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Praise where praise is due

Making too much of high grades can leave children at a disadvantage when they encounter setbacks. Praise for success and intelligence can leave them thinking that learning and mastering new skills aren't as important as getting good marks.

Psychologists at Columbia University in New York studied more than 400 11-year-olds under conditions in which they experienced failure as well as success. One group was praised for intelligence and the other for effort.

Children commended for achievement were found to be highly performance-orientated and vulnerable to feeling bad when they did less well. They also felt that intelligence was something you were born with and couldn't be developed.

Children who were given positive encouragement for their efforts tended to cocentrate on learning goals and strategies for achievement. When they performed badly, they saw it as a temporary setback caused by not trying hard enough. Instead of feeling that they were failures, they voiced determination to use strategies to do better next time.

This could help explain why high-achieving girls in primaries perform less well at secondary. Teachers' praising them for intelligence early in their education could, ironically, be lowering their motivation and performance as lessons become more demanding.

"Praise for intelligence can undermine children's motivation and performance" by Claudia M Mueller and Carol S Dweck, Columbia University, in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 75, No.1. email: dweck@psych.

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