When Good Intentions Go Bad

We’ve all said it – “Good job, Jolene!”, “Nice work, William!”, “Excellent, Edward!”. It’s the verbal equivalent of a gold star. It can pop out of our mouths before we even realize what we’re saying and we rarely think twice about it because it’s positive, right? Those are positive words of encouragement, right? We’ve all been taught and told to use positive words. “Good”, “nice” and “excellent” are positive words, right? Well, they are but positive words don’t always lead to positive results. That seems like an oxymoron but research shows that it’s true. Fort the purposes of this article I’ve pulled from one study published by the American Psychological Association in 1998 (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 75, No. 1, 33-52) but there are many other studies that show similar results. The point of this article, however, is not to rehash studies but to introduce a new concept called “Specific Recognition” that I created and have used very successfully with many children. While there isn’t anything “wrong” with using praise and the intention is always to be kind, helpful and supportive, praise doesn’t always produce the results that we assume it will or expect it to and there are a couple of really simple reasons why this is true.

Reason #1 – The Researched Reason

Praise has been researched. It has been divided into categories and studied by intelligent people with open minds and altruistic hearts. In 1998 Claudia M. Mueller and Carol S. Dweck of Columbia University released research findings that split praise into two types and really brought some clarity to this topic by using groups of children of different genders and from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. The first category that they created was “praise for intelligence” or “ability” and the other was “praise for effort”. According to the research, “Children praised for intelligence after success chose problems that allowed them to continue to exhibit good performance (representing a performance goal), whereas children praised for hard work chose problems that promised increased learning.” (p.48) This simply means that kids who were praised for being smart or for their “abilities”, when given the opportunity to choose, chose to do tasks that would continue to show that they were smart instead of choosing tasks that they could really learn from; tasks that they would make more mistakes on or even fail to accomplish. It created a “risk aversion” and a need to be “seen” as successful rather than a desire to learn. Kids who were praised for their effort and hard work, on the other hand, chose tasks that they would learn something from, even if it meant that they would make mistakes and/or fail. So, if we want a child to be motivated to learn, according to the research, we should be praising effort, not intelligence or ability. That’s not right or wrong but research can miss things.

Reason #2 – The Unresearched Reason

What hasn’t been researched, as far as I know, is that the human mind has a “duality default”; therefore, our minds tend to automatically think that if there is a “good” then there must be a “bad”. If there is an “A+” then there must be a big, red “F”. Like Pavlov’s salivating dogs, we are conditioned to believe that every bell that rings has a consequence so when a child hears, “Good job!” her unconscious mind knows that there is a “Bad job!” coming at some point. The other shoe will drop eventually. Every coin has two sides. If there are rewards then there are punishments. Children intuitively know this, which is why constant praise doesn’t help children to achieve or learn or grow but, instead, creates a sense of insecurity within them. Some of the most aggressive children are also the most praised and/or blamed and the most insecure. They know that there are two sides to that praise coin and, whether it is vocalized or not, will feel blamed or guilty when, not if, they fail at something so they avoid any chance of failure or even being perceived as not doing well at something. When the praise is based on their abilities or intelligence, it leads children to believe that intelligence is a “…fixed trait that is not subject to development.” (p.48). When the praise is based on effort then children know that they can learn and show a “…continued interest in mastery by preferring to receive strategy-related information.” (p.48) That is to say that if we say, “You’re really smart! You’re good at math!” then the child is led to believe that they are just “smart” and “good at math” and it becomes difficult for that child to think of intelligence as something that grows and changes or has multiple facets or aspects to it that they can develop. When we say, “I see you worked really hard on that math and completed the project.” the child then wants to work hard to master the concepts being taught and get more information about how to be successful in the future. There is, however, something that the study just brushes over that I believe is critical to understanding human growth and development.

The researchers briefly mention that the children who are praised for effort, when they don’t succeed, “…prefer to ascribe their failures to low effort.” In my mind that begs the question, “What child wants to feel that they’ve failed because they didn’t put in enough effort?” Children under stress, like children at risk, put in enough effort just to attend school, to maintain composure when their home lives are chaotic and just to attend to learning basic things like reading and writing. Pushing them to feel that they’re not putting in enough effort has the same effect as praise and creates feelings of “…distress after they have experienced a setback in their achievement.” (p.49) Distress leads to engagement of the amygdala and the “fight or flight” response, which naturally disengages or inhibits the pre-frontal cortex and the human ability to learn because the brain is in “survival only” mode. There’s no need to learn when death is at the door. Learning comes after death has passed us by, missed it’s chance, and we can calm down and reflect on what happened, what worked and what didn’t work so that we can, again, avoid any similarly treacherous situations in the future. The researchers are aware that this study is not conclusive and that further research will reveal new findings. I predict that one of those findings will be that any form of praise constitutes a “judgment” in the mind of a child while simply teaching a child to recognize the work that they have done and what they have learned from their mistakes, what I call, “specific recognition”, effectively eliminates the need for any type of praise which, therefore, prevents any subsequent feelings of blame, failure and/or rejection.

