In anticipation of the release of our parent and educator handbook this fall, we are sharing some brief excerpts to give you a taste of the kind of useful, research-based information and practical tips that it contains. With the start of the school year upon us, we thought it was a great time to share a brief section on how developing a learning-goal orientation can help support child and adolescent wellbeing and academic success.
Studies suggest that adults can support a healthy attitude toward achievement by adopting a learning-goal orientation. While there is often an impulse to overly praise children and reward their every effort some external marker of achievement (“everyone gets a trophy”) , parents and educators with a learning-goal orientation instead place value on understanding material, improving skills, and mastering content. The aim is to encourage a love of learning for learning’s sake, and to foster a desire for intellectual development and new challenges. A learning-goal orientation divorces learning from socially recognized indicators of success, and instead encourages young people to express their independence and build their own self-worth, establishing benchmarks for success within themselves. Young people with this orientation are less likely to face the negative outcomes associated with perfectionism. Moreover, research has found that they are actually more likely to be academically successful.
A key part of being oriented toward learning, rather than toward specific external performance measures, is being comfortable with making mistakes and experiencing failure. Children should be encouraged to grow in their endeavors, and they should learn that making mistakes, taking academic risks, and both trying and failing are essential parts of growth. When performance is emphasized over learning, young people can become so discouraged by the prospect of not being successful at something new that it can prevent them from developing new skills and taking important risks. A fear of failure can also push young people toward negative behaviors, like cheating or other kinds of academic dishonesty. Perfectionism has the potential to limit young people’s wellbeing, but importantly it can also limit their achievement and opportunities. Research has found that when young people receive the message that mistakes are typical and to be expected, and that making an error is not a catastrophe but instead an opportunity for adaptation, they are at much lower risk for the negative outcomes associated with perfectionism.
Tips for Fostering a Learning-Goal Orientation: Parents
Be thoughtful about your own attitudes toward success, and evaluate whether those are the attitudes you want to pass down to your child. Children internalize their parents’ beliefs and values about what kinds of achievement are important. Be careful about the messages you send them, so that you can support them in developing healthy attitudes toward success.
When your child makes a mistake or experiences a setback, talk to them about it. Make sure they understand that mistakes are a part of life and, more important, a part of growth. For example, if your child starts a new sport but plays poorly in their first game, focus on the importance of the effort they’re making and what they’re learning. Help them understand that no one masters a new skill immediately, and that struggling is a part of improving. Few who are successful in their field have gotten there without encountering a long list of difficulties; it is helpful for your child to learn that how they respond to difficulty is more important than striving for perfection.
Help your child understand that seeking help is a strength and not a weakness. Often children who are overly focused on achievement are afraid to ask for the help they need, because they want to appear competent. Frame help-seeking as a skill that can help them get the necessary support to be successful.
Tips for Educators
Talk to your students about what it means to be a perfectionist, and why perfectionism can be harmful. Many young people experience a great deal of pressure to succeed, and simply being made aware of what perfectionism is can be a powerful intervention, shown to help prevent students from being emotionally reactive or experiencing psychological distress when they experience a setback.
Encourage academic risk-taking, and take a process-oriented approach to student learning that focuses on efforts rather than outcomes. Stress that a willingness to try is an important skill in and of itself, and find ways to reward students’ work as they learn a new skill or subject. The more students get used to formative feedback (feedback given throughout the learning process regarding students’ progress on reaching a learning goal) rather than just summative feedback (feedback assessing students’ mastery of content, like an exam), the more willing they will be to take academic risks.
Practice compassion toward yourself and your students. Young people often adopt the values of the important adults in their lives, and modeling compassion is an important way of teaching them to go easy on each other and themselves when issues arise. Talk about the importance of compassion, and use discussions of the value of showing compassion toward others as a way to begin talking about showing compassion toward oneself, especially for students who are more self-critical and may resist this idea.
Stay tuned for more crucial information and practical tips when our Handbook launches this fall!
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