In “praise” of using the right support language

We all know that the words adults use can have a big impact on youth. As mentors, there are many situations where we have the opportunity to use our language to orient mentees towards a growth mindset. This lesson explores how to praise to foster a growth mindset.

Look at the following phrases and see if you can guess which of them promotes a growth mindset.

"It looks like that was too easy. Let's give you something a bit more challenging." Correct! This indicates that learning and being challenged is more important than getting the right answer quickly. Try again
"That isn't the right answer. You don't understand it yet." Correct! "Yet" indicates your child will succeed if they keep working. Try again
"You are so smart." Try again - Calling a child "smart" indicates intrinsic ability rather than growth through effort. Correct! This sends the message that innate "smartness" is what leads to success, rather than effort and growth.
"I know it was hard, but look how your effort paid off." Correct! This specifies that your child’s efforts led to success. Try again
"You’re really talented in math- you should definitely focus on it next year." Try again - Singling out a strength in one realm may discourage their growth in other classes and reduce their perseverance. Correct! This emphasizes the importance of talent rather than learning and growth.
"She’ll get it. She’s working on it and making progress." Correct! This acknowledges that the child is able to succeed, and just needs more time to do so. Try again
"You did so well! Keep working hard and you will do great again next year." Correct! This says that continued effort will lead to continued success. Try again
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While it may feel good to tell your mentee they are smart or talented when they succeed, when they struggle later, they may conclude, “If my past success made me smart, my current struggle makes me dumb.” This type of praise, person praise, reinforces a fixed mindset. When you focus praise on the process — when you help your mentee understand how they achieved their success — when they struggle later they’ll conclude, “If my past actions helped me succeed, there are actions I can take now to overcome my current struggle.” This type of praise, process praise, reinforces a growth mindset.

The key to giving good process praise is to be specific. The goal is to give your mentee insight into the actions they took to be successful. Saying, “Good job, you tried really hard, and it paid off” can be helpful, but other types of process praise are usually more helpful. It’s good for your mentee to see that putting in effort led to success, but it’s even more useful to help them see the ways that they successfully applied that effort. Did they use a good strategy? Highlight what that strategy was so they can use it again next time. As a mentor, you have unique insight into the processes that your mentee engages in. This means that you can be more specific than most teachers or parents, who often only see the end product. Use that unique insight when giving praise to your mentee.

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