Ability vs. Effort: The Power & Perils of Praise

Do you ever feel worried about your kids’ tendency to avoid challenge & difficulty, get upset about mistakes, and dislike asking for help…even when they need it?

If so, you’re not alone! I’ve heard from so many parents who share the same concerns.  

“I don’t understand why they’re not putting in more effort!” they tell me… “I know they’re smart enough to do the work.” 

And they’re right! The problem is NOT students’ lack of intelligence.

It’s their mindset.

In fact, in many cases, being so smart is actually part of the problem.

Highly intelligent kids often start off doing really well in school. Schoolwork comes easily to them. They do well on tests in class without ever needing to study. 

Good work paper grading in red inkParents and teachers frequently praise them for how well they’re doing, and how smart they are. 

Giving kids positive feedback about how talented they are seems like a wonderful idea — a great way to build self-esteem and encourage kids to feel good about themselves. 

Indeed, when parents of young children were surveyed, 85% of them agreed with the statement that “it is necessary to praise children’s ability when they perform well on a task to make them feel that they are smart.” 

But it turns out that praising kids for their abilities, rather than their behavior, has major downsides.

When researchers performed studies to test the effects of praise on children, the effects of praising kids for their intelligence were shocking.

Here’s a brief video (3:27) showing what the lead researcher, Carol Dweck, had to say about the results: 

When students were praised for their ability (“you did well…you must be really smart at this!”, rather than their effort (“you did well…you must have worked really hard on this!”), they…

  • Chose to do easy tasks they can do well on, rather than hard ones that will teach them something new
  • Gave up more quickly when they are faced with a challenge
  • Were more willing to cheat in order to get a good result
  • Were more willing to lie about their results, to make them look better than they were

And this was after ONE statement from a researcher they didn’t even know! Can you imagine the effects of a lifetime of hearing “you’re so smart!” and “wow, you’re really talented!” from parents and teachers they know and trust?

Praising student for their ability, rather than their efforts, clearly has a significant impact on their behavior.

But saying “you must have tried really hard at this”, rather than “you must be really smart at this” seems like such a subtle difference. 

WHY does this seemingly trivial change have such a big effect? 

Effects of praising kids’ abilities

When we respond to students’ successes by saying “wow, you’re so talented!” we’re praising them for their inherent ability, which is something that is permanent, and out of their control. 

We’re also emphasizing the result the student achieved, rather than the process by which they attained it, which makes it seem like the outcome is more important to us than the effort they put into achieving it.  

Praising students for their intelligence, talent, or other innate abilities teaches kids to adopt what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”, where…

  • My results are a measurement of how good I am: If I’m doing well, it means I’m good at this. If I’m doing poorly, I must be bad at it.
  • I’m either good at this or I’m not — there’s not much I can do about it.
  • The most important thing is looking good.
  • If I got a good result, that’s all that matters — the process is irrelevant.
  • The most impressive people are the ones who can achieve great results without much effort. That shows they’re really talented.
  • If I ask for help, I might reveal that I’m not as good at this they thought I was

As long as everything is easy and they keep doing well, having a fixed mindset isn’t a problem. In fact, it will probably make kids feel pretty great about themselves! 

But what happens when things get harder

For some students, it’s a really hard math teacher in 7th grade, or their first year of high school.  For others, it’s taking multiple AP classes in their junior year, or starting their first semester of college.  

Inevitably, at some point, every student is going to face a situation that’s challenging for them — where things stop being easy, and they have to struggle to keep up. 

Unfortunately, for students with a fixed mindset, these mistakes and failures are often interpreted as a lack of ability…

  • That test was really hard..maybe I’m not very good at math after all
  • I heard that AP History is really challenging. I’d rather just take honors; I know I can get an A in that.
  • I don’t know if I can do a good job on this, no matter how hard I try.  At least if I wait and do it later, I can always say that I could have done better if I’d had more time. 
  • If meet with my Bio teacher, she’s going to see how confused I am and think I’m not very smart.  I’d rather just try and figure it out on my own.

The word ability and bunting against student holding bookStudents can’t change their ability. So, if the reason for their poor results is a lack of ability, there’s no point in continuing to try. They might as well give up. This attitude keeps kids stuck, and causes them to feel helpless & powerless.

Even when kids are doing well, there is intense pressure for them to continue getting positive results…which often leads to performance anxiety, perfectionism, and other self-defeating behaviors.

Overall, viewing results as the product of a student’s level of intelligence or innate ability is disempowering, and can leave them feeling helpless and stuck, without any means of changing their situation.

So, what’s the alternative?

Benefits of praising kids’ behavior

We don’t have to give up praising students altogether. Just praising them for their ability.

Praising students’ for their behavior, and the amount of effort they put into achieving a result, can be very valuable.

Praising kids for their behavior and their efforts teaches them to adopt a “growth mindset”, where…

  • My results are determined by the way I act, and the amount of effort I put in.
  • If I’m not good at this yet, I need to change my behavior & put in more effort if I want to get better.
  • I’m in control of my results, because I’m the one who chooses how to act and how much effort to put in. 
  • The most important thing is continuing to get better over time.
  • If I did the best I could, that’s all that matters — the outcome is irrelevant.
  • The most impressive people are the ones who don’t give up, who keep trying different approaches until they figure out a way to make things work. That shows they’re really hard workers.
  • If I ask for help from people who know more than I do, I can get better faster, and achieve the result I want more quickly.

In contrast to permanent, unchanging abilities, behaviors and efforts are temporary. 

Even more importantly, they are something kids have the ability to change! THEY get to decide if they want to behave differently next time, by altering their strategy or putting in more effort. And putting in more effort next time can lead to a better result.

Praising students for their behavior, their level of effort, and the process they use to achieve a result is incredibly empowering.

It tells them that they have the power to change the results they’re getting, by shifting their behavior.

It encourages them to do their best, and focus on getting better, rather than being good.

And it motivates them to try, even when things aren’t going their way, because it gives them hope that — if they do things differently — they can get a better result next time. 

Guidelines for effective praise:

  • Praise kids for their behaviors, rather than their inherent abilities. 
  • Praise effort & strategy, not intelligence or talent.
  • Praise students for the process they used to reach their goals, rather than the outcome they achieved.
  • Praise kids for how much they’ve learned, grown, or improved, rather than how much they’ve accomplished.
  • Praise students for challenging themselves, pushing themselves out of their comfort zone, and trying new things…regardless of how their attempts work out the first time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this idea of praising kids for their efforts, rather than their abilities. 

Which concept from this article are you MOST excited to apply with YOUR kids?

Please post a comment below, and let me know!

Thanks and best wishes,


Schedule my call!

Is coaching a good fit for your teen?

If you'd like to discuss how academic coaching can help your teen improve his or her organization, time management skills, focus, motivation, and/or study skills, click here to schedule a complimentary consultation with me.
Schedule my call!
By |April 3rd, 2015|Categories: Mindset, Study skills|0 Comments

About the Author:

Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school & college students achieve their academic potential by improving their organization, time management, study skills, and mindset about school. To set up a time to speak with Maggie about how to help YOUR teen develop the skills he or she needs to thrive academically, visit http://creatingpositivefutures.com/contact or email support@creatingpositivefutures.com

Leave A Comment