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Evolving Ideas on Motivating Kids to Persist, Succeed

If we agree that valuing effort is more effective in motivating children than valuing achievement or ability, we need to examine how effort can be reinforced so that it fosters success in learning, says El Cerrito education professional Evie Groch.

How many times have we as teachers or parents caught ourselves saying “Good job!” after our student has achieved, successfully applied, or mastered an academic concept?  What message are we really giving this child?

In past years, we were weaned off of saying “Good boy (or girl)” and encouraged to focus instead on his or her action instead of personality or behavior traits.  Where has this gotten us?  Not as far as we were led to believe.

Some believe that praising students for their inherent and innate abilities in the long run will not prepare them to put consistent effort into something that doesn’t come easily to them.  They may think they’re not smart if they have to work hard at a task.  Is that the message we want to deliver? Of course not.  This is where we should encourage them to grapple with a challenge and praise them for their effort.

Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck, in their 1998 Stanford study, “Effects of Intelligence and Effort Praise,” showed that following failure, kids who had been praised for intelligence had less task persistence, less enjoyment, and worse task performance than children who had been praised for effort.  Those praised for hard work believed they could improve their intelligence.  Their learning process was effective.

Author Annie Murphy believes that our knowledge and abilities are less determined by our IQ than by our Learning Quotient: how we learn shapes what we know and can do and depends on the effectiveness of our learning process. Students praised for intelligence tend to just want to continue being smart without much effort.

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, believes that any student can learn, no matter what his or her IQ, as long as he or she puts forth effort and understands its connection to the learning process.  If we enforce “that effort and elbow grease (which in his opinion is as or more important than “innate smarts”),” kids will be on the best learning path.

So, if we believe effort, persistence, and learning from failure are as important as achievement, how do we encourage and nurture them?

What tends to get rewarded is the result – the right answer, the high score, the home run, the touchdown, the perfect pirouette, the aced tennis serve.  There is no grade for effort; however, praising a failed process could lead less disciplined children to think that all they have to do is make others believe they tried hard, and all will be well.  Perhaps these children need help making the connection between process and result, aside from success or failure.  They need to see that an improved process will lead to the desired result and develop a high degree of resistance to frustration, a task not easily accomplished.  A tough road of frustration without little successes along the way can be too easily abandoned.  It’s human nature.  But if they could watch their parents and teachers modeling how they address frustration and disappointment and go beyond them to success, they might be encouraged to do the same.

Our parental and teacher responses keep evolving as we keep learning more effective motivation strategies.  We have gone from “Good boy” to “Good job” to “Great effort – keep it up."

Having a comment like “Good job” slip out now and then isn’t the end of the world, provided children and students have generally heard how much you appreciate and respect their hard work and persistence in the task or challenge at hand.  Saying “You’re getting better at this” wouldn’t hurt either.

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