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Most parents recognize that it’s important to praise their chil-
dren. But Dawn Kriebel, Ph.D., professor of Psychology, has been
researching what happens not only when children don’t get enough
praise, but when they don’t get the right kind of praise.
Kriebel received a mini-grant from Immaculata’s Office of
Sponsored Research to study persistence and motivation among
Head Start children. In this project, Kriebel, her West Chester
University colleague Eleanor Brown, Ph.D., and student research-
ers Candice McCarthy ’13, Rachel Ruger ’14, and Briana Ott ’14,
investigated the relationships between poverty, parenting styles and
The research team observed 64 parents interacting with their
children, who were attending a Head Start preschool. The parents
had been identified as “high risk” because of factors such as low
income, being a single parent, and having to move frequently. The
researchers tallied the number of times the parents offered praise
or criticism as their children performed two puzzle tasks. They also
noted whether the parents’ praise was focused on the children’s
effort or ability.
This may seem like an irrelevant detail, but Kriebel knows it
makes a difference. She, as well as her students, have been in-
fluenced by Carol Dweck’s book
Mindset: The New Psychology of
, which presents research showing that even after controlling
for innate skill, people with a “fixed mindset,” those who attribute
success only to ability, tend to perform worse at a task than people
with a “growth mindset,” who believe success comes through effort.
If we tell ourselves that we simply aren’t good at something,
Kriebel explains, this keeps us from putting forth the effort that
can make us better at it. There are indeed real differences in
people’s abilities, she acknowledges, but not as much as we think.
Kriebel tries to foster a growth mindset with her own children.
She emphasizes the importance of effort by setting a goal with
her 7-year-old daughter for the number of math problems she’ll
work on, not the number she’ll get right. If her daughter says, “But
Mom, I’m not good at math,” Kriebel responds, “Anything you
work at, you can master.”
Kriebel’s research shows that children of low-income parents
are unfortunately not hearing this message enough. “We were able
to show that the moms who had more risk factors parented signifi-
cantly differently,” she said. They were frequently less positive about
their children’s efforts, and less responsive overall.
Kriebel attributes this behavior to the stressful, distracting
nature of poverty. “When mom is stressed, she’s not present,”
Kriebel said. “For me, the car breaks down, no big deal. I take it
to the mechanic, I pay the bill, problem solved. If you’re poor, your
car breaks down, and you don’t have the money, now we have a big
problem. You can’t get to work. Can’t get to work, you’re going to
lose that job. It’s a whole different world.”
Despite the strain of their situation, Kriebel believes low-
income mothers may increase their children’s chances of academic
success by praising them for effort rather than ability. She plans to
share her research with various parenting education programs that
can then provide the appropriate training. “You can’t solve poverty
with one study or one program,” Kriebel said, “but you can take
these little approaches to help give [people] a leg up.”
Continued on page 78
DAWN KRI EBEL, PH.D.