
    Leslie Bennett, MS, CCC-SLP
    Speech and Language Pathologist