A new study out of the Netherlands finds that having children say encouraging statements to themselves about the effort they'll put in could boost their academic achievement.


Every parent wants their child to have healthy self-esteem and a positive self-image, but it's all too common for kids to struggle with this. Plenty of research has illustrated the toll it can take on academic performance specifically. Now, new research published in Child Development, a journal of the Society for Research in Child Development, has concluded that positive self-talk could be a powerful tool in tackling low self-confidence and boosting students' achievement, especially in math.

How the study worked

Researchers at Utrecht University, the University of Applied Sciences Leiden, the University of Amsterdam, and the University of Southampton examined 212 children in grades 4 to 6 (ages 9 to 13 years) from schools in middle-class communities in the Netherlands.

Researchers decided to focus on this age group, because negative perceptions of competence on school tasks become increasingly prevalent in late childhood. They also decided to have children take a math test, because math performance is compromised by negative beliefs about one's competence, according to a news release on the study.

The children in first grade reported their beliefs about their competence, and a few days later, they did the first half of a standardized math test. Immediately after completing the first half of the test, they were randomly assigned to silently take part in either self-talk focused on effort (e.g., "I will do my very best!"), self-talk focused on ability ("I am very good at this!"), or no self-talk. Afterward, they completed the second half of the math test.

What researchers found

The kids who participated in self-talk focused on effort—reassuring themselves that they'd do their best—improved their performance on the test compared to those who did not engage in this kind of self-talk. Researchers found that the benefits of self-talk were especially pronounced among kids who had negative beliefs about their competence.

And the kids who participated in self-talk related to ability (reminding themselves how good they are at the subject)? Their test scores did not improve, regardless of their beliefs around competence.

The conclusions

Although the researchers acknowledge that parents and teachers often encourage kids to participate in this kind of positive self-talk, science had yet to see if it really influenced their academic achievement.

Sander Thomaes, professor of psychology at Utrecht University, who led the study, said in a statement: "We discovered that children with low self-confidence can improve their performance through self-talk focused on effort, a self-regulation strategy that children can do by themselves every day."

That said, the authors of the study emphasize that these findings apply only to kids in fourth to sixth grades, given the limitations of their research. And given that the study was done in the Netherlands, they say that children's response to self-talk may differ in other countries and cultures.

The Bottom Line

Although more research is needed, parents and educators will appreciate the insight this research provides into the specific type of positive self-talk that could bolster kids' confidence in the classroom. Instead of encouraging kids to talk about how well they perform, it seems they would do well to talk about what they're putting into a task—and that's sure to be their very best.