Most parents want the best for their children and their education, but what does that look like in a changing world? How do we prepare our children for future success without imposing today’s toxic achievement culture on them?
We spoke to Jackie Cook, veteran teacher, and Chief Operating Officer at Teneo, Africa’s leading online school, on how children today can be best supported in constructive ways. Apart from managing a school of 500 teachers and 9 000 learners, Cook is also the mother of two teenagers – challenging roles that have forged some real-life wisdom about how to recognise and nurture a child’s potential.
In your experience, how do we lay a solid foundation for our children’s success?
The first thing parents need to realise is that every child is a unique individual whose cognitive, psychological, emotional, and physical development is determined by their unique makeup and circumstances.
Starting before birth and shaped by a million different factors in life, each child in a family or a class will develop differently. Just think about it – different babies walk and talk at different ages, so why would we force them to conform?
It’s very important not to compare children to one another, but rather to have a balanced approach to measuring each child’s individual progress and milestones. Also, never compare boys and girls – they develop at differing rates.
Love, honour and respect each child for who they are and what their unique abilities are, teach them a healthy work ethic, and encourage them to take responsibility for giving their personal best in whatever they choose to do.
How should parents and teachers deal with individual levels of achievement at school?
Most schools are geared towards creating norms and standards to make teaching more manageable. When a child is an outlier, it can create challenges within the system. For instance, if a child is ahead of his or her peers academically, should we allow them to skip a grade?
It may be true that the child is ahead in mathematics, but it’s always wise to have the child assessed by trained professionals in terms of where he or she is rating on his emotional, social and physical development, speech, and other factors – and we may in fact find that it will do the child no favours to be moved ahead, because of where he or she is in their development in other areas.
It’s best to nurture a child holistically, and not to fixate on where they can achieve 100% and push them too hard in that direction, to the detriment of the other facets of their unique makeup and development.
In fact, it’s important to realise that in one instance 60% may be a major achievement because the child worked hard to achieve that – and this result may in fact be more praiseworthy than a 90% mark achieved effortlessly elsewhere.
The important thing is to be aware of each child’s development and to measure their unique progress. Remember, if you can measure it, you can manage it.
How can we support our children in the age of online schooling?
Online schooling may seem impersonal, but it can be quite the opposite. Online classes are often quite intimate and online schools can be good at tailoring support for each child based on their unique learning styles and aptitudes.
With online schools, whether they are asynchronous (where children learn at their own pace with digital resources) or synchronous (with real teachers who teach in real-time, but with each lesson still recorded), an online bank of content is available for each student. With learning materials readily available, some children can work ahead a little, while there are rewatchable lessons for those who need more revision.
Sensory overload can also be managed more easily by switching cameras and microphones on or off based on a child’s individual needs. Each child does not have to “sit still and shut up” so that a teacher can manage the class. They can fidget without bothering others if it helps them concentrate.
The key, however, is that parents must remain involved and interested, and regularly check in on their children’s progress. Having access to your child’s work, learning resources and grades in real-time is very empowering for parents.
What are the effects of overbearing parenting?
If parents insist on straight As, it can cause anxiety, depression, burnout and even trauma in children. Pushing a child can become toxic if you expect them to do more than they are capable of. It can also be very detrimental if you do everything for your child to make better grades, because children need to learn independence and self-efficacy.
Instead, we should encourage children to measure up against themselves. Incentivising your children – dangling carrots instead of using sticks – to encourage them to keep improving is a positive system to implement. It shows you are involved and interested, and you are preparing your child for the world of work where they need to earn promotions.
Incremental improvements and a good work ethic over time should be encouraged and celebrated. Studies also show us that children do better when they have parents who attend parent-teacher meetings, and who take an interest in what their children are learning and reading.
Many highly intelligent children are able to achieve straight As without any effort in high school, having learnt how to play the system, only to bomb out at university. Children who on the other hand consistently work hard throughout high school – who don’t necessarily stand out as academic stars but are dedicated – often do better later in life. You’ll often hear stories that those people become top CEOs and leaders in their field.
What is the single most important piece of advice you have for parents?
The gold standard of good parenting (and teaching) is to always protect your children’s self-esteem.
If we force our children to do maths and physics when all they want to do is art and drama, we will damage their self-esteem. If we never allow our children to fail, make a mess, and grow, we will destroy their self-esteem. All learning comes from mistakes – the important thing is that they explore, play, and learn to fail forward which means getting up and trying again.
If you push your child to become a prefect or play A team cricket, because it’s your own unfulfilled dream, and they have no interest in that, you will destroy your relationship with your child.
Of course, we want to see our children being successful, but they have their own lives and interests – and you can really help your children to succeed at anything in life if you teach them time management, grit, independence, and a good work ethic.
We also need to teach our children that therapy can be valuable when they need extra support. Children thrive when they feel supported.