Teaching Tips

7 Phrases That Actually Have Meaning

Stop for a moment and think about your school day. How many times do your find yourself praising students? “Great job!”, “You’re so smart!”, “You got an A – well done!” We do that with the best intentions – we think we are building up a child’s self-esteem, giving them something to be proud about, making them feel good. But what if what we were really doing was sending them subliminal messages that actually harmed their desire for self-improvement and growth?

(Disclosure: Some of links below are affiliate links, which means that at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.)

The lead proponent of growth mindset, (the belief that intelligence can be developed through hard work, effective strategies and learning from mistakes) is Dr. Carol Dweck. In her studies she discovered that what we should be fostering is the appreciation of skills that if applied persistently will get a child to the next stage and further on. But instead we emphasize and praise the end result, rather than the process of studying, failing, and trying again.

Researchers have learned over decades that success is not based on talent. The idea that some people are more talented than others is still a widely held belief today. I always believed that I wasn’t as good at math as my mom and my brother, because I didn’t inherit a ‘good-at-math’ gene. But the truth is more likely that I didn’t develop grit in that area – persistence, determination and doggedness to carry on even when it got tough and I got answers wrong. Believing I just wasn’t naturally gifted in math was an easy out for me and an excuse as to why I wasn’t making As. Instead, what scientists have discovered is that with repetitive practice, persistence, perseverance and making mistakes and learning from them, the anatomy of the brain actually changes.

When researchers looked at the brains of pianists, they found that the area of the brain that controlled the index fingers was larger than that seen in the general population. But that area didn’t begin as bigger than everyone else’s – it grew only with time and repetitive practice.

It makes me wonder how many women didn’t follow math and science, especially in the era when I was growing up, when instead told that men were just naturally more proficient in this area.



What researchers have found out is that if your praise is concentrated on the outcome of work, i.e., that a child made an A, or got 100 on a spelling test, or that the child has a belief that they are always good at writing, then that same child is less likely to take risks in the future, or stretch themselves beyond their safety zone lest they do not succeed and perceive themselves as failures. And often when they do try, and then fail, they give up first time, instead of looking at the whole journey as a learning process that will help them improve over weeks, months and years.

So here are 7 phrases that you can use that praise the process not the product. I have a link to them here so that you can download them, print them out and attach to a clipboard in your classroom for frequent reference. Use them as a beginning jumping off point to help foster a growth mindset in your students.

Instead of, “You made 100% – way to go!” try…

  1. You were determined to figure it out!
  2. I like how you tried different strategies until you found one that worked.
  3. I can see how hard you studied! Practicing every day really paid off!
  4. You really worked hard at that problem and never gave up!
  5. You kept trying and trying until you got there!
  6. Wow, you must be hard working!
  7. I love how you used these (xyz) skills in your work!

Once you start thinking about it, you’ll come up with authentic phrases that work in your classroom. Remember to praise the process, not the product!

The more you practice talking about process and effort rather than outcome and product, the more natural you will become and your words will be more authentic. Amazing to think that such a simple change could impact the futures of our students!

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