'Competition is about looking sideways at what others are doing, whereas aspiration, which is much more healthy, is about looking forwards and concentrating your efforts on what is ahead of you.'
These words really struck a chord with me when I heard them at an event I recently attended with a group of independent school leaders. We came together to discuss how schools can encourage competition in a way that helps children make good progress in their learning.
While there are often contrasting views on the challenges and merits of competitiveness, schools and parents have a shared responsibility to prepare children for life beyond the classroom.
So, how can parents ensure that competition is used in a way that boosts their child's achievement, but doesn't put too much pressure on them to succeed? Here are five top tips from the senior leaders I spoke to that you might want to try at home.
1. Broaden children's experiences
Most schools offer their pupils many opportunities to compete with their friends and classmates, both inside and beyond the classroom, in individual contests as well as events between houses, teams and against other schools.
There is much we can do as parents to help develop our children's competitive spirit, in a healthy way, by encouraging them to get involved with the wide range of activities their school and the wider community offers. By doing this, your child could experience competitiveness in a safe and controlled environment from a young age, which could benefit them in years to come.
2. Accentuate the positive
There are children who can become downhearted about a low test score, or not being picked for the house sports team. With the right support, parents can help their children to develop the essential coping skills they will need throughout their lives.
When parents and schools work together, they can help children focus on recognising positive abilities in others - a vital life skill for the future. One school I know holds a regular event to celebrate and reward the academic, sporting or artistic achievements of all children. Pupils are often particularly inspired by classmates who have overcome challenges to reach their goals.
3. Encourage children to take a chance
Some children choose to opt out of competition altogether, because they don't want to try and then fail. They would rather not make the effort at all, than to risk failing or coming last.
If you recognise this trait in your child, you may want to encourage them to see the value in helping others to succeed - assisting a classmate who is struggling with their homework or helping a child who has clinched the lead role in the school play to learn their lines.
This approach may take the direct glare of the spotlight off your child and help build their confidence through the contribution they are making to the success of someone else. This could, ultimately, also help them to see failure as simply a stepping stone to achievement.
4. Teach them to embrace failure
By encouraging children to embrace the challenges - and benefits - of trying a new skill or taking on a difficult project, parents can help them to develop the vital skills they need to manage failure, as well as reap the rewards of success.
As parents, we can teach our children the value of failure and underline the importance of learning from the experience and trying again. You might even be able to demonstrate this by sharing an example of how you have overcome an adversity to ultimately triumph in your own life.
5. Take each step as it comes
Some children respond better to a challenging situation when they are encouraged to take less account of what their friends and classmates are doing, and stay focussed on achieving their personal best in what they do. Technology can support this.
Most teachers use computers to record their pupils' grades and details of attainment over time and this can help children to see what they need to do to get their achievement to the next level.
Technology helps schools and parents to keep an eye on pupils' wellbeing too, by tracking their conduct and attendance, and flagging up any changes - an unexpected fall in grades or persistent lateness to lessons could be an indication that a child is having difficulties reaching the targets they have been set. Knowing this means you can step in quickly to help or talk to the school about adjusting their targets, if necessary, so they are challenging yet achievable.
As Andrew Pearson, Director of Studies at Colfe's School, highlights: "Children need to leave school with the resilience to cope with the demands of a 21st century career and schools need to help them develop their resilience. Part of that is understanding that to fail is an opportunity to improve, every mistake is a learning experience."
Whether a child's aim is to get a better grade in their maths test, run a faster time in the inter-school athletics meet or get that standing ovation they have been seeking in the local drama production, nurturing an environment of healthy competition can spur them on and motivate them to reach their goals.
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