To Achieve Or Not To Achieve

Think back to when you were a kid in grade school. Did you try? I know I did, because it made my parents happy. Some kids tried because it made themselves happy. Other kids didn’t try because they didn’t think they could do it, or they wanted to make their parents mad, or maybe they didn’t have to try–because their schoolwork was too easy. Why do some kids try harder than others? Why does George try harder in Physical Education class than Math? Why do some kids look for recognition, while others could care less? Why is Casey happy with a B, while Alexandra gets mad at herself if she doesn’t get straight A’s? How can you motivate your children to try their hardest in school? These are questions that every parent wishes they had the answers to. To tell you the truth, the answers are not hard to find–here they are–what’s hard is putting them into practise.

Children are born with an instinctive desire to master their environment. You don’t have to do anything. If you don’t believe me, the next time you’re in a room full of toys watch your child’s face as he figures out how each toy works. It’s natural for humans to seek out challenges, simply for the joy of mastering them. Not every child however has an inborn desire to do well in school. Let’s look at the reasons why some kids don’t try at school:

1. Say you ask two kids, Isabel and Gabriel, how well they think they’re going to do on their upcoming science test. Isabel answers, “I hope to scrape by with a pass.” “I think I’m going to ace it,” Gabriel asserts. Who would you put your money on? Children who expect to succeed actually do better. They live up to their expectations. This is true even when Isabel has a higher IQ than Gabriel! Now you know how those middle-of-the-road students from high-school went on to become doctors and lawyers.

Teachers also can impose a self-fulfilling prophecy on children’s achievement in school. Studies have found that children whose teachers expected them to do well, did–in fact, better than other students of the same ability. What seems to happen is that teachers treat high-expectancy students differently: exposing them to more challenging materials, demanding better performance, and making a bigger effort to praise their correct answers. As well, when high-expectancy students give a wrong answer, teachers often rephrase their questions so they can get it right (implying that failures can be overcome by trying again). Low-expectancy students are not challenged as frequently, and are criticized more often by their teachers when they answer incorrectly. The implicit message teachers are giving is that low-expectancy students are dumb, so why should they bother trying. If you think all this goes over the heads of young children, you’re wrong. Even children in grade one know who the teacher thinks are smart.

2. Isabel ends up getting a B on her science test, and so does Gabriel. “Today is my lucky day,” Isabel says, mistakenly attributing her grade to luck rather than her own effort. Gabriel says something different: “I knew if I studied hard I’d get a good grade.” He knows he’s the one responsible for how well he does in school. Gabriel feels control over his learning, whereas Isabel does not. She thinks grades are determined by things she has absolutely no control over–luck, fate, and other people for instance. Children like Gabriel, who feel control, also show greater initiative and persistence in solving problems, plus a ready willingness to modify their strategies. Isabel, on the other hand, may have trouble starting, sticking with, and modifying her behavior, because she doesn’t believe the outcome is under her control anyway.

In addition, Gabriel is likely to place more value on his successes than Isabel. It’s only natural to feel more pride in a job you attribute to hard work rather than blind luck. Whose self-esteem do you think will be higher? Gabriel’s. Another dimension is how children ascribe their failures. Gabriel is more likely to attribute his failures to unstable, external factors, while Isabel connects her failures to stable, internal causes like not being smart enough. Who do you think tries harder in school? Gabriel.

Isabel is more likely to form a low expectation of future success and give up. The term for this mentality is learned helplessness. Once rooted in her mind, Isabel’s learned helplessness will be hard to erase. It will continue to eat away at her self-esteem and eventually undermine her academic performance.

Can children re-think themselves out of learned helplessness? Yes, but it’s not as easy as setting up a series of small successes, and then rewarding them with tokens. You have to help children realize that their successes and failures depend on one thing, and one thing only–how hard they try. The power is within themselves, not outside in the wild blue yonder. Children need to perceive their mistakes as a signal to change their strategy, not that they are dumb and cannot learn. Teach your children to welcome mistakes as a part of learning. Make it safe for them to risk failure. The biggest stumbling lock to their learning is fear: fear of failure, fear of criticism, fear of looking stupid. Once they overcome this fear, they will be free to achieve their potential.

3. It could also be that Gabriel wants to become a doctor, and knows that good grades are his ticket. Maybe Isabel wants to become a ballet dancer, and doesn’t care as much about her school grades. Children’s willingness to set high standards and work hard depends on two things: how much they value the goal, and the recognition they receive for trying.

4. Let’s say Gabriel and Isabel are playing pinball. Neither one has ever tried it before. One only wants to win, while the other tries to figure out how you keep the ball alive as long as possible. Who is doing what? You’re right if you guessed Gabriel is process oriented and Isabel focuses on end results. Gabriel is figuring out how he can master a new challenge, while Isabel is looking to display her competencies. Gabriel is more likely to learn from his mistakes and less likely to let failure stop him from trying again. Isabel, on the other hand, is more likely to give up after failing because her failure has immediately undermined her objective, which was to be the best. Even a child with low ability will try longer and not get as frustrated by setbacks if her goal is to improve her competencies rather than display them. It’s too bad that most classrooms stress performance goals: students get the same assignments, scores are compared, and the recognition they get places attention on how good they are compared to everyone else.

5. Children who believe grades are achieved haphazardly and not be effort are less likely to reach their potential. Some become reliant on others to help them. They lose confidence in their own abilities. Consequently these children do less work, and their parents and teachers expect less from them.

6. A sub-group of these external children are the dominant, know-it-alls. You know the ones who only participate in activities they know they’ll be first in. These children live in a glass-house. They’re afraid to break out of their bubble and take on a challenge. Although they may fool their parents and teachers in thinking they’re good, they are not fooling themselves. A string of easy accomplishments does not boost their ego. They have to try something they don’t think they can do–and do it.