September 15, 2014

A Personal Perspective on Parents’ Praise

As an educational consultant, I’ve worked with parents in more schools than I can possibly count. I conduct presentations on how to nurture high-level development. I share insights, and I also pose questions.
The sessions are usually held in an auditorium, and they often go like this…

I ask, “How do you know if a child is intelligent?” Parents in the audience inevitably agree that intelligent kids learn quickly, with very few errors and little or no difficulty. Many parents feel that speed and ease are, in fact, proof of being smart. And, most parents praise their children for these attributes.
“What do you say to them?” I ask. And parents share some examples.

“Sammy, you learn things SO fast! I’m really proud of you!”

“Julie, you’re a math whiz. You never even make a mistake!”

“You’re a superstar, Ken. You don’t ask how to do things—you just get busy.”

These parents are very proud of their children’s abilities. However, they may not realize that praising children for being smart can compromise their motivation and performance, and actually be detrimental to their learning.
So, I suggest that they step back for a moment and consider two things: 1) the nature of intelligence, and 2) the nature of the praise they convey.

About Intelligence

“What is intelligence?” I ask. Many parents are surprised to learn that it’s not fixed at birth. It develops step by step over time with hard work and the right kinds of learning opportunities. It demands perseverance, inquiry, and a willingness to learn from setbacks. It involves patience, preparedness, and practice, as well as thoughtful attention to detail. In other words, intelligence accrues with effort.
Intelligence is far more vibrant and dynamic than most people might suspect, and current research tells us that there are many ways of being intelligent beyond traditional school-based academics. Indeed, each person has an individual profile of intelligences, including intellectual, social, emotional, physical, and behavioral.

About Praising Intelligence

“So, how do you think parents can foster children’s intelligence?” I ask. At that point there’s usually quiet in the auditorium, as everyone thinks of what they can—or should—do.
I assure them that it’s really not that complicated. If parents think about intelligence as a process (rather than as an innate essence of some sort), it paves the way for celebrating kids’ accomplishments in ways that go beyond just “being proud.”
I offer a few recommendations. Pay attention to what a child is doing—and how she’s doing it. Hard work, not speed, is what leads to increasing competence. When parents use words like “whiz” or “superstar” they’re suggesting an aura of brilliance, and aren’t really helping her progress. Be specific with praise by reinforcing persistence, and indicating ways of moving forward, tackling the next step in her experience and understanding. How? Encourage the child to think about options, learning strategies, and interests. Reassure her that she can confront challenges, stretch her boundaries, and know that she’ll still garner positive reinforcement, encouragement, and support.

Tying it All Together

At this point in the presentation I usually return to those sample words of praise, and ask, “How can we rephrase the comments so they’re more facilitative of children’s growth?”

“Sammy, you learn quickly—which means you’ve got time to explore something else you’d like to know about. Any ideas?”

“Your math work is very precise, Julie! Why not try something a little harder? And, if you make a mistake that’s okay because then you’ll know what you need to work on.”

“Great initiative, Ken. Now that you’ve started, what questions can you think of to help you extend your thinking?”

These comments are encouraging—and they solicit the children’s investment in the learning process, allowing them to think constructively about what they’re doing, and how to take next steps.
As the session winds up, I like to discuss the importance of parents’ roles in helping to shape children’s attitudes, work habits, learning trajectories, and resilience. As kids play, learn, and experience the fullness of life, parents can praise their efforts, and help them embrace the ups—and downs—of childhood. All of this will enable them to develop a solid foundation for instruction and disciplined practice—which can lead to proficiency, self-confidence, and a life-long love of learning.
And that’s really something to be proud of!

For more information see Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster (Anansi Press, 2014)

Visit the authors’ website at for articles and resources.

For a recent blog on controversies about intelligence, IQ, and children’s education go to

March 28, 2014

It’s Not All Bad News! Evidence of Young People’s Commitment to a More Inclusive Global Community

It’s only when we give kids opportunities to think about and act upon their highest goals for society that they get a chance to display their initiative and wisdom. In spite of increasing concerns about bullying and youth disengagement there’s reason for optimism about today’s young people.

There are many students who take on leadership roles promoting meaningful social action. Parents and teachers can help teenagers to become proactive, encouraging them to engage in initiatives to help others, or to combat forms of injustice.

For example, high school seniors from across Canada have applied for the 2014 Wiesenthal Scholarships, established four years ago by the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre (FSWC), a non-profit human rights organization that promotes tolerance, social justice, and human rights for all.[i]  Applicants must demonstrate leadership skills and involvement in activities that support these ideals, and show evidence that they’ll continue to be purposeful in doing so as they pursue a post-secondary education. Students are eligible to receive one of several scholarships ranging from $1800 to $7200 to apply to their college or university studies and help them attain their goals.  

