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Education Reporter

Self-Esteem is Out, Hard Work is In
Conservatives have long argued that teachers who aimed to prop up student self-esteem were in dangerous territory. Despite these warnings, public school students have received a steady diet of unearned affirmations for decades, all in the name of good self-esteem. Now that the "self-esteem generation" is crowding the workforce, employers and educators are seeing the dark side of empty praise — and they are finally beginning to take note.

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A growing body of research indicates that too much unearned praise gets in the way of learning. More and more teachers are being trained to drop easy, empty praise in favor of language that encourages hard work and persistence.

A number of schools have embraced a new approach to student affirmation that is based on psychological studies and brain imaging. Rather than being offered automatic verbal rewards for minimal effort, students are instead praised for hard work and persistence. Studies show that children who are rewarded for working hard are more likely to enjoy challenges and to achieve success. It's also been shown that children do better when they are taught that their intellect is something that grows and develops, not a predetermined birthright.

"We used to think we could hand children self-esteem on a platter," commented Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck. "That has backfired."

Dweck has also argued that praising children for being smart can be just as harmful as offering praise for its own sake. Numerous studies show that children who are rewarded for their intelligence become hesitant to take on difficult assignments.

Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, argues that praise should be connected to objective standards. "Winning or losing also matters in the real world," he said. "You either beat the enemy or you don't. You either get the gold medal or you get the silver." Michelle Rhee, the former D.C. schools chancellor, agrees: "We've become so obsessed with making kids feel good about themselves that we've lost sight of building the skills they need to actually be good at things."

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