Gold stars and battle scars: The problem with achievement pressure

When is the pressure to succeed too much for children?

By creating environments and habits to build self-efficacy and limit achievement pressure, adults can help children learn that their abilities can be changed with effort.
By creating environments and habits to build self-efficacy and limit achievement pressure, adults can help children learn that their abilities can be changed with effort.

Our society is focused on tangible, concrete attributes that can be seen, felt, heard or touched to define success. We measure successes based on outcomes and other external indicators. A gold star on your picture in preschool means it is “good,” an “A” on your spelling test means you are good at spelling, an acceptance letter to a university means you are smart and accomplished and a bonus at work means you are successful. In this same way, having “things” such as money, cars, clothes and electronics often defines your value or worth. When we measure children by these external attributes and teach them to measure themselves the same way, we are teaching them that external measures of success are either the only way, or the best way to define their value.

Achievement pressure

Some pressure can be a good motivator. So when is the pressure to achieve bad? When children are held to strict, unrealistic or developmentally inappropriate standards, they may be at risk for increased stress. Which, in turn, might lead to unhealthy levels of perfectionism and may even have cognitive consequences like shorter attention span and short-term memory. Other negative effects resulting from achievement pressure include fear of making mistakes, fear of criticism and anxiety resulting from the pressure to please others.

What can we do?

Michigan State University Extension has some suggestions to help lower achievement pressure for children and encourage a positive sense of self.

  • Check your expectations. Make sure your child knows that expectations do not equal achievement. Set expectations that are developmentally appropriate, fair and flexible when necessary. When we set a very high standard of achievement, children might get lost in the pursuit of that achievement, which can lead to stress, anxiety and a lot of unhealthy pressure.
  • Encourage self-pursuits. Let your child explore and follow their intrinsic pursuits, whether it’s building model airplanes and learning about aviation or diving completely into a good book. Let your child try on different hats and figure out which ones suit them best.
  • Let children set their own goals. When we only motivate children based on external motivators, like trophy’s, grades or honor roll, we are ignoring the need for them to develop their own internal sense of self. Let them decide what their own measure of success is and help them work towards it. Maybe they only need to run one mile to feel good about themselves, even if they can’t complete a whole 5K.
  • Encourage the process. When the only attention paid is based on the product of a child’s effort, they learn that the outcome is the purpose of any exercise. What we really want to teach children is that hard work and dedication are important and valuable. Instead of focusing on how many spelling words your child got wrong, draw attention to their effort to learn them. Encourage them to keep trying and help them refine their process.
  • Support failure. Failure is a big, scary word in our society. It’s important to remember that life is a series of failures. You have to fall and stumble to learn how to get back up and do things differently. Support your child’s failures, empathize with their disappointment and encourage them to get back up. Help your child frame “failures” as opportunities to learn, and teach them optimism and persistence in tough times.
  • Offer praise for effort. When we focus on praising a child’s abilities, we teach them that our approval is conditional on their external achievements; that we only support them when they win. Children need to know you appreciate their efforts and support them unconditionally. So when your child practices a piano piece for two hours and it’s still not perfect, instead of drawing attention to their shortcoming, encourage their persistence and hard work.
  • Build self-efficacy. Help your child learn a belief in their own capabilities by teaching children they have the power to control their own world. When we let them fail, they learn about cause and effect and get to practice problem-solving skills, but they also walk away with the belief that they are capable of dealing with failure or challenges.
  • Be involved. Offer unconditional support, model stress management and emotional awareness and spend quality time with them. Set aside time to spend with your child on child-directed activities or other no-pressure events. Be their “bucket filler.”
  • Implement healthy habits. Exercise has been shown to help improve worry in children. Show children you value exercise and healthy habits by engaging in them yourself. Make it a family effort.

By creating environments and habits to build self-efficacy and limit achievement pressure, adults can help children develop a “growth mindset.” That is, we can help them learn that their abilities can be changed with effort. You can empower them to change their worlds.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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