I’ve spent considerable time reviewing applications. As a parent, educator, and co-author of a book about supporting children’s capacities,[ii] I’m no stranger to being moved and inspired by young people who strive to be all they can be. However, I was blown away by the quality of the scholarship applications that I reviewed, and by the ways in which applicants demonstratedthat they‘re making a constructive impact in communities far and wide. It was particularly heartening that so many students expressed an appreciation of the power of education, recognizing it as a means for positive change. It was wonderful to see the strength of their convictions as they endeavor to create a better world and a more inclusive global community. Many of these young people exhibit sophisticated understandings ofresponsibility, diversity, and freedom. They also put forth concerted effort—that is, a willingness to engage, empower, and envision.

These students have gone far beyond mandated community service requirements. And, they ‘re not alone. Indeed, many teenagers invest hundreds of hours leading or being actively involved in meaningful programs and movements within their schools and communities Youth-based efforts include involvement in anti-bullying campaigns, programs to help reduce poverty and hunger, initiatives that speak up for marginalized people and work to oppose hatred, and more.

Albert Einstein said, “Our morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.” I commend all students who give of their time and effort to help others, and I hope that, increasingly, many more will follow their lead. May the voices and aspirations of these scholars resonate across the country and beyond, encouraging everyone to think, feel, and take positive action.



[ii] Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster (published by House of Anansi Press) is being released summer 2014.

November 2, 2013

Thoughts about Intelligence-Building

I recently reread an article written by fellow Canadian Lannie Kanevsky, published in Gifted Child Quarterly (Vol. 55, #4, Fall 2011, pp. 280-299). She writes,

“Students come to school to learn more than just subject matter; they come to learn to be learners. …self-knowledge is essential to effective, autonomous, life-long learning” (p. 296).

The focus of Kanevsky’s article is differentiation, and she discusses what educators should aspire toward in their classrooms. She talks about the importance of honouring children’s interests and preferences, and emphasizes the merits of collaborating with students in relation to program design and instruction (while still adhering to curriculum and professional standards, of course). Creativity, respect, and professionalism are integral to good teaching.

But what responsibility do students have for their intellectual growth?  The best learning happens when kids are ready and willing to put forth the concerted effort that’s required so they can think, act, and grow in positive ways. What’s involved? They have to be persistent, learn from mistakes, ask relevant questions, and invest time and energy in practice. Kanevsky states that children have to “learn to be learners.” Yes, subject matter is important, but hard work, resilience, and passion are what fuels intellectual growth and well-being. This holds true at school, home, within the community, and elsewhere.

Kanevsky also talks about self-knowledge, and the importance of helping kids become more aware of their own habits of mind, aspirations, and capabilities. This kind of self-awareness takes place over time. It demands patience, reflection, encouragement, and support. Self-knowledge also accrues from lessons about these capacities, and teachers and parents are well positioned to model them.

Teachers, parents, and kids can work together to make intelligence-building meaningful, and in the end children will find that not only are they better learners, but down the road, they’re come to be more competent adults as well.

September 7, 2013

Challenge and Effort: A Mindset Perspective

By Joanne Foster, Ed.D.

In this blog I review my thoughts about an informative presentation, and share some insights about learning.

Last year I had the good fortune to meet renowned psychologist and researcher Dr. Carol Dweck, and to attend a presentation she gave to parents and adolescents at Branksome Hall, an independent girls’ school in Toronto. I was pleased to hear what Dweck had to say about mindsets and intellectual growth—and delighted to observe the rapt attention of the audience. Hundreds of people filled the auditorium and it seemed to me that everyone left with a more positive attitude about learning, a better understanding of brain-related functions, and a deeper appreciation of the power of persistence. Dona Matthews and I often refer to Dweck’s work in our writing, and as I think back upon that presentation, I appreciate how informative and affirming it was to hear first-hand about her ongoing research.

Dweck discussed the difference between a fixed mindset (intelligence seen as a fixed trait), and a growth mindset (intelligence seen as a malleable quality that can be developed). She said that intelligence is “a platform from which you grow”—and went on to explain how neural plasticity affords us the ability to learn more and more over time. The key is to acquire and sustain a growth mindset. It’s also important that adults model growth-mindedness for their children. To that end, Dweck laid down three basic rules.

 Rule #1: Learn at all times. Try to think deeply about things, and pay attention to what you’re experiencing. Figure out what you don’t know, and need to know. Participate in study groups, find a mentor, attend meetings and conferences, and find other avenues for learning. Don’t worry if you don’t look smart. It’s OK to make mistakes. See them as opportunities to learn.

