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When Hard Work Doesn’t Lead To Success: Are You Doing These 5 Things For Your Child?

Have you been telling your child that hard work always pays off? Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily true. 

What happens when your child has put in the effort, but hasn’t seen any improvements or results? Read on to find out how you can adopt a growth mindset approach for helping your child to cope with failure and try again.

Acknowledge child success

Acknowledge the work that your child has done.

In her bestselling book “Mindset,” Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck talks about a common misconception that praising “effort” alone is enough to encourage a growth mindset. Instead, parents should aim to praise the entire process that their children have engaged in to carry out a task or fulfil an objective. This includes hard work, as well as:

  • Focus
  • Discipline
  • Perseverance
  • Trying new strategies
  • Seeking constructive feedback from others

Be specific when you acknowledge your child’s work process. You could say, “I liked the way that you made extra effort to remove distractions while studying for the year-end exams.” or “I’m proud of you for coming up with your own music practice plan this year.”

Don’t try to minimise poor results.

At the same time, be wary of making statements such as “results don’t matter” or “it doesn’t matter if you win or lose the competition, you’re a winner to me anyway.” Dweck warns that such statements could be unhealthy for children — they may begin to devalue anything that they are unable to perform well in.

“If a student has tried hard and made little or no progress, we can of course appreciate their effort, but we should never be content with effort that is not yielding further benefits,” says Dweck. “We need to figure out why that effort is not effective and guide kids toward other strategies and resources that can help them resume learning.”

In responding to failure, let your child know gently that improvements are needed, as this will help them to stay on track with their learning. For instance, you can go over an exam or test paper with your child, in order to identify the concepts that he or she needs help with. Reassure your child that although he or she may need more time to grasp the material, it’s a matter of trying to find a learning strategy that works. 

If it is a competition that your child has fared badly in, going over a recording of your child’s performance and comparing it with the winners’ performances may give some clue as to what needs to be done to improve. (Teachers and coaches would be the best people to consult for advice.) Don’t try to boost your child’s ego by saying that he or she was robbed of a prize, or by making statements that absolve your child of any personal responsibility for his or her progress.

Reinforce the message: effort does not guarantee success

Sadly, you can try your best and still fail, and this is one lesson that all kids need to learn. Whether it’s about academics or picking up a new skill, children simply have different learning curves. Some may require more time to process information, and more external help from teachers and tutors. Sometimes, a different learning strategy needs to be employed before understanding and mastery can take place.

The notion that effort is positively correlated with success can be particularly harmful for those growing up in affluent communities, where ambition can veer towards unhealthy perfectionism. One research paper studying this trend cited an observation that among “highly ambitious, achieving youth, each new accomplishment tends to set the stage for pursuing another.” In doing so, such children run the risk of setting up unrealistic — or even impossible — success goals that can never be achieved, no matter how much effort is expended.

Encourage your child to reflect on failure.

One common piece of growth mindset advice is to help children see failure as a natural part of learning. Ask your child, “What have you learned from this setback? How has it made you stronger?” Help your child to find the life lessons that are embedded in disappointment — and to see that they are gaining something from the experience. 

As you encourage your child to reflect on failure, resist the temptation to make grand, motivational statements such as “You can achieve anything!” Instead, focus on specific actions that your child can take as he or she tries again.

Help your child to develop new work strategies, or new goals.

If the learning strategies that your child is using aren’t working, you need to discuss new strategies that you can try — be it new learning resources, new teachers and tutors, or new work routines that are more conducive for learning. (Read about five effective study strategies that every student should use, as well as the difference between effective practice and poor practice.) 

Wondering how to help your child set goals? A common goal-setting model is known as “SMART,” which is short for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant (or “Reward,” if you prefer an incentive-based approach), and Time-bound. 

To discuss SMART goals, ask your child the following questions:

  • What exactly is your goal?
  • How will you know if you have met your goal?
  • What steps will you take to achieve your goal?
  • Why is your goal important to you?
  • When do you want to achieve your goal?

To truly embrace a growth mindset, kids must realise that the ultimate goal in all that they do is to keep learning and growing — for life.

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