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Why We Should Not Tell Kids They Are Smart

Motivating students is one of the basic teaching strategies teachers must learn to implement in the classroom. Praising students is a simple yet effective form of motivation. Those who are teaching gifted students may find themselves tempted to praise students for their intellectual ability. The natural talents of gifted students can be so obvious at times that teachers quickly exclaim “You’re so smart!” when they see a student’s work. But is this strategy of praising a child’s intellect the best way to motivate a student? These are the types of questions explored by students pursuing a Master of Education in Teacher Leadership with a Specialization in Gifted and Talented.

Teacher Motivation and Self-Esteem

For decades education researchers have studied the reactions of students to different types of praise from parents and teachers. The results of their research may be surprising. Telling children they are smart is not the helpful teaching strategy educators might think it is.

The most famous research on this topic comes from a 10-year study by psychologist Carol Dweck. She and her team found that when instructors told elementary students how smart they are, the students experienced a negative impact on their self-esteem. They struggled to have confidence in future tasks as the difficulty increased. When tasks became a greater challenge for these students, they began to feel discouraged that they could no longer easily answer questions or solve problems. They might begin to think they are not as smart as their teacher once thought, and they might worry that the teacher will no longer like or praise them if they do not perform well.

Alternative to Telling Kids They Are Smart

Dweck and her team found a solution for helping students overcome their fear of performing well on difficult tasks. Educators can use a slightly different teaching strategy to motivate students, and they will help students experience a boost in confidence. Rather than praising children for being smart, teachers can praise children for their effort. When a student receives a high score on an assignment, a teacher might say, “I can tell how much hard work you put into it.”

This form of motivation encourages students to focus on how effort leads to eventual success. When problems become more difficult or the content of a class is more challenging, students have a proper understanding that they need to continue working hard to master the subject. They do not get discouraged nor do they give up easily when they do not understand a concept after the first try.

A conscientious teacher will use teaching strategies that encourage students to strive harder and maintain a growing desire to learn. This type of teacher will help students find success in the process of learning. Teaching gifted students often requires teachers to impart a new mind-set to their students. They must help students see that sometimes failure results from lack of effort, not lack of intellect.

Learn more about the Lamar University online M.Ed. in Teacher Leadership with a Gifted & Talented Specialization.


Scientific American: The Secret to Raising Smart Kids

National Association for Gifted Children: What It Means to Teach Gifted Learners Well

New York Magazine: How Not to Talk to Your Kids

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