As parents or teachers, how can we help our children reach their full potential?
This is a question I have wrestled with for many years, both as a teacher and as a parent. In my experience, once issues such as special needs and special situations (trauma, language barriers, cultural barriers, etc.) have been ruled out or better yet, addressed, the causes of underachievement generally fall into three categories: fear of failure, fear of success and perfectionism.
Let's say a child, we'll call him Zack, is particularly adept at music. He enjoys playing music. When he has spare time, he often fills it with extra practice. Then he takes an exam and does very well. His score is admirable, and he receives a great deal of praise and positive attention for it. Then, a month or so later, you notice he no longer seeks it out. In fact, he begins to resist practicing, He loses his current workbook. When he does practice, he sticks to pieces he learned much earlier, and does not work on any new material.
What is happening here?
It could be that Zack needs a rest for a while after working hard. He could be losing interest, and it may be time to move on. Or, it could be that he is afraid of failure. What if he is unable to continue to surpass, or even meet his own expectations or the expectations of his teacher or parents? If he doesn't put in any effort, Zack doesn't ever have to face his own limitations, whatever they may be. He gains control of the situation in the sense that if he doesn't try, he and others will have low expectations. He is in control of any feelings of disappointment from himself or others, even if it means it costs him any chances at further success.
Now let's say his 14-year old sister Zoe loves languages. Her aunt taught her some Spanish at an early age, and both French and English are spoken regularly at home. She became trilingual at an early age, and enjoys conversing in all three languages with various friends from different countries over the Internet. Her parents are proud of her linguistic abilities and offer her lessons in German, as they intend to visit there the following summer. Initially Zoe shows enthusiasm at the idea, and attends the classes, however, her teacher reports that she "zones out" and does not participate in class discussions. Zoe also fails to complete some of her exercises and hand them in. When it is time to leave home for class, Zoe makes excuses to stay home. Moreover, she stops conversing with others in Spanish and French, and when asked about these, she says she was never very good at them, and was finding it more and more difficult to understand what the others were saying.
What is happening here?
Zoe identifies herself as a gifted linguist. She may not remember learning the languages she can speak, yet she speaks them well. If she tries to learn German and fails, can she still consider herself a gifted linguist? What if she isn't really such a gifted linguist anymore, what if it was all a big mistake and she isn't any good at languages after all, what will that mean? When she starts the class, she is back at square one, having to learn a language from scratch. Although she makes some quick progress initially, she realizes that it will take a while to become as fluent as she is in her other languages. Thoughts of self-doubt begin to cloud her learning, and she reacts accordingly.
If she can downplay her abilities in the other languages, maybe she can lower her own and other people's expectations for her acquisition of German, or any other language, in the future.
She is afraid that any successes she achieves will be used against her in order to raise future expectations, either by herself, by her parents and teachers, or other significant people in her life. She is also afraid that the way she and others view her might somehow be wrong, and that she will lose her sense of identity if she somehow fails in her efforts to learn German.
Kami has achieved high marks throughout his schooling, and is especially adept at English, which comes easily to him. When he received a "B" on a writing unit, he was devastated, and since then has worked several hours extra each night. Despite this, his mark continued to fall. His teacher reports that he has not handed in his assignments on time, and some not at all.
Kami is worried that his work is not "good enough", so he is reluctant to complete it and hand it in. He spends a great deal of effort writing and re-writing it, but it still doesn't feel quite "good enough" to him. He worries about receiving another "B" or worse, and feels he needs to do even better that he used to do in order to make up for that mark.
That makes a lot of sense, but what can we do about it?
Some ways we can help students reduce these fears:
- avoid labels or quantifiers, such as "You're so good at math!" ""You're our star player!" etc.; use praise sparingly, relate it to the effort expended, and make it count (for an excellent article about praise see here)
- take time out with your child to evaluate together major sources of stress, and what you can do together to help reduce stress and make necessary tasks manageable--try and do this regularly and check back to see what is working and what needs to change
- let your child know how you value them beyond their accomplishments--how you admire their laughter, kindness, sense of humour, compassion, quirks, maturity, etc.
- ask you child how they feel about their work, what they've learned, whether this represents their best efforts, what they might do differently in the future, what parts they are especially proud of--let them be their own judges, and let them know you value their opinions (and be prepared to defend them against themselves when they are unduly hard on themselves too!)
- encourage honesty about failures by being open to mistakes and failing, and encourage students to learn from these experiences and continue with their efforts
- admit to your own failings, mistakes and "learning the hard way" so that students can learn by example that mistakes are a vital part of learning
- celebrate successes and failures--yes, failures--as part of life-long learning; failing at something usually means that an effort was expended that stretched the learner beyond their normal comfort level; this means that they took a risk and will learn from it, and is a cause for celebration. Risk taking is not easy to do, particularly in our results-driven society, but is a behaviour that is most needed throughout life in order to achieve to one's greatest potential