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WHAT IS POSITIVE RISK TAKING?

February 8, 2024

Lisa Schalk, Smart City Kids educational specialist, seasoned parent, and veteran teacher, demystifies “positive risk taking” as it applies to education, and discusses why it is such and important behavior to cultivate in your child.

In short, positive risk taking has everything to do with your child’s education.

What educators know, and this is from a nursery school through college and beyond perspective, is that students who are willing to be wrong – or, to risk not being right – are the students who truly learn, experience fulfillment, and feel compelled to learn more. They grow into adults who succeed – and often wildly excel – in their chosen fields. The willingness to be wrong is called positive risk taking.

Unfortunately, seemingly innocent praise from parents can sometimes impede a child’s positive risk-taking ability. As a mom of young children, I joined in the popular chorus of “Good job!” and “You’re the best!” and “You’re so smart!” as my wee ones slid down slides, hugged a friend, or plopped in the last wooden puzzle piece. While I thought I was encouraging my kids with my positive feedback, what I was doing in part was giving them a boost into Great Hamster Wheel of Chasing Praise. When parents overpraise a child, in a sense they hijack their child’s intrinsic sense of satisfaction – and set their kids on an endless quest for more and more praise.

Addiction to praise from an early age is not only real, but also dangerous. It inhibits children from moving toward deeper academic learning and toward learning for learning’s sake – for intrinsic satisfaction. American author and lecturer Alfie Kohn frequently writes about parenting and education. In his article, Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!” he examines the negative effects of overpraising children. One effect is that it leaves children feeling less brave to venture a guess or to stretch their minds and imagine, for fear of being “wrong” and risk losing the praise that’s been heaped upon them. “When praise is used lavishly and continuously, children are afraid to take risks for fear of falling off the pedestal or being discovered to be an imposter,” Kohn warns.

If this is the foundation we lay, imagine the bricks that follow. As children grow and things like self-consciousness and peer approval or pressure are added to the equation, the fear of being judged and losing the “Good job!” or “You’re so smart!” accolades can become paralyzing. The potential for positive risk-taking becomes significantly jeopardized.

So, how can we continue to dote on our little loved ones without over-praising? A small language shift makes a huge difference. Simple, evaluation-free statements (“You slid down the slide yourself!” or even just “You did it!”) tells your child that you noticed their accomplishments. Children are more motivated and invested in doing and learning when we allow them to own their accomplishments. Simply noticing lets them take pride in what they did. In other cases, a more elaborate description may make sense. If your child draws a picture, you might provide feedback – not judgment – about what you noticed: “This mountain is huge!” “You sure used a lot of purple today!” These responses might sound robotic, tedious, unimportant, or downright ridiculous … but fast forward 15 years into my classrooms full of young students and you begin to understand. “Do you like my painting?” “Did I do a good job” “I don’t know … I can’t guess … I don’t know how.” Some children as young as three years old are reluctant or unable to abandon their praise-seeking habits and jump into learning. They are hesitant to hypothesize, guess, or even wonder aloud. And this is not what we want!

When children feel settled and competent – and aren’t chasing praise – they are comfortable taking in trying new things, asking questions, taking guesses, and making mistakes. Positive risk-taking builds confidence and helps a child develop new skills. It teaches responsibility, demonstrates there are consequences if decisions are wrong, and promotes learning from making mistakes. It manages emotional constraints, enables children to learn from missed opportunities, engenders satisfaction in succeeding – and the list goes on. And this is why good schools and good teachers actively promote positive risk taking in their classrooms.  

Kohn suggests that children are more responsive to adults who either describe what they see, in non-praise terms, or talk less and ask more – and they become more apt to take positive risks. So the next time you’re tempted to say, “Great Job!” try this instead:

  1. Focus on the process and not the result.
  2. To acknowledge a job well done say what you see without “giving it a grade.”
  3. Ask more and talk less.
  4. Model the liberation of making and owning your own mistakes.
  5. Highlight discoveries made from making mistakes in a “when life gives you lemons make lemonade” frame of mind.

And most importantly, remember to support your children and love them up for who they are!

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