Mentally Strong Students

I recently came across a CNBC article titled: “A psychotherapist says parents who raise confident, mentally strong kids always do these 3 things when praising their children” written by Jessica VanderWier, a psychotherapist who works with families and children. It’s short, but full of incredible advice on how to help kids be confident. The article is clearly intended for parents, but as both a parent and a teacher, I’ve adopted the guidance to apply to the classroom setting.

The three methods to use when praising children, as cited in this article, are:

  1. Praise The Process
  2. Never Make It A Competition
  3. Use Observational Language

Wow! Such simple tweaks really make a world of a difference. Most of us (parents and/or teachers) act with good intentions. We want our children/students to be confident, happy, healthy, and we want them to grow. However, perhaps some of the ways in which we THINK we are nurturing our children to be mentally strong are not actually eliciting the results we want. I try to tell myself: don’t just go for the “quick fix;” we want to be in it for the long-term. When motivating others, especially children, it’s tempting to just do what will make them happy now, reward them for now, dare I say it, bribe them now, just get them to do what you want them to do…NOW! This may seem like it’s working, but does it create intrinsically motivated, life-long confident and mentally strong people? Not necessarily. I really took the advice in this article to heart, and have started implementing some of the language tweaks the article advises with my own children. As always, I’m also looking forward to tweaking my own teaching starting this fall.

Here is a brief overview of each of the three aforementioned points, and some simple ways that I feel they can be utilized in the mathematics classroom.

Praise The Process – Don’t reward or praise based on an outcome, but based on the process. This couldn’t be more true for math, since math is a process! “Show your work!” is a phrase often heard in any mathematics classroom. How did your students arrive at their answers? Did students use different strategies? Did students use prerequisite knowledge appropriately? Even if some of the process was incorrect, it is still important to acknowledge the different problem solving strategies students use. During class discussions, praise as many students as possible on their process in arriving at their answers. When students hear you are pleased with various aspects of their problem solving, they may be more confident and willing to try different strategies in the future. You may even get more willing volunteers to participate in sharing how they arrived at their answers to various problems. And please, try to award partial credit as much as possible!

Never Make It A Competition – It’s difficult to not compare student to student, but avoiding this will help your students intrinsically feel good about themselves, rather than feeling good about themselves as compared to others. Here is a classic example: a student fails two tests in a row. On the third test, the student earns a 72%. This is a great achievement for this student. However, the student talks to others in the class who all score in the 80’s and 90’s. Compared to the rest of the class, the student did poorly. However, compared to the student’s own historical performance, the student improved so much and actually did great! Write a note on that student’s paper congratulating the student’s improvement. Let the parents know how pleased you are to see the improvement. Offer suggestions as to how the student can build upon the progress. Try to encourage your students to track their own progress throughout the year, and to not compare themselves to others. Most importantly, don’t be the one doing the comparing.

Use Observational Language – Provide details to students on what you like about their work. Instead of saying: “nice job!” you can say: “You labeled your diagram really clearly, which helped you to better organize your work” or “you used really efficient steps in solving that equation” or “you did a great job factoring here!” Students will better understand their progress if you provide detailed feedback on their processes, rather than just saying “good” or “great work” or other simple praises. Plus, it shows students that you are really paying attention to their work, which will also make them feel appreciated.

These are just three simple ways in which a teacher (or parent!) can better use praise in order to create more long-term confident children. This author uses the phrase: “mentally strong.” What does it mean to be “mentally strong?” To me, it means someone is confident, un-rattled by bumps in the road, and able to overcome fears. A mentally strong person is not afraid to try something new, and can perform well under pressure. To me, these are qualities I try to elicit in my students, and also in my own two children, every day. I am going to continue to use these strategies, and even though I may not see immediate changes, it is my hope that in the future, those kids with whom I’ve worked, will grow into confident, mentally strong adults. Hopefully those mentally strong adults will continue to pay it forward, as well!

Ask yourself and think about these simple questions: How do you motivate others? How do you praise? How do you foster confidence? How do you think these three strategies would work? How would you feel if someone used these strategies with you? Why would these tweaks make a difference to your students?

Try them, and see for yourself! Good luck!

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