How Students Can Accept Criticism and Grow from Feedback

How Criticism Can Be a Tool for Growth

"Fall down seven times. Get up eight." —Japanese proverb

Let’s face it. Criticism can be hard to take. Depending on context, our critic’s delivery, or the mood of the moment, even well-intentioned criticism can make us feel embarrassed, devalued, or just plain angry. Yet criticism is an unavoidable fact of life. Learning from criticism is an essential life skill.

So how can parents and Learning Coaches help students handle criticism in school and beyond? It begins with understanding how students may perceive criticism.

Criticism: Threat or Opportunity for Growth?

According to Stanford psychologist and researcher Carol Dweck, a student’s perception of criticism is profoundly influenced by whether a student has a fixed mind-set or a growth mind-set. When it comes to criticism, then, students with a fixed mind-set can see it as pointless, personal, and even spirit-crushing. They can’t change their abilities, so what’s the point? On the other hand, students with a growth mind-set can take criticism as a road map for improvement. They may even see criticism as an investment in their personal development.

Applying a Growth Mind-Set to Feedback

So, how do we apply this understanding of mind-sets to help students develop a healthy, lifelong relationship with criticism?

  • Praise effort, not abilities or intelligence. Focus on process, not personal traits. Say you praise your middle-school student for being a "natural in algebra." If she later struggles with calculus, she may attribute those struggles to a lack of natural talent and simply give up. By contrast, if we praise the way she tackled a problem, we send the message that acquiring skills is a function of her own hard work rather than what "nature handed her." In the process, she begins to learn that criticism or feedback is a tool for further growth.
  • Model a growth mind-set. In conversations with students, we can share some of our own struggles and invite students to do the same. In these conversations, we can discuss what went wrong, the feedback we received about it, and the concrete actions we took to fix the problem. When our students share their struggles, we can gently lead them in a growth-oriented direction with questions like, What did you learn from that? and How can you do better next time?
Embracing Criticism: Practical Strategies for Students

With a growth mind-set as a foundation, students can learn to do the following things:

  • Listen to and restate the criticism. When we catch that first whiff of criticism directed our way, our defense mechanisms tend to go up while our listening and comprehension skills go down. That can lead us to misunderstand either the gist or the magnitude of what's being said.Save yourself some possibly needless suffering. Hear your critic out calmly, completely, and without interruption. Then restate the criticism in your own words to ensure that you have understood it correctly. By listening without interruption, you reduce the chance that dialogue will escalate into argument. By restating the criticism, you focus on understanding rather than on disproving your critic’s concerns.
  • Pause and reflect. Here’s a rule of thumb: The stronger your emotional reaction (if any) to criticism, the longer and more important the pause you take before responding. Restating the criticism buys you a little time to compose yourself, but don’t be afraid to say, "I need some time to think over what you said. Can we discuss it further tomorrow?"Then, reviewing the critical comment(s), ask yourself, Is this criticism valid? Was it fair? Do I agree with some parts but not others? Did I give [this assignment, game, chore] my best effort? Is my critic impartial and qualified to comment?
  • Develop an action plan, separating the personal from the actionable. When criticism seems to be directed at a personal trait rather than at a behavior or action, analyze the comment and ask questions focused on identifying the specific problem or performance issue and the concrete actions needed to fix it. Then meet the criticism head-on with an action plan that puts you in control of developing your own skills and abilities.

Learning to embrace criticism is both a life skill and a lifelong process—and we can all use a bit of encouragement and inspiration. 

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