A story on WHYY Radio today focused on research by Professor Elizabeth Gunderson of Temple University, who looked at how parents praise their young children. She visited families in their homes and observed the type of praise provided to children at ages 1,2 and 3. And she visited again when the children were 8 years old to see how the way the parents provided praise affected their children's behavior.
She found that children whose parents praise effort, as in "Good work!" are likely to believe that hard work can improve their skills, and are more likely to take on challenging tasks. On the other hand, those whose parents provide personal praise, such as "You're smart" are less likely to believe that hard work can improve their skills. These children are also less likely to take on challenging tasks.
Dr. Gunderson's work verifies and expands upon previous research showing similar findings about how praising effort, as opposed to praising the child, can help children develop a resilient attitude that fosters hard work and makes them less afraid to try something new. What is new in this study is that Dr. Gunderson visited families in their homes, as opposed to doing studies in a lab setting.
Researchers believe that the reason praising effort, rather than praising a personal characteristic such as intelligence, is more motivating to students is that it fosters the belief that students can affect outcomes by putting in more effort. On the other hand, students who are praised for a personal characteristic may become fearful that if they fail after putting more effort into a task it will jeopardize the perception that they are "smart" or "good at" something.