The impact of praise on mental health

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Pressures at school

Like many others, I spent my childhood wanting to succeed in life. I wasn’t the most popular, sporty or romantically ‘targeted’ (!) at school, but I was hard working and could perform well in tests and exams. I recognised that achieving well academically earned me a great deal of praise from the outside world, which ultimately made me feel like I was worth something.

The pressure to keep performing well academically continued through Primary and Secondary school, Sixth Form and University. I feared the disappointment that might come should I achieve anything less than excellent in an exam. I felt an immense amount of pressure from teachers, friends, family and of course, mostly from myself. Therefore I worked incredibly hard to make sure failure was not a possibility, and everyone praised me for my results.

Self-esteem based on success and academic prestige

And at first, this was fine. I succeeded in being a high achiever, gaining excellent grades from an outstanding school and a Russell Group university. The problem was that I was basing my entire self-worth on this fact, and believed being a high achiever was what made me valuable, as that was how I received praise from the outside world. Having succeeded well in my first graduate job, I changed career to become a teacher and this is where the problems began.

Although I was working round the clock and trying my hardest, I was told that I was not good enough. Despite a great deal of positive feedback as well, all my focus went on the negatives. My mentor particularly was very critical, and I had never faced a situation before in which I was not achieving good results. I certainly didn’t give up immediately – I pushed and pushed myself to please everyone until I was burnt out, which led to anxiety and mild depression. My whole self-worth at this point was based on my ability to succeed professionally, so my self-esteem was in tatters.

Increasing pressure to perform well academically

With the recent news that fresh exams are being introduced for seven year-olds, my concern is that the increasing pressure on children will lead to mental health implications in the future. It is not necessarily the pupils who act out and behave badly who we need to worry about. It is the ones who have their heads down: the high-achievers who are being praised for their success but are internalising their worries about failure. Children will become ticking time bombs due to this intense pressure to succeed, and we need to address the issue by focusing more on their mental well-being in school.

How we should be praising

What we need to do is start praising qualities other than academic success. Children need to understand that their worth is not solely based on how they perform in exams, their looks or their popularity. They should be praised by teachers and family for their kindness, humour or generosity, for example. Their uniqueness should be praised and they should be encouraged to share their passions with the world. At school, it’s their effort that needs to be praised over results.

Such praise will build up their self-esteem in a way that will be much harder to break down. Self-esteem based solely on professional and academic success is far more fragile – take it from someone who knows! So let’s start praising the right qualities in people and building up self-esteem appropriately…

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