Stop Telling Kids They’re Smart

What do you think of when you hear the word “smart”?  What does it mean to you?  More importantly, what does it mean to be the opposite of smart?

When I was young, I had a pretty easy time with school;  things came quickly to me, I never really needed extra help or support, and yes, I was told I was smart.  I quickly concluded that being smart meant that a person didn’t really have to try, yet still did very well in school.  That was just fine with me, until things changed.  Once I hit middle school, assignments got longer and I found myself having a harder time.  I still got good grades for the most part, but the idea that I was smart was becoming a little shaky somewhere deep down inside.  When I got to high school, things really started to fall apart.  Papers and long-term assignments meant that I needed to have organization and study skills that I’d never developed, and it became abundantly clear to me that I wasn’t actually as smart as I  had originally thought.  I began to give up on school for the most part, and developed serious anxiety around people discovering the truth about me-  that I was nothing special in the brains department.  It took until graduate school for my confidence to recover and to redefine my own intelligence.

Why did this happen?  Well, according to research by Dr. Carol S. Dweck, PhD., it’s because I had developed a fixed mindset.  Take a look at this experiment conducted by Dweck in which kids are either praised for being smart, or for their effort.  It’s a short video, and so worth it.

I don’t know about you, but the first time I saw this, my mind was blown.  It seems so obvious, and yet I’d never thought about things quite this way.  Talk about the power of words.  

As teachers, we encounter all types of kids.  There is no doubt that some children excel in school while others struggle.  If we’re not careful, the kids who excel see themselves as “the smart kids”, and the kids who tend to struggle see themselves as “the dumb kids”.

According to Dweck’s book Mindset, the trick seems to be in redefining the word “smart”.  Being smart doesn’t mean that everything comes easy.  Being smart means that you embrace the struggle, take risks, and don’t give up when things feel hard.  As the adults in the lives of children, it’s our job to make sure that kids are motivated to face the challenges of learning, no matter where they are in their journey.

So how can we do this?  Well, for starters, read Mindset. Dweck outlines specific ways to talk to kids in order to promote a growth mindset.  She explores the impact of the growth mindset and the fixed mindset in a variety of settings and situations, and impresses how important it is to promote a growth mindset in children (and adults, for that matter).

I am personally still working on choosing my words carefully, and probably always will, but here’s what I know so far.  In the classroom, teachers are trained to give specific feedback.  So instead of simply saying, “Wow, great job!”, we try to say something like, “Wow, you picked an efficient strategy to solve that problem and  you stuck with it until you got it.”  Or, “What a detailed drawing!  It looks like you took your time adding each leaf to the tree.”

Then, we tell them what’s next.

Kids need to know that there’s always something more that they can do.  When it comes to learning, you’ve never “arrived”.  Ah, yes, now I know everything there is to know!  Nope.  Doesn’t happen.  This is especially important for the kids who think they’ve got school figured out.  Guess what, kiddo?  There’s more to know!

Be open about what challenges you as an adult.  For me, it’s organization.  Talking openly with kids about “my piles”, how I often walk in circles looking for something, and that it’s something that I work at every day,  sends the message that everybody struggles with something.  It also models for them that it’s ok to talk about what feels hard.  They don’t have to hide the fact that they’re stumped because the struggle means that they’re learning, and they’re not alone.

So, let’s be careful when using the word “smart” with kids…and “talented” for that matter.  Praise them for their efforts rather than a fixed trait.  Do we want young people to feel good about themselves?  Yes.  But what we want more is to set them up to succeed.  Empowering kids in this way will automatically create strong little beings who feel good about what they can do, and won’t fall apart when something feels hard.

Intrigued?  I know, me too.  I can’t get enough of this stuff!  I’ve provided some links below, and I’ll continue to touch on some of these topics as I read and learn more about it myself.

What do you think?  Let me know in the comments!

Recommended Resources


9 thoughts on “Stop Telling Kids They’re Smart

  1. So really is the effort people put into things that matters…Some very ‘smart’ people have not accomplished much in their lives because they have not made the effort…very enlightening.

  2. The whole topic of the words we choose when talking to our students has received a lot of attention lately. Peter Johnston’s book “Choice Words” was the first one that made me begin to think about this. If you haven’t read it, it is well worth the time and consideration. Thanks for keeping this conversation going with your thoughtful comments and personal experiences.

  3. Pingback: Why Do We Suffer in Silence? | teacherhat

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