Accentuate the positive

by Catherine Woulfe / 17 August, 2013
Most of us have a natural focus on finding what’s wrong and fixing it, rather than noticing what’s right.
The evidence is that we learn better and faster from positive feedback.

Most parents just want their kids to be happy and healthy, says Dr Denise Quinlan, a research fellow at the University of Otago. And she promises it’s possible to tick those boxes while also helping children perform to their best at school.

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Since 2005 Quinlan has been using positive psychology in schools in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, focusing on students’ resilience and wellbeing.

She has worked with the University of Pennsylvania’s Resilience Program and for her thesis at the University of Otago she is working with a cluster of low- and mid-decile schools in Dunedin, analysing the effects of focusing on children’s strengths and wellbeing.

Quinlan worries that New Zealand may go the way of the United States, where academic competition starts with tussles to get into top kindergartens and only gets more intense. She points out factors that protect children from stress and are so powerful that their absence is actually a risk.

“Having a secure family environment, having a good circle of friends, being invested in and connected to some community activity or team activity – these are all predictive of kids not dropping out of school, not doing drugs, all that kind of thing.”

Extra-curricular activity helps, too, as long as the child is actually enjoying it rather than taking part under duress. “When the pressure’s on or things go wrong in your academics, if you actually have other areas of your life that are functioning okay, then that’s protective.”

Then there’s the positive psychology, which can sound hokey, she knows – but it works. Parents should “encourage kids to focus on what they do have” – easy with littlies, perhaps, who can make a daily game of rattling off three things they’re grateful for, but she acknowledges it can be tough with teenagers. So she gets specific.

If a teen is stressed and avoiding homework, parents should point out the positives. “We know you’ve always liked history, we know you don’t like writing but you’re really good about looking stuff up on the internet. You actually have a wealth of information, your sister is organised and willing to help you’ – whatever.”

Unfortunately, Quinlan says, most of us have a natural focus on “finding what’s wrong and fixing it, rather than noticing what’s right and building out from it”.

“Here’s a classic – a child comes home from school with two As, two Bs, a C and a D. What do parents focus on? Most parents say the D. Whereas why not actually go first to ‘Oh my word, two As! What is going on here? What do you really like about these subjects? What is it that you’re doing in these two subjects that makes them work so well for you? Learn what it is that’s really engaging the child in that area.”

The “noticing what’s right” rule works with praise, too. “When kids do something well, we go, ‘Brilliant! Great! Smiley face, gold star!’ But we don’t say, ‘Here’s what you did that worked really well, and here’s how to replicate it.’ ”

The former can build a dangerous mindset: “the corollary of ‘Oh you’re brilliant because you got an A’ is, ‘if you don’t get an A, you’re not brilliant, we won’t love you’.”

High-achieving children can end up feeling very fragile, she says, and often “crack” when they reach university, particularly if they have never learned to fail and pick themselves up again.

“Their whole self-worth is tied up in being good and they’re living from one exam to the next. ‘If I don’t succeed then everyone will realise I’m no good.’.” At the same time, children who don’t get that praise get the message that they’re no good and there’s no point trying.

To avoid both scenarios, Quinlan urges parents to praise “the praiseworthy bit”: look for effort, tenacity, persistence and strategy.

“You are teaching kids how to get on a winning streak. If someone’s doing something major wrong and they need corrective feedback, give it to them. But actually, the evidence is that we learn better – we learn faster – from positive feedback.”

Quinlan points parents to the book Mindset by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, whose research includes the classic 1999 study in which 64 children role-played simple tasks such as washing their hands, putting away blocks and completing jigsaw puzzles.

Half were given “person praise”: “I’m proud of you, good girl, aren’t you clever”. The others got “process praise”: “Oh, great effort, I really liked the way you kept moving the puzzle pieces around”.

Next, both groups were faced with a scenario where they had made a mistake. The first group was flummoxed by the failure, while the second – the children who had been praised for their tactics or effort, rather than innate abilities – proved much more persistent, and looked for constructive fixes.

For more on academic stress and ways to cope with it, read this week's Listener cover story: Students under pressureSubscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content
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