Rule #2: Work hard. Effort is what takes you to the next level, allowing you to use your capabilities, and strengthen them over time. Practice and commitment matter. Struggling can be beneficial. It’s good to stretch systematically, by building upon what is known and pushing past traditional comfort zones. This leads to personal growth.

Rule #3: Confront deficiencies and setbacks. Don’t perceive them as humiliating, but rather as challenges. Find ways to capitalize on circumstances (strategize!) and turn them into avenues for learning. That’s how people become resilient, able to recover from failure and improve themselves.

Dweck closed the presentation by reiterating that when it comes to developing a growth mindset, everyone should take a close look at his or her own personal value systems. By learning to see that what’s easy is boring and a waste of time, and that what’s more difficult is interesting and worthwhile, individuals become energized, put forth the necessary effort, and become much stronger as a result. Brainpower intensifies; confidence, motivation, and effectiveness increase, and there’s no limit to what people can achieve. In other words—in fact, in Dweck’s words—“Always challenge yourself!”

September 7, 2013

September: Changes in the Air

By Joanne Foster, Ed.D.

This is a blog that I actually wrote a couple of years ago but that I think bears repeating. Every September, countless parents revisit the challenges of kids returning to school, while other parents experience this “rite of passage” for the first time. Perhaps the information that follows here will be helpful during Sept. 2013, and beyond.

September is traditionally the time when children start a new school year. Many kids navigate the change from leisure to learning without a hitch, whereas others find it more difficult to settle into “back to school” mode. Parents often ask us, “How can we help children during this transitional period—and through the months ahead?”

Here are four tips for success:

#1 – Be attuned to what’s happening in your children’s lives. Listen. Observe. Don’t be pushy or annoying. (Kids HATE that!) Do make an unobtrusive effort to be more “in-the-know” about the highs, lows, and rollercoaster moments in their lives. Parents who stay on top of things are better positioned to advise, guide, and trouble-shoot more effectively.

#2 – Respect children’s views, honour their interests, and try to accommodate their learning preferences. Children learn in different ways. However, they learn best when they are happy, appropriately challenged, and motivated.

#3 – Give children access to relevant, stimulating learning opportunities—along with whatever else they might need to enable learning to happen as seamlessly as possible (including materials, work space, ample sleep, and nutritional food).

#4 – Be available to offer reinforcement and encouragement. Acknowledge children’s efforts, and help them see the value of a strong work ethic.

As September morphs into October, and the school year revs into full gear, be both watchful and wise, and be ready to advocate for your children, if necessary. (More on that elsewhere. See the resources page at and blog postings at

September 1, 2013

Critical Thinking Skills: Essential for Coping Successfully with Challenge and Change

Continuing with our theme of guiding parents to help their children become good at coping with challenge and change, we discuss the important role that critical thinking skills play in children learning to be good decision-makers. How can parents help their kids acquire the critical habits of mind that will stand them in good stead throughout their lifetime?

A good straightforward way to think about ‘critical thinking skills’ is Wikipedia’s current definition: tools for questioning assumptions, for deciding whether ideas are true, false, or sometimes true and sometimes false, or partly true and partly false. There are more complicated definitions, but this gives us a good start.

Critical thinking skills provide a foundation for wise decision-making, and are especially important in a world that is changing as rapidly and unpredictably as ours. In an increasingly media-dominated society, it is important to help children pay critical attention to the impact of media images, including the ways that advertising can seduce people into wanting to buy certain things—a particular brand of cell-phone, clothing, or snack food, for example— in order to achieve a certain media-created image.  Children who learn to think critically about their information sources make more intelligent voters when they reach adulthood, and are able to make more intelligent decisions about most aspects of their lives along the way, including whether or not to take drugs, get involved in relationships, or pay attention at school. Continue reading

September 1, 2013

Attunement and Advocacy: Strengthening Home and School Connections

mother-teacher-boyThink for a moment—or longer: Are your children learning what they should be learning at school? Are they happy and productive? Sometimes parents perceive a mismatch between a child’s needs and the education they’re receiving. Finding a suitable “fit” between a student and the school system can be problematic. An effective plan requires thoughtful decision-making and collaborative effort on the part of many people—parents, teachers, administrators, consultants and, of course, the child.

To ensure children’s best possible development both at home and at school, parents have to be attuned to what occurs in their children’s day-to-day lives, and this includes listening attentively to what they have to say about their schooling. Don’t just ask, “How was school today?” Instead, inquire about their experiences—what they learned, what they enjoyed, what they found challenging, what they’re going to investigate further, and why. Continue reading

September 1, 2013

Current Events as Learning Opportunities

Week after week, fears and frustrations are the lead stories in the news. How can parents (and teachers) use these disturbing events productively to help children better understand the world they live in, and cope with a time of disruption?

