It's widely accepted that teachers and parents should praise the effort kids make -- rather than praise their innate ability -- if they want their students and children to be successful.
Similarly, a new study suggests that encouraging children to silently repeat statements to themselves that emphasize effort over ability could bring greater success. Mantras like "I will do my very best" during a math exam, for example, can actually improve test scores for some kids.
"Our study found that the math performance of children with low self-confidence benefits when they tell themselves that they will make an effort," said Eddie Brummelman, an assistant professor of child development at the University of Amsterdam and co-author of the study that published Tuesday in the journal Child Development.
"We did not find the same result among children with low self-confidence who spoke to themselves about ability. Self-talk about effort is the key."
The Dutch researchers studied 212 children ages 9 to 13 years old -- an age when researchers said negative feelings about students' abilities at school become more common -- and asked kids about how competent they felt they were at math.
A few days later, the children took the first half of a standardized math test in their classrooms.
Immediately after completing the first half of the test, they were randomly assigned to talk to themselves -- either focusing on effort (like "I will do my very best!"), focusing on ability ("I am very good at this!"), or using no self-talk at all. Afterward, the children completed the second half of the math test.
The researchers found that the kids who took part in self-talk that focused on effort improved their performance on the test compared to those who did not. The "effort self-talk" benefited children who had a negative view of their math competence to the extent that it allowed them to keep their performance up to par.
The benefits were especially pronounced among children who felt negatively about their competence. In contrast, children who engaged in self-talk that focused on ability -- "I'm very good at this!" -- did not improve their math scores, regardless of their beliefs about their competence.
"Parents and teachers are often advised to encourage children to repeat positive self-statements at stressful times, such as when they're taking academic tests," said Sander Thomaes, professor of psychology at Utrecht University, who led the study.
"But until now, we didn't have a good idea of whether this helped children's achievement. We discovered that children with low self-confidence can improve their performance through self-talk focused on effort, a self-regulation strategy that children can do by themselves every day."
Talking to yourself
From a young age, children talk to themselves.
Toddlers and preschoolers often do so out loud, but kids don't stop when they get older, the researchers said. Instead, they tend do so in silence -- it helps them express their inner world, enliven play and regulate behavior.
Other studies have shown that engaging in "positive self-talk" can improve children's performance in sports such as handball, soccer and swimming. Research has also shown that children who engage in self-talk that emphasizes incompetence, failure and personal harm experience more anxiety and depression, the study said.
The researchers said when it came to math, the self-talk removed a "psychological barrier" that otherwise hindered performance -- they found no evidence that this approach benefited children who already performed up to their potential.
"When children with negative competence beliefs work on mathematics problems, they are prone to anticipate and worry about failure. They experience challenge (e.g., a difficult problem to solve) as a signal that they lack ability, triggering disengagement from the task and worsening performance," the study said.
"Effort self-talk may counter this process ... Children shift their attention away from their perceived (lack of) ability — a quality that is beyond their control — toward a quality that they can control: investing effort."
The researchers said that while adolescents sometimes hold stereotypes that individuals who work hard have low ability -- perhaps because schools tend to value innate ability -- they did not find this at the primary school level.
The researchers said they chose to focus on math not only because of its key role in schools' curriculum but because math performance is known to be compromised by negative beliefs about ability.