Praise for toddlers in the right way predicts long-term cognitive development

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When parents praise a toddler for trying hard, cognitive development improves, and the child is more likely to achieve more in math and reading comprehension seven years later, a new US study has found.

This is the first study to find a link all the way from early experience of praise to later cognitive ability.

It wasn’t just any praise that made the difference to cognitive development, and still less the amount of talking that parents did with their toddlers. What made a difference was what the researchers call “process praise” – that is, praise emphasising the child’s effort. “You did a great job trying to put that back!” “I like it when you do it all different colors.” Process praise is different from “person” praise, like “good girl!” and “you are smart!”

The link between this kind of early praise and later achievement was found via children’s belief that intelligence is malleable and open to change through effort. This was measured when the children were eight.

The study makes a strong case that parents and teachers should emphasise praise for effort with toddlers to improve their cognitive development.

The science: praise and cognitive development

Earlier research by the same team found that process praise early in life is associated with a belief that intelligence is malleable at the age of seven to eight. The researchers call this belief an “incremental motivational framework” or an “incremental mindset”. Children who have an incremental mindset and believe that achievement is related to effort rather than just ability are more likely to sustain effort in the face of difficulty. They are also more likely to seek challenges and increase their ability.

In contrast, children who believe intelligence is fixed may do well in subjects that come easily. They will struggle, however, to remain motivated when challenged. They are more likely to be afraid that failure exposes their fixed inability.

Other research has also found a link between belief in malleable intelligence and academic achievement in elementary and middle school.

The link has a cumulative effect on cognitive development. A difference in academic achievement at the age of eight between children who approach things with an incremental mindset and children who have a fixed mindset is likely to grow bigger over time. Children with an incremental mindset are more likely to capitalise on each learning opportunity. In response to setbacks, they will increase engagement rather than back off. They will enjoy challenges more.

The study followed 53 children for seven years, starting in toddlerhood. Parents’ praise was measured at one, two, and three years old. The children’s motivational framework was assessed when they were seven to eight. Two things were examined in particular at this stage.

  • Beliefs about the fixed/malleable nature of intelligence.
  • Preference for challenging versus easy tasks in order to achieve goals.

The children’s achievement in math and reading comprehension – achievements that are strongly influenced by effort – was measured when they were nine to 10 years old.

The findings

Analysing the scores from the three different stages, the researchers found a cognitive development pathway from early process praise at ages one to three, to incremental motivation at ages seven to eight, to academic performance at ages nine to 10.

Of the two types of incremental motivation measured at eight years old – belief in malleable intelligence and willingness to tackle more difficult challenges – only the belief in malleable intelligence was significant. That is, the child’s mindset appears to be the significant factor.

Parents’ socioeconomic status made a difference to children’s achievement; children of parents with low status achieve less. Nevertheless, the association between early praise for effort and later academic achievement was found at all socioeconomic levels.

Similarly, the link between early process praise and later academic achievement held true for both boys and girls. But the researchers found that boy toddlers tend to receive more process praise than girl toddlers, and that boys have slightly stronger incremental motivation at eight years old and show higher achievement in math at nine and 10, on average.

Children who do better at age eight are likely to be doing better at nine and 10. In this study, the gap between children who had received more early process praise and those who received less grew even wider.

What does this mean for child cognitive development practice and policy?

Though the sample size was small (53 children), it was socially diverse and specialised statistical techniques clearly revealed indirect effects in the data. Only a bigger study could determine if the results would be replicated in a wider population.

Nevertheless, the results provide a good case for incorporating a mindset approach in work with parents and teachers to promote cognitive development in toddlers and young children.  Parents in particular could be taught about the value of process praise. But we should be mindful of the risk of communicating that any kind of praise is what counts. For example, hyperbolic over-praise (“that was an incredibly amazing catch”) can discourage children from taking on challenges, especially children with low self-esteem.

 

Gunderson EA, Sorhagen NS, Gripshover SJ, Dweck CS, Goldin-Meadow S & Levine SC (2017), Parent praise to toddlers predicts fourth grade academic achievement via children’s incremental mindsets, Developmental Psychology 54.3