The issue - How to support high achievers at a low ebb
Working in an academically selective independent school is the dream for many teachers. In such a seemingly perfect school environment, with fantastic teachers who are heavily invested in school life, the pupils have got it good - and therefore so have you, right?
It is certainly often assumed that education is a smooth ride for children privileged enough to go to such institutions. However, the reality is quite different. The combination of overzealous middle-class parents and high-achieving schools' fear of dropping a single A* can put immense pressure on children. Some parents seem to regard education as a product they are purchasing, which can cause trouble.
The main problem is that children can grow up to feel like failures. This stems from the sense of guilt and inferiority caused by the belief that only the very highest level of achievement is acceptable - that only a place at a top-ranked university will do and that being picked for the school's first sports teams is a necessity. No matter that these things will not be possible for all, parents and schools often seem to think that they should be.
Jessica* is a good example. She is academically very able, incredibly hard-working, conscientious and diligent. She is involved in all areas of school life. But she is at breaking point and has already had time off owing to anxiety. Her parents are incredibly demanding and put constant pressure on her and her teachers. Meanwhile, her desire to please means that she says yes to everything that is asked of her. As a result, she doesn't sleep much, her eating is irregular and she is teary and panicked 90 per cent of the time.
Her teachers should be aware of her difficulties. Instead, many of them compound the problem. They overload her with extra work, pick her for the top teams and cast her as the lead in drama productions. She's a top student and they want her to succeed; they don't want her to miss any chances.
Arguably as bad are those teachers who simply ignore the issue - perhaps through ignorance, perhaps because they don't want to get themselves into a sticky situation by taking responsibility for Jessica's stress. Many teachers prefer to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that nothing is wrong.
It's not all the teachers' doing: the school expects Jessica to succeed and puts pressure on staff to ensure that she does. Senior leadership will make sure that no stone is left unturned to guarantee her attainment, and that anxiety is passed on. Sometimes it develops into anger from teachers: comments such as "Get a grip" or "You don't know how lucky you are to be here" start to creep into conversations.
So what should we be doing to ensure that pupils like Jessica have a manageable experience of school?
Be acutely aware of the wider commitments that pupils have. Get together with other staff members and work out a compromise that suits everyone. Come up with realistic goals for what pupils can achieve and drop any activities that aren't important or enjoyable.
Ensure that teachers and the senior leadership team engage with parents about realistic expectations for students. Try to build an understanding that making the cut for a top university is not everything; there are many ways to succeed in life. Expectations for some pupils need to be modified, and parents and schools just have to be OK with that, for the sake of the child's health.
Teach pupils ways to cope. Set out a realistic weekly schedule for studying and extracurricular involvement, give them the opportunity to achieve small goals and praise them for sticking to the timetable. Allow pupils to rebuild their self-esteem.
Creating space to relax
This is so important, and it is something that the majority of pupils who are under intense pressure do not have. Give pupils goals, since high achievers often thrive with targets - for example, stopping work at a certain point and setting a regular bedtime with a cooling-off period beforehand. Routine like this is proven to help manage and reduce stress.
Support, not punishment
Don't punish students for not getting A*s at all times, or for not spending three hours on a piece of homework to get the perfect answer. Support them during times of increased pressure, such as exams, and set realistic academic expectations for work. This is invaluable for all children.
*Name has been changed. Rachel Smith is a pseudonym for a teacher at an independent school in north-east England Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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