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How to Help Our Kids in a Competitive School Culture

Rachel Calabrese, MA, LPC, NCC

The air feels different in September–perhaps it’s a mixture of the crisp morning coolness as summer makes way for fall, a hint of excitement about the fresh start and possibilities, and an undercurrent of anxiety, or even dread, as the school bus rounds the corner.

It’s hard to ignore the ever increasing shift in the image of school from a place to learn, make social connections, and develop skills, to that of a pressure cooker.

How to Help Our Kids in a Competitive School Culture
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With school back in session, many young persons find themselves back in (therapy) sessions, sessions which all seem to echo sentiments of a palpable truth–our culture places more value on image than it does wellbeing.

A host of factors can be blamed for the messaging that youth receive at an increasingly young age (a message that says your worth is tied to how others perceive you, therefore you have to be carefully curating everything about yourself).

Everything from social media to the emphasis on college admissions to the grading system itself contribute to this problem. It can leave parents of school aged children feeling powerless to help their chronically sleep-deprived and stressed out teen, or motivate their seemingly insolent child to care about their school work. Moreover, well meaning parents might find themselves falling in step with this message by willing their child to achieve certain grades or participate in specific activities so they can make the arbitrary cut.

Schools tout efforts to focus on mental health and offer gestures such as homework free weekends; while these efforts can make a difference for some, they can also be futile for the majority when the underlying implication remains that results and accolades matter, and they matter a lot.

If you’re a parent of a school aged child and are concerned about the school year ahead and/or the wellbeing of your child overall, there are some key points below that can hopefully offer a perspective shift to help both you and your child.

Reject the Competition Culture
Parents might believe that there is no choice but to participate in the “race to nowhere” because, well, everyone else is. The problem with this logic is it perpetuates the problem rather than challenging the status quo. It also assumes that the values in the home don’t have any weight compared to the values of the community and peers, when in fact that is not the case.

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Rejecting the competition culture means acknowledging to your child that there may always be a metric comparing them against others their age, but their ranking in that competition is wholly unrelated to their intrinsic worth. That’s not to say there can’t be value in competition, but it’s up to the adult to monitor and model for a child the difference between healthy motivation and unrealistic expectations. Rejecting the culture means actively talking to kids about how the society we live in may place a lot of emphasis on where you go to college or simply that you go to college, but that as a parent you place value on the bigger picture that gets lost in this narrow focus–you value your child finding a fulfilling path and a life that aligns with their values, goals, and beliefs. This might be explicitly communicated with your child, but it will be indirectly communicated through comments and reactions to all things on the topic of school, grades, and post-grad.

For adolescents starting to think about post-grad, it could be beneficial to bring up the differences in other countries compared to the U.S., like how in Europe it’s common to take a gap year or even several instead of going straight into more school after secondary school. Openly talking about options that aren’t just academia for post-grad, such as apprenticeships, volunteering abroad, two year colleges, etc., removes the stigma of not being conventionally college bound, or at least not being college bound immediately after high school. When a student can have these alternatives in mind, it can ease a tremendous amount of pressure and effectively help their school performance.

Report Card
For younger children, you can take opportunities to ask about what they believe their friends and teachers think about grades, and what they personally think about them. Give them the chance to express how they perceive school and the purpose of school, validating them while also deepening your understanding of their perception and why they might behave the way they do. If they’re young and already have a scary perception of school, there is plenty of time to actively work on reframing and influencing their values (ex; grades don’t matter nearly as much as knowing when to ask for help and not giving up when it’s hard).
The idea of rejecting the culture does not mean you are telling your child (or wanting your child) to not care about school and post-grad. It means you are empowering them with an alternative way to view school, a way that puts less emphasis on the report card and more emphasis on the experience of being a student.

Celebrate the Struggle
In a similar vein, as parents it is important to celebrate struggle and failure as much as ease and accomplishment. Of course you don’t want to see your child have a hard time, get rejected, receive a low score despite studying, or an outcome that does not match with what they wanted. It is, however, critical to maintain enough perspective for the both of you when these disappointments inevitably happen. Struggle and failure are where growth and resilience are born.
Celebrate the Struggle
Of course if your child is struggling to excess, it is necessary to intervene (communicate with school staff to see what supports can be put in place, switch class placement, find a tutor, etc.) The key here is to recognize the difference between protecting your child from unnecessary and unbeneficial hardship and robbing your child from opportunities to grow.
If you find it hard to delineate which is which, you might want to talk it out with school staff, other professionals, your spouse, or someone you feel comfortable with. Above all, listen to your intuition and give yourself the chance to answer this question honestly–is this coming from my own discomfort or anxiety about seeing my child struggle/fail, or is there a true need to step in? If it’s the former, take this as information and find outlets, coping, and support for yourself. Helping yourself will always help your child!

