As the first round of school progress reports quickly approaches, academic achievement is on the minds of parents and students. Thoughts of the impact of current success or challenges on future achievement are at the forefront. “Is my child learning and doing as well as everyone else? Better? Worse? What does it mean if they are or are not? How can they do better?” In some areas of the San Francisco Bay Area, over-achievement seems to be the norm. School is a competition, finishing at the top is the goal, and sometimes anything but the best is simply not an option. The word "average" is frowned upon.
This blog hopes to help put things in perspective. While grades and achievement are indeed important, it’s necessary to strive for some balance. Persistently pushing your child to being at the top, as far from average as possible, can take a toll on their emotional well-being, the parent-child relationship, and a multitude of other aspects of daily life at home and at school.
Generally speaking, having average intellectual capacity, academic skills, athletic ability, or skills in other areas basically means a child or adolescent is developing in a typical and healthy manner, similar to peers their age.
Often both kids and parents have a very different view of what being “average" means. In psychological testing, the average range is considered to be all those who fall within one standard deviation of the mean on a normal distribution, which means 68% of the population is considered “average”. Two important conclusions can be drawn from this perspective. First, in any geography, 68% of students will be “average” for their age group. Secondly, “average” in one geography may be “above average” in another, based on the overall abilities of each population. Even in areas with the highest academically achieving children, 68% will be average. So why is there shame, concern, or displeasure associated with ‘average’? Why does being average have such a bad rep?
The Need to Excel
Parents and students and, in many cases, teachers and school staff feel children must stand out beyond the majority in some manner or another in order to be successful. Being above average or exceptional in academic achievement is fantastic and certainly something to be proud of, but that alone is not a guarantee for success and emotional well-being.
Many other factors play an equal or greater role in life success, factors such as motivation, resilience, determination, drive, support and encouragement as well as a positive sense of self. In addition, enjoying the process of learning and celebrating big and small accomplishments along the way is a critical aspect of growth and moving forward.
Signs Of Pushing Too Hard
Children who are pushed too hard to achieve academically, either by themselves or others, might display an observable increase in emotional states such as anxiety or irritability. Other signs of being pushed too hard include withdrawal, manifested as reduced participation or lack of joy in typical activities, and emotional outbursts towards others that are a departure from usual demeanor.
So What If My Child Is “Average”?
Hopefully this blog puts the idea of “average” academic achievement into context, and helps parents to refocus on more critical aspects of a child’s development. This includes an appreciation of your child’s unique personality, and a celebration of everything you love about them. It is important to spend time identifying and recognizing their personal strengths, and nurturing their interests. Doing so will support a growth mindset, and prevent some of the pitfalls of focusing solely on academic achievement.
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
Raising Resilient Children by Brooks and Goldstein
The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine