Ability or effort? How parents answer that question affects child’s performance

iStock_000006341912XSmallParents are often heard to say that their children’s school performance is due to either effort or ability. A recent study in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology finds that what parents say actually has an effect on children’s future performance: Children whose parents attribute their performance to ability rather than effort actually perform better in school.

“The more parents attributed their children’s success to ability, the better the children performed in subsequent assessments, even after controlling for the previous level of the child’s performance,” write the authors of the Finnish study.

“Overall, the results of the present study may have consequences for parent education as children start their school career,” they write. “Our results suggest that parents of primary school children should communicate to their children that they can do well at school because they have the abilities required to succeed,” the authors write. “Parents’ communication of such optimism to their children may be beneficial for the child’s academic performance.”

No association was found between children’s academic failures and parents’ causal attributions, however. The study found, as have previous studies, that children’s past performance shapes parents’ causal attributions.

When children do well, parents tend to attribute achievement to ability, but when performance is average or below average, parents are more likely to attribute it to effort, says the study. Effort is usually perceived as the most important cause of failure. “It is possible that parents are more willing to share their attributions with their children after successes than after failures,” the researchers write.

“It is also possible that, because during this age period children tend to confront successes more than failures, causal attributions for failures are not spelled out by parents in everyday interactions.”

The researchers followed 207 children and their parents over 3 years from kindergarten to Grade 2. Parents completed questionnaires about their causal attributions for their children’s performance once a year for a total of 3 times over the course of the study.

Reading and math performance of the students were measured 6 times in those 3 years, at the beginning and end of each school year. The children were from 2 communities that included both suburban and rural areas. Controlling for prior academic performance, the researchers created a model to see if parental attributions to ability or effort predicted students’ academic performance.

Unlike other studies, the researchers did not find that causal attributions varied for sons and daughters. One reason for the conflicting findings is that previous studies typically examined older children among whom gender differences are normally stronger, the researchers say.

“A particularly important period for the formation of parents’ causal attributions, and their impact on children’s performance, is the time when their children begin to be faced with the challenge of learning basic academic skills, i.e., the transition from kindergarten to primary school,” the authors write. “During this period parents receive increasing amounts of information and feedback concerning their children’s progress in learning.”


“Children’s school performance and their parents’ causal attributions to ability and effort: A longitudinal study,” by Katja Natale et al., Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, Volume 30, Issue 1, January-February 2009, pp. 14-22.

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