Back to School Basics: Some Counter-Cultural Advice

Who shouldn’t like this time of year? Many parents like it because their children will actually be in school for a number of hours during the work week, providing a needed break from childcare responsibilities. Many children are excited because they will be learning new things and exposed to new friends and experiences. Unfortunately, there are many parents and many children who are not excited about the prospects of a new school year as it is too often a time of increased frustration and stress for both student and parent. The frustration is not confined to not having time to purchase all the supplies on the back-to-school checklist in the right quantities, colors, and brands to please the children but more from what happens to them when they use those supplies. What caused me to think of this was an article in a recent Psychology Today, “The Developmental Psychologists’ Back-to-School Shopping List.” It ignited one of my “driving me crazy” moments. It wouldn’t be so bad except many people reading such an article actually take what the author says seriously. I was actually baffled by much of what the author advocated that children and parents need to do and more importantly, her reasoning behind it.

The author provided a top 5 list for what should be done to improve children’s learning. The problem with this list, in my opinion, is that the author describes the advice as “grounded in scientific research” but her advice is often far from what the science has actually discovered. Most people who are not “grounded in the science” are unable to discern what research is good and what is not and which recommendations are scientifically based and what is just the author’s opinion. For example, her first item tells readers to praise children for their effort and not their intelligence. The author says, “Research suggests that telling children they’re smart might actually interfere with their ability to learn.” There are two key words in that sentence, suggest and might.  I suggest that there is no research that shows that telling children they are smart affects their ability to learn. There is nothing wrong with telling a child that s/he is ‘smart’ or ‘bright’. It will not affect their future potential, or lack-there-of, as the author suggests. If children are constantly told they are smart when in fact they are lazy, disobedient, and defiant it will absolutely affect their behavior, but not their ability to learn. Children who are solving problems while doing homework may in fact be energized and positively reinforced by the “smart” evaluation.  One way to praise a child’s efforts is to tell her she is smart and intelligent. This notion of not telling children they are smart is based primarily on the research of Dweck[1]. Unfortunately, most people quoting her research (and she has been widely quoted) don’t make the connection between behaviors, accomplishments, and such parental verbalizations.

Telling a child he is smart when he comes home with all A’s on his report card will not damage his self-esteem or demotivate him. The notion that it will is ridiculous.  If children are disciplined in their study, complete assignments on time, get A’s on them, they generally meet most of the criteria for what is implied by the label “smart.” In other words they earned their smartness. If they are told they are smart when they are not, it is a bad thing to do. The author says that, “Too much praise can be especially troubling for children who have had an easy time in the early grades but then run into subjects in middle school that require some effort.” What she is describing here is a reflection of poor teaching more than a motivational defect on the part of the child. But wait, I’m not through. The author goes on. Number two on her list of five is: Make learning Meaningful, Not Rewarded. To quote her again, “if you’ve ever promised your child a cookie, some TV time, or another reward for finishing her work study homework, … What you might not know is that they also squash children’s drive to learn.” (Emphasis on might). You can’t imagine how statements like that make my blood boil! This is just totally wrong and almost all parents know it. Certainly there are many parents that misuse rewards and positive reinforcement but the suggestion that positive reinforcement and rewards for learning “squash the drive to learn” cannot be supported. I am familiar with the research used to support such claims. Most of the research is flawed and the conclusions such as these are unwarranted even from it. The idea that gold stickers cannot be used effectively to enhance learning, as she suggests, is just not true. Stickers, properly used, are a symbol of accomplishment which is often accompanied with other social reinforcers for learning.

They can provide an important bridge from learning math facts, spelling and many other non-reinforcing academic tasks that are foundational to future activities that are naturally reinforcing. Using a computer, driving a car, or using social media are all activities that are made more enjoyable by mastering the basics, which in themselves are often considered dull and boring. There is more that I can say but I am not sure that I can make this blog reinforcing enough to keep you reading. Let me finish by saying that I hope what I have said here about the Psychology Today article will not cause you to want to read it. The problem is that much of what is presented to the public in the name of science is not science, or at least, good science. Fortunately much of it can be ignored, or is inconsequential to you. Whether Diet Coke is good or bad for you, may not matter to you as you don’t drink it. On the other hand how you treat people in your family, especially your children, does matter. What you say to your children, how you react to their behaviors matter so it is important to know whether to comment on their smartness or whether or not to use stickers as a technique for getting chores done around the house. My advice is to be careful about whose advice you follow. Ask for the research, or better yet, learn the science of behavior yourself. If you do, not only will you have confidence in the decisions and activities that you use to help make your children good people but you will be a happier and more fulfilled person yourself.

[1] Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset. New York: Random HouseElliot, A., & Dweck, C.S. (Eds.) (2005). Additional Resources: Bringing Out the Best in People Head Strong: A Parenting Survival Kit for Reducing Tension and Building Self-Esteem

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.