Some years ago, I taught kindergarten in a school that eliminated letter grades. Our report cards consisted of two columns: “Meets expectations” and “Needs more time and support.”
I’ll never forget the parent who held up his child’s report card and asked, “So you’re saying my son doesn’t excel in anything?” I was schooled in that moment about the potency of parental yearnings.
It’s natural as parents to want a fictional “Prairie Home Companion” scenario, where “all the children are above average.” Even during pregnancy, we begin to envision our growing child as a future concert pianist or MLB slugger. But for many of us, our dreams for our children meet a harsh reality once school years start. That child we thought would make the honor roll is floundering with multiplication tables. Our future novelist prefers video games to reading.
In the bell curve of life, approximately 68 percent of us fall into the meaty middle in a variety of areas. We have much company in the normal range. However, that doesn’t stop us as parents from worrying that our child might be left behind. After all, concerns about competitive college entry brought us the recent college admissions scandal that will translate into some misguided parents doing hard time.
A small number of parents have children who win science fairs and spelling bees. A label of “in the normal range” can feel triumphant to parents of kids with special needs or difficult circumstances. The suggestions that follow are for the third group of parents: those who are concerned about a child’s middle-of-the-road performance as we start a new school year.
Put the “average” label into perspective. What does it mean to be average? There are two main ways a child’s academic performance is evaluated in school: against some standard (criterion-referenced) or in relation to the performance of other students (norm-referenced). A teacher may set a standard that a child will complete 100 multiplication items in one minute.
In this case, a child either meets the standard or does not. Or, the child’s multiplication performance can be compared to that of other students. For example, a child may complete the multiplication table in 50 seconds, which reflects above-average performance when compared to the class norm of 55 seconds.
When we talk about average in this way, we are always talking about comparison. And while comparison can provide some information about how our child is doing relative to others, a more helpful strategy is to focus on mastery. The more we can help a child set personal goals that encourage stretch but are attainable, and the less we focus on students in the next row, the more likely it is that our child will find success.
Find your child’s unique gifts. It can appear that some children just aren’t cut out for school, when in fact not all schools are a fit for all children. The standardized testing craze has contributed to this problem. Typical achievement tests in school measure a very narrow set of skills. Not all important life skills can be measured on a bubble sheet. When the focus is solely on discrete language and computational skills, abilities such as creativity, problem-solving, synthesis and analysis can go by the wayside.
All children have unique gifts, and it’s our job as parents to help uncover them. As a teacher, I had dreams for my own children’s academic paths that, let’s just say, they may not always have shared. But when my son was in the second grade, he assembled my vacuum cleaner straight out of the box when I wasn’t looking — without any parts left over. Now 28, he owns an advertising software company. My daughter spent hours on MySpace creating web pages when she could have been reading novels. Today, at 30, she works as a social media manager in New York City. Our children’s individual strengths abound, but they might not always be detectable in the school realm.
Learn from late bloomers. My own children might be considered “late bloomers.” In a book by the same name, author Rich Karlgard lays out the case for “the power of patience in a world obsessed with early achievement.” Our culture may have a fascination with wunderkinds who come blazing out of the early-school gate, but more of us are late bloomers in the long journey of life. Notable examples include Albert Einstein, whose family was worried about his development in the early years, and author J.K. Rowling, whose school performance paled in comparison to her overwhelming Harry Potter success.
Karlgard presents six strengths of late bloomers, which include: curiosity, compassion, resilience, equanimity, insight and wisdom. Clearly, these important capacities are not something one is born with, but hard won through a lifetime of experience. And again, these characteristics are not measured on any standardized test in school.
The average response to having a child labeled “average” is one of concern. Just remember that all children are individuals with immeasurable unique qualities and abilities that defy labels.
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