Praising a Process-Based Identity

A father giving his daughter praise while she's studying

Any parent or educator who has read about growth mindsets knows that you’re supposed to praise process rather than character traits. It’s best to praise effort and strategy rather than intelligence or talent.

When a student does well, you don’t say, “You’re so smart!” or “You’re so good at math!”

You say, “You must have worked really hard!” or “The way you studied sure paid off!”

This type of praise is helpful because it emphasizes the choices kids have made rather than the genetic gifts that are outside their control. Being praised for good choices encourages them to make similar choices in the future, leading to more growth and greater success.

There is, however, a version of character-based praise that supports the cultivation of a growth mindset: praising a process-based identity.

And it might be even more effective than the type of praise described above.

Here’s how it works. You take standard growth mindset praise, but then you tweak it to assign a positive characteristic to the student.

  • “Good job studying so hard for that test” becomes “Good job being such a dedicated learner.”
  • “You worked really hard to figure that out” becomes “Figuring that out looked tough. I’m proud of you for being such a persistent person.”
  • “Thanks for your help” becomes “Thanks for being such a good helper.”

You’re still praising their process – their choices – but you’re taking it a step further and claiming that those choices are aligned with who they are. This causes those choices to be easier to make in the future. If I’m “a dedicated learner” or “a good helper” then it’s only natural for me to act accordingly.

If you’ve ever read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, then this might sound familiar. Psychologists call this technique Positive Trait Attribution. When someone claims that you possess a virtuous characteristic, such as being helpful or hard-working, you’ll want to live up to that vision of yourself. You’ll act as though it were true, which, in a classic self-fulfilling prophecy, makes it true.

a student happily studying because they self-identify as a hard worker

Praising a process-based identity helps kids develop a better sense of self – an identity that’s based on choices and values rather than based on being smart or successful. When you have this kind of self-identity, success is a natural byproduct of the way you live. The student who studies every night earns higher grades. The basketball player who practices every day continually gets better. The professional who never stops learning advances their career.

Ultimately, the most effective way for someone to develop a growth mindset is to experience growth via effort and strategy. So encouraging kids to “try on” a process-based identity by praising them as though they already have one is one of the most powerful things parents and educators can do to cultivate growth mindsets. And all it takes is a simple change in the way we give praise.

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