Praise Effort Over Outcomes

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It’s the first day of school here in Miami, Florida. The last few weeks have been a mad scramble as I’ve met with parents and children for gifted testing, psychoeducational evaluations, and college major/aptitude testing. Each time, I’ve been asked for advice to help these children and teens do well in school and on high-stakes tests like EOCs, FSAs, AP exams, the SAT, and ACT this school year.  Each time, my answer has been the same:

Focus on effort over outcomes.

Some kids have great memory and recall, and they test well as a result. But those strong scores don’t necessarily mean that they can apply the information they remember.  This makes solely focusing on and praising your child’s grades, test scores, or other such achievements a harmful practice in my opinion.  Why?

Because it sets kids up to have a very screwed up relationship with “success” later on in life. Here’s what I mean:

The child that remembers but doesn’t know how to use information learns that minimal effort gets rewarded. Forgive the comparison, but this is the same as a dog learning a trick to get a treat. Later in life (say college or in the workplace), remembering won’t be enough to achieve the same kind of success they’ve grown accustomed to. 

Cue perfectionism, people pleasing, and feeling like a fraud.

Then there’s the child that doesn’t get good grades, doesn’t test well but who knows the information and how to use it. They’re not praised (or worse scolded) because the results don’t reflect his/her abilities. These kids learn that outcomes are the only thing that matters, and that they’re not good enough. It’s a lesson they carry on into adulthood.

What do these scenarios have in common?

Focusing on outcomes confuses the brain’s ability to differentiate between self worth and self esteem. 

Self-worth was damaged by focusing on outcomes.

While self worth reflects someone’s value, self esteem is based on someone’s abilities. By focusing on outcomes, children learn that their worth depends on their ability to achieve certain results, grades, and test scores. The ones that attain these high scores get locked into a pattern of hustling for their worth by constantly achieving. It’s no wonder they’re exhausted and burned out at a young age. And the ones that struggle to attain said high scores feel like failures.

Want to fix it? Praise effort.

When adults praise the effort a child or teen puts towards studying or a big project, it sends them the message that those adults see them and value their hard work.  Children internalize these messages over the years and thus learn to value hard work.

This keeps self worth healthy and separate from self esteem.

Praising effort also helps children build grit and resilience. They’ll learn that sometimes their best effort will lead to results and other times it’ll fall short. And they’ll learn that that’s okay because their effort and worth as a person aren’t contingent on the outcome. This instills a strong work ethic and self-discipline which will serve them well when they get to college and in the workplace.

The icing on cake?

Kids and teens whose parents praise effort have lower rates of anxiety and depression, higher self confidence, and better self image.

Who wouldn’t want that for their children?!

If a child or teen continues to struggle in school or testing despite their best efforts by the end of the first grading period, then it may be time to get them extra support. Here are some ideas:

  • Rule out the (not so) obvious. Make sure there’s no biological/medical explanation for your child’s academic difficulties. Get their doctor to do a full check-up, including eyesight and hearing. 
  • Ask the teacher if there are opportunities for remediation like extra practice or after-school tutoring.
  • Consider hiring an independent tutor.
  • Get a psychoeducational evaluation. This type of evaluation can identify areas of academic strengths and weaknesses as well as any mental health conditions (e.g. reading and/or math learning disorders, ADHD, anxiety, depression) that maybe impacting learning.

If you’ve got questions about psychoeducational testing, give us a call at (305) 501-0133 or click here to schedule a free 20-minute Clarity Consult My team and I will happy to answer any questions you may have.

Envision Wellness is a private practice that offers psychotherapy, psychological testing, and life coaching in Miami, FL.  Our team has a passion for helping others achieve happy, fulfilling, and change-making lives that make the world a better place.  Each therapist has their areas of expertise.  Not sure who you’d like to work with?  Click here to schedule a free 20-minute phone consult to help you decide.

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