Measuring a child’s success

Success is a relative concept as Tim Smith of Hampton Pre-Prep & Prep explains. Sometimes, to help motivate a child, it is better to remove pressure and remember it's a marathon and not a sprint.

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Children usually bring bags of enthusiasm, energy, and ambition with them to school. For some, these sorts of dispositions sit buried a little deeper in amongst their personal profile. It can therefore take more time for these attributes to bubble to the top and for children's successes to manifest themselves and to be recognised.

Often, it is parents who worry more when their children first begin at a new school. No matter how 'school ready' most parents will recognise their young offspring to be, there are always a few anxious faces from parents at drop off on the first day. When new cohorts of pupils arrive at my school, I am frequently asked how swiftly I think children are likely to settle, how easily I believe it will be for them to make new friends and how well they are likely to get on with their new teachers. The implied question in amongst all of this is of course, 'When will I start to see my child succeed and how will I know?'

All of these questions are entirely reasonable, as one of the keys to a successful education is bound to be the nature and quality of the relationships that children will have with those around them at school. So far, I have always been able to reassure parents that in the vast majority of cases, children will find beginning life at a new school far more straight-forward and successful than their parents fear it will be. The ability of any child to develop warm, positive, cheerful relationships with all those around them at school will have a direct impact upon how successful their time in lessons will be.

Learning to develop and maintain a successful relationship is too important a fundamental human activity to be left to chance. There are ways of behaving and ways of responding that some children need encouragement to understand and adopt, but being able to do so successfully will stand them in very good stead in the long run. In my opinion, children are more likely to respond successfully to feedback from their teachers, be that praise for excellent effort and outcomes or tips on how to make their next piece of work better, if the relationship they have with that teacher is built upon a solid and positive foundation.

"All of these questions are entirely reasonable, as one of the keys to a successful education is bound to be the nature and quality of the relationships that children will have with those around them at school."

Parents must always remember that any child's progress at school usually follows a somewhat turbulent trajectory. They very rarely make progress in an entirely linear and uncomplicated fashion. The importance of patience – from parents and on occasion from teachers too – cannot be underestimated when it comes to defining and celebrating children's educational success, in whatever terms.

Children are, by and large, incredibly astute and most are typically well aware of the importance of success and what it means to those around them. Research on the development of the 'conscious mind' suggests typically that children aged 7 to 11 tend to develop greater self-awareness and have a much clearer understanding of themselves and their abilities relative to the abilities of others around them at this stage. Success and indeed failure are notions that become all the more real for them, and children become incredibly adept at sizing themselves up against classmates. For some, this can be a source of considerable anxiety. Unfortunately, younger learners often see success and failure in quite binary terms, so it is up to the adults – both teachers and parents – to help them recognise and calibrate their own personal successes. This must be relative not to others but to the amount of effort they will know (in their heart of hearts!) they have been putting in.

Too much pressure placed on children to succeed at school can never be a good thing, especially if success is only ever going to be measured against a very narrow set of criteria. In my experience, children are far more likely to stick at any endeavour, from whatever educational realm, if they can see that the effort they have put in to overcome their own individual difficulties along the way has been recognised. To make really excellent progress I believe a number of factors must coalesce, in the right way and at the right time. Effective feedback from adults is critical; children tend to thrive on genuine, meaningful praise that recognises effort as much as any accomplishment; always being honest with children is terribly important. I think parents do well when they remember that successful educational outcomes at school are likely to be the result of a marathon, not a sprint. Most children never wish willingly to let their parents or their teachers down. But if they feel the pressure to succeed in academic terms is beyond them, there is a very real danger they will simply switch off and stop trying. Most children also eventually see through hollow praise, which is metered out for praise's sake and rarely respond positively to being molly-coddled either. Ultimately, we do them no favours if we remove all obstacles from the path they must tread with increasing independence in order to truly succeed in life.

"I see children doing their best at school when their parents' desire to control or shape their destinies is carefully balanced against the need to stand back. Parents should, at times and to a certain extent, let nature and the impact of an excellent education take its course."

'It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves', claimed Sir Edmund Hillary, reflecting upon his successful ascent, with Tenzing Norgay, of Mount Everest in 1953. His words from nearly 70 years ago still resonate today. I believe true success depends upon how well we are supported and therefore able to muster the inner strength, confidence and self-belief to 'have a go'. It also depends upon our ability to recognise the importance of the small steps we take along the way as marks of success in and of themselves, as we work towards achieving our ultimate goal.

I see children doing their best at school when their parents' desire to control or shape their destinies is carefully balanced against the need to stand back. Parents should, at times and to a certain extent, let nature and the impact of an excellent education take its course. Awards and prizes are lovely to receive but must be viewed in perspective. My own strong belief is that the values underpinning how any child's outcomes are measured, and then rewarded, should certainly never be compromised in the pursuit of any accolade on offer.

Values can take time to develop. One of the joys for any educator – and parent too – is the part we play in bringing those values to the surface. It is always immensely rewarding to see any child succeed but all the more meaningful when we know they understand that success is as much about trying hard as it is about simply reaching the top.

Tim Smith Photo

Tim Smith is Headmaster of Hampton Pre-Prep & Prep School. The School is a friendly, lively and unpretentious school for girls aged 3 to 7 and boys aged 3 to 11. We want our pupils to make excellent progress that results in superb achievements whilst they are with us.

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