Children—as with adults—can find it difficult to deal with the anxieties attendant on society being in a state of change. Kids can feel confused or apprehensive, and many will want to know more about upheavals occurring both near and far. By engaging them in discussions about current events, and answering their questions in ways that make sense to them, we can help demystify the happenings they’re hearing about. We can share our thoughts, listen to their concerns and, most importantly, use these authentic experiences to stimulate their curiosity and further learning. Parents can see current events as gateways to meaningful learning about history—and life.

As we see it, parents (like teachers) have a responsibility to help children understand what’s going on, so they’re able to make intelligent sense of events and concerns, and to put them into a context that is productive rather than troubling. They can help their children and adolescents understand the tensions that underlie the movements and drive the passions, showing them links to previous times and circumstances in history, and engaging them in discussions of what might happen next. We can encourage young people to consider how current events might connect with their own lives, and teach them how to ask questions in order to find out more about what’s relevant, or true, or surprising, or unnerving.

September 1, 2013

The ABCs of Being Smart

magnetic lettersUsing the alphabet as an organizer, I’ve put together some ideas for parents to help children thrive.  The series ABCs of Being Smart is featured in the journal Parenting for High Potential, published by NAGC. (Please see links below). For now, a preview of the letter A:

Encourage your child to keep a record of his positive learning experiences and personal accomplishments. This kind of “rainy day” portfolio encourages him to develop a habit of self-reflection, and can also be good on down days, serving as a motivator and self-confidence boost.

If you collect an activities bag of tricks, you’ll always have a fresh surprise or two, to pull out when your child feels low, bored, anxious, discouraged, or needs some time alone. Your bag of tricks can include books, games, discussion ideas, questions to investigate, puzzles, puzzle books, art supplies, a writing journal, costumes and props, crafts supplies, ideas for outings and experiments, and anything else that captures your imagination. You can add to it as ideas and supplies cross your path. Continue reading

June 18, 2013

Messages that Transcend Time

I teach in the Teacher Education Program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (also known as OISE). I recently came upon a very large table laden with mounds of journals “up for grabs” for all of our 2013 graduates. There was an extensive range of titles among the many offerings, and most of the journals were somewhat dated—some even going back several years.

One journal caught my eye. It was Orbit, a well-read resource published by the university, and written for educators in schools and elsewhere. This particular issue, Vol. 37, No. 1, from 2007, displayed a bold heading, “Promising Practices in Special Education.” I immediately recognized it as an issue to which I had contributed. I wondered—were the words I’d penned back then as relevant now?

I carefully read the piece I’d written, and was happy to see that even though years had passed, the core messages were still timely.

Before I share some of these messages here, I first want to take a moment to say that I’m sorry that Orbit is no longer being published. Launched in 1968, each issue targeted a theme, and provided an effective way to communicate important information to the multitude of teachers within our school systems. I salute the many accomplished editors and authors who worked on Orbit, and I applaud all those who continue to prepare and write articles for other journals and information-filled magazines that help to keep educators—and parents—in the know. And, it’s great to see “oldie-goldie” copies of useful resources being shared openly and broadly so people have a chance to read and think about previously extended ideas, and compare and reposition them in ways that align with their current realities.

So, here is a sampling of sentences extracted from this particular article that I wrote six years ago. The words seemed to resonate with readers back then, and I hope they will do so now.

The best approach for working with high-ability learners is to provide lots of relevant educational opportunities, and to take into account a variety of learning styles and preferences. Children can also be encouraged to become actively involved in planning their learning experiences. This enables them to take responsibility, to set reasonable standards for themselves, and to feel good about their accomplishments.

Most importantly, parents should facilitate children’s play because it lays a foundation for learning how to get along with others.

Each child and situation is unique. Recognizing giftedness is a matter of identifying exceptional learning needs at a particular point in time—and then, of course, providing the right kinds of opportunities for the child’s optimal development.

Any testing process should be an ongoing process and not be based on a single test. There should be regular evaluation of children’s abilities as they mature. It should be diagnostic (that is, indicating areas where children are very capable and less so), and it should specify programming implications.

If a child is being appropriately challenged and feels happy about life and learning then that is good. Moreover, there are many ways to provide learning opportunities beyond the classroom. Examples include mentorships; community service partnerships; extracurricular programs; real and virtual travel; career exploration; and educational offerings at places such as galleries, theatres, music venues, and museums.

Offer children choice within an abundance of suitable learning opportunities, celebrate their day-to-day accomplishments, and provide them with guidance, love, and a nurturing environment throughout their school years. That’s the best readiness for university, and for life itself.

For more information about this and other articles by Dr. Joanne Foster, visit