Examining the Relationship Between Parental Praise and Children’s Academic Outcomes

Hi everyone! My name is Chelsea Carver and I am a rising junior at Pitt. I have always wanted to pursue pediatric medicine, but I am also fascinated by how our minds and environments shape our behavior. Therefore, I am a psychology major, chemistry minor, and School of Dental Medicine GAP student with the ultimate goal of becoming a pediatric dentist. One unique piece of information about myself is that over the course of six years I have designed and conducted regionally and nationally recognized independent research projects in the fields of biology, chemistry, environmental science, geology, and psychology.

My poster presentation at the research symposium for CHP’s Summer Research Internship Program

Last summer, I was fortunate enough to take part in two amazing internships at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh (CHP), which allowed me to gain valuable, hands-on experiences both in a wet lab setting and in a clinical setting. As the spring semester of my sophomore year began, I started to contemplate what I wanted to accomplish this summer. I reflected back on how much I enjoyed and benefitted from my time at Children’s, but I knew that I wanted to expand my skill set and knowledge base even further by working with professionals in different disciplines with different research focuses, particularly psychology. When I started researching the various psychology labs that I could become involved with here at Pitt, one stood out immediately: the Kids’ Thinking (KiT) Lab. At the KiT Lab, Dr. Melissa Libertus and her team study how infants and children perceive the world around them, as well as children’s emerging cognitive skills. The KiT Lab has a variety of research focuses in cognitive and developmental psychology, but one in particular piqued my interest: mindset theory and the impact of praise on mindsets.

According to renowned psychologist Carol Dweck, there are two basic mindsets. People with a fixed mindset believe their abilities are unchangeable and aim to prove they possess the desired amount of those abilities. They care more about performance than learning, attribute success and failure to innate abilities, and avoid challenges that could result in failure. In contrast, people with a growth mindset believe their abilities are malleable and can be cultivated through effort and by generating strategies for improvement. They care more about learning than performance, attribute success and failure to hard work, and seek out new experiences that challenge them. Mindset can influence many areas of life, including one’s approach to problem solving and academic achievement.

Prior research has shown that the type of praise parents bestow upon their children impacts their children’s mindsets. On the one hand, process praise (e.g., “you tried hard”) commends effort and promotes a growth mindset. In contrast, person praise (e.g., “you’re so smart”) commends inherent abilities and promotes a fixed mindset. A previous study demonstrated that parental praise of children’s effort at a young age was a significant predictor of a growth mindset years later, which suggests that parent-child interactions are foundational for the development of a child’s mindset. However, there have not yet been any studies on how parental praise influences children’s academic abilities before children enter formal schooling at around age four, when children’s mindsets likely start to emerge. The question that I aim to answer with my project is as follows: how do different forms of parental praise relate to the math abilities, language abilities, and cognitive skills of four-year-old children?

My career aspiration is to become a pediatric doctor, and an important aspect of that occupation is interacting with patients. I am grateful to the Honors College for the opportunity they have given me to add to the skills I have acquired from my work in the hard sciences with research experience in the field of psychology so I can better understand my patients in order to more effectively treat them. Through my work in the KiT Lab, I hope to learn how to spark a growth mindset in my patients so they follow their treatment plans, which will lead to more successful patient outcomes. I can leverage this learning to further enhance my pediatric-oriented leadership and service activities in my community, as well.

As a Brackenridge Fellow, I am excited to utilize my natural curiosity, passion for improving the lives of others, and broad background in the sciences under the direction of Dr. Libertus and her team to deliver research with quantifiable results and practical applications across all disciplines. The results of this research could even bring about recommended changes in policy that could be enacted to improve the lives of the next generation so they can reach their full potential. In addition, the emergence of cognitive skills in children is an area of study that can benefit from interactions between researchers in multiple fields. I look forward to discussing my research interests with other students and professionals in the Brackenridge community and beyond to stimulate new ideas that can further our respective research goals!

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