Avoid Catastrophizing
Test anxiety, procrastination, avoidance, perfectionism. What do they all have in common? There usually is a degree of catastrophizing taking place. Catastrophizing is a thought distortion that looks at the worst possible scenario and focuses on it so exhaustively that it feels like it will certainly happen. For example: a highschool student thinks getting a low score on the homework assignment will impact their grade in the class, and getting a low grade in the class will impact their GPA, and a lower GPA will mean they won’t get into their top school, and not getting in means they will not have the bright future they planned for and this makes them a failure. It might sound like a leap, but it is a common leap, and it is these leaps that are the essence of catastrophic thinking. If there is so much pressure put on one grade, it is easy to see why a child might freeze up when completing the assignment leading to test anxiety or avoidance of studying/doing homework.
Catastrophic thinking affects students undoubtedly, but it also affects parents who are subjected to the same kind of messaging and marketing from College Board and the like. The first way to help your child is to notice if and when catastrophizing happens for you (ex., if my child drops a level in this class they’ll ruin their chances at getting into this college, and if they don’t get into this college they’ll be so crushed and I won’t be able to help them). When such catastrophizing does happen, practice taking a step back.
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Go to the worst case scenario mentally and work backwards–if the worst case is they don’t get into this school, they’ll be bummed for a bit but they’ll move on and end up somewhere else. Or maybe they will find an alternative path that doesn’t involve a four year college. And maybe that’s ok. Then from there you might go to a less negative scenario, which is dropping the level (from let’s say honors to CP) doesn’t actually affect their chance of admissions to this school. From there you might switch to the benefits of this occurring, like your child being able to keep up with the material better and developing a greater sense of competence.

When you are able to notice and challenge catastrophizing in yourself, it’s easier to recognize and understand when your child is doing it and help them gain perspective. It starts with acknowledging how even in the worst case scenario the world will not end, and from there challenging the likelihood of this one situation leading to the worst case in the first place. The mind will waste great energy asking “what if I fail” but it can break out of this headspace if it asks “what if it all works out?”

Redefine success–it’s the process, not the outcome, that counts
Nothing sucks the joy out of learning like being graded on how well you’re learning. Yes the grading system does exist for a reason, and while it may incentivize a student to work hard, it just as easily may make a student afraid to try at all. Somewhere along the way the letter grade at the end of a class became an all powerful, all controlling force that can make a person feel acceptable and smart or inadequate and dumb.
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Redefining success means identifying what is being gained in the process of working towards the grade, regardless of what the grade ends up being. The same can be said for working towards a new skill, taking a risk, and undergoing the college application process. It might seem like a runaway horse with the message from peers, teachers, and even school counselors being that grades matter and are the single most important way a student’s success is being measured. AP classes after all are often taken for the sole purpose of gaining college credit by doing well on the exam at the end of the course, which negates the fact that there is opportunity in taking the course to be challenged and learn in-depth about a subject of interest, regardless of the outcome of the test at the end.

With the multitude of influences saying success is strictly measured by results, parents must counteract the constant emphasis on class selection and grades by practicing neutrality towards these measures. It can feed the beast just as much to over-hype an A as it does to frown upon a C. One way to practice shifting the focus from outcomes (grades, scores, ranking) to process (the learning experience, working on assignments, putting in time and effort) is by inquiring about the content of the classes.

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Ask specifics about what books they’re reading or the topic they’re covering in history or science. Express interest in the concepts or the skills they are being taught and if you child is uninterested in the content, focus on the qualities and life-skills that the child is developing by being in that class, i.e., strengthening attention span, self-discipline, accountability, problem solving, or even simply the ability to tolerate boredom. It might seem counterintuitive, but the less attention that is put on “keeping grades up”, the better chance your child is able to both discover and rise to their potential.
Especially in the face of disappointing results such as a low test score, a college rejection, or not making the team, there is an opportunity to explore what success came out of the process prior to the result. If one sees themselves as successful for trying or simply gaining lessons from experience, there will be a much quicker bounce back when the outcome is not what one hoped. Mistakes will have value and children will be able to focus their energy on learning and trying rather than worrying about the grade or the outcome at the end. If success is found in the process, a desired result is then just a nice bonus. It isn’t until success is redefined that each year of school can be not just a means to an end but an end in itself.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

To laugh often and much;
to win the respect of intelligent people and
the affection of children;

to earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;

to appreciate beauty;
to find the best in others;

to leave the world a bit better,
whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition;

to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and
sung with exultation;

to know even one life has breathed easier because you
have lived –
This is to have succeeded.