Specific Recognition

“Specific praise” is a term that bounces around educational circles and is known to most teachers and some parents. The reason that specific praise hasn’t overwhelmed the world and become a regular part of our communication is because it shares the same weakness as every other type of praise. Brophy states that we use praise to “…comment on the worth of or to express approval or admiration.” (1981, p.5). This is a clear and concise statement but children don’t need us to comment on their worth, express approval or admiration. Remember, that two sided coin has “unworthiness, disapproval and disdain” on it’s flip side so it doesn’t have the innate ability to produce effective results. Maria Montessori tapped into this on a physical level by creating objects (like the pink tower or number rods) with what she called “control of error” built into them. The child can see and feel if the number rods are lined up correctly and so don’t have to be “told” that they’ve made an error or done the job correctly. It’s obvious. The “control of error” did reduce the amount of praise a teacher gave but didn’t account for the psychological aspects of growth and development (which is not surprising since she was a contemporary of Freud and psychological analysis was still in its infancy when she developed the first pre-schools). I believe that “specific recognition” is the psychological extension of Montessori’s “control of error”. I also predict that the perceived human “need” for approval will be found to be a conditioned response and that we are healthier and happier without that specific desire. Instead, I work off of the assumption that (besides love, air, food, etc) children need nothing more than experiences, mistakes, observation and time to reflect in order to grow and develop in healthy ways.

Mistakes? We need mistakes? Yes! Mistakes! Mistakes are critical to learning. If we did it right, we had nothing to learn; therefore, understanding the necessity of mistakes is understanding the reality of learning. I like to use the example of Teflon when explaining this to parents, teachers and children. Teflon was accidentally created in 1938 by Roy Plunkett. He wasn’t trying to create a non-stick surface for future frying pans. He was trying to create a new refrigerant but failed. His mistake, however, produced what we now call Teflon. I tell people that his open mind, his ability to be curious about his mistakes instead of judgmental, is what lead to the discovery. If he’d been critical and judgmental then he would have thrown the new substance away and possibly stewed over his mistakes. Instead, he was curious about the coating that he’d created and that curiosity led to a new discovery! That’s how reality works. He didn’t need anybody to praise him in order to succeed. He needed only to experience, make a mistake, then observe the results without judgment. This ability is what I call “specific recognition” because it’s the ability to recognize specific traits, properties and abilities in ourselves and the things around us as we experience life. It’s easy to teach and a “natural” state of being for humans.

Specific recognition is simply awareness coupled with concentration. To foster this natural tendency in children we must not condition them to interpret the world through the dualistic lens of praise and blame, success and failure or good and bad. Instead, we simply build on what they were born with – awareness – by adding the lesson of concentration to that natural state. Before we go on, let me clarify “awareness”. A baby is born aware. She has no language, no culture, no social skills and very little muscle control, yet she is aware of her surroundings and able to absorb and process information in astounding ways that modern science is still trying to comprehend. She’s able to do this because she was born with awareness. Awareness is the natural state that we’re born into and it’s so natural that we tend to take it for granted and forget that we exist in that state. So we don’t need to teach awareness, just concentration and focus. This works with almost all children, especially those suffering from autism, personality disorders and/or the modern illness of having “everything handed to them”.

I have worked in a Montessori school with very wealthy families and in Head Start as a teacher and a Regional Supervisor with some of the lowest income, highest risk children in the U.S. I have found, as research suggests, that maladies like ADD and ADHD don’t care about your income! I have also found that every single child, without fail, who was diagnosed with the two aforementioned conditions, needed only to learn to focus and concentrate in order to stop using pharmaceuticals and to begin learning. Calming down then came naturally because they were intrinsically motivated to learn and, in order to learn, they had to calm down. In my experience, children diagnosed with ADD or ADHD tend to be intelligent and capable, orderly and often excessively interested in structure, routine and/or cleanliness. I never had to address the symptoms of those disorders because the children already had the cure inside of them – they were born with it – they just needed to learn how to use it, like any other human ability. I worked with parents who had third grade reading levels and no ability to support what we were doing at school but they would come to me in tears and deeply grateful for the progress their son or daughter made because of our work using “specific recognition”. I only point that out to make it very clear that this is something that the child accomplishes; therefore, it is not dependent on the home or school climate, the amount of resources available to the child or caregiver and there is nothing stopping anybody from using it to help children to grow and learn. Any caregiver, anywhere can do this one on one with any child capable of learning. We practice walking in order to learn to use our legs. We practice gripping so that we may learn to use our hands and we must practice paying attention and concentrating if we are to learn to use our awareness. It’s our actual sixth sense and the foundation of “specific recognition”.

Teaching the skill of concentration, then, becomes the task. Having parents or school staff involved (as I mentioned earlier) is helpful but not necessary. If a teacher must do it on his own then he can accomplish it by enlisting the help of the student. If a parent needs to teach this then she can enlist the help of her child. The child is the only dependent factor. It begins with a conversation like this:

Caregiver – “Melody, I’ve noticed that you move around a lot. Does that help you to learn or does it make it more difficult?”

Melody – “I don’t know.”

Caregiver – “Oh. Okay. Well, wanna play a game that helps us to see if it helps or not?”

Melody – “Sure.”

Caregiver – “Okay. First, I’ll say something while you run around, play with things and make sure not to hold still or pay too much attention to me. Okay? (Melody nods) Okay. Start moving. (Melody starts moving and the caregiver tells her how many planets are in the solar system and the names each planet) Okay. You did it. Now, please hold still and tell me what I just said.”

Melody – “Um. There’s planets?”

Caregiver – “I did say something about planets. Can you tell me more?”

Melody – “Um… no. I don’t think so.”

Caregiver – “Okay. That part’s done. Now, let’s try it a different way. You find a place to sit and just relax.”

Melody – “Awright.” She sits on the floor.

Caregiver – “Now, I’m going to tell you about the planets again but this time listen really closely to my words and try to remember them, okay?”

Melody – “Okay.”

Caregiver repeats the number of planets and their names, then asks Melody what she remembers.

Melody – “There are 9 planets. Um… Earth, Neptune, Mars, um… Venus… and some others.”

Caregiver – “There are 9 planets and those are the names of 4 of them. So you did learn about the planets. Now, let’s look back at what just happened. Was it easier to hear, understand and remember the information when you were running around or when you were sitting still?”

Melody – “Sitting still.”

Caregiver – “Okay. So is it safe to say that you already know how to run around?”

Melody – “Yeah. Mommy says I can run around all day!”

Caregiver – “You can run around all day. I understand that. I wonder if you can concentrate for as long as you can run around. What do you think?”

Melody – “Noo – Ooo way!”

Caregiver – “Would you like to be able to?”

Melody shrugs – “I guess.”

Caregiver – “Well, you just did. You sat still and learned about the planets on purpose but what you might not have noticed is that you just sat here and talked with me about concentration for twice as long!”

Melody giggles. This is the point where a caregiver, teacher or parent would want to change the subject because the “seed” has been planted and will germinate in the child’s mind. In other words, the child has received enough information for the moment and time doing other things (and some good sleep) will allow the subconscious mind to “digest” the information. In the following days opportunities will come up to help Melody learn to focus by asking questions like, “Can you hear me, Melody?” Rather than telling her to sit down. “Can you understand that statement?” Rather than telling her that she’s not listening. Questioning her in this way will model the ability that she needs in order to question herself and become more self aware. Read over and study the dialogue and note how the caregiver asked questions and made statements but didn’t praise Melody. Children tend to react very attentively to this type of communication, especially if they’re used to being praised or blamed excessively.

This is just one scenario but most other situations with children will function in a similar manner, regardless of the child, culture or any present disorder because the human mind is wired to be aware and our desire to be able to focus and concentrate is innate. It doesn’t take big, fancy words or harsh punishments to implement “specific recognition”. Fear, as a matter of fact, is too weak of a response to work when teaching a child to focus and concentrate. The child already has a fear of not understanding built in so what she needs is knowledge, experience and non-judgmental recognition of what she’s learning and doing. This is called “specific recognition” and it replaces praise, blame and reward or punishment.

The caregiver is responsible for learning the language, as demonstrated in the dialogue above, necessary to teach concentration so that the child can learn in the “specific recognition” mode. It’s important to never blame the child and always seek to understand the child and teach her how to meet her needs. It’s the simplest thing once we learn it but it can take a monumental adult effort to uncondition ourselves from the “praise and blame” model that most of us were raised with and recondition ourselves to think, act and speak in non-judgmental ways that allow us to recognize first what we, ourselves, are thinking and doing and then what the child has done or is doing. We can’t teach music unless we know how to play music, right? In the same manner we teach “specific recognition” by understanding it and being able to concentrate and be aware ourselves. Remember, we’re born with the awareness and we need only learn to concentrate. By taking on this challenge to retrain our brains, we adults model for the children that intelligence is malleable and that learning is cooperative, fun and lifelong.


We would love to share all the awesome things we’ve learned from Dr. West and Dr. Latham! Sign up for our FREE newsletter to have a hands-on learning experience every week!

You can also find us on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest