Competition in the Classroom

It’s Thursday, library day in my daughter’s grade two classroom, and she forgot her books at home.  I would say she remembers to bring them about 50% of the time, and on the days we forget, I give her the “it’s ok, you’re human, humans make mistakes” speech and we make a plan to bring them the following day.  But today is different. Today her entire pod of deskmates will lose a “ticket” because she forgot her books, and it is the pod with the most tickets at the end of the week that will get to choose a special prize.  As we walk into her class I see her friends ask her where her books are and I see the look on my daughter’s face when she realises she has let the group down. I see the shame. It starts so young.

Over the years in my private practice I have encountered many kids who appear to thrive on competition.  I suppose these kids might be gifted the label of ‘resilient’ however I see the behavioural issues that stem from always trying to claw your way to the top.  I have also encountered many kids who find the pressure of competition to be shattering and lie awake at night worrying about all the ways they might fail. I see their behavioural struggles too.  

What does shame and fear of failure do to our brains?  If we rewind back tens of thousands of years and imagine how our brains evolved to keep us alive in the jungle, we can start to imagine how important it would have been to be accepted by our tribe.  Given that we have very few natural defenses – no sharp claws, no sharp teeth, no ability to jump super high or run exceedingly fast – humans had to get really good at staying in groups and avoiding danger.  The primitive parts of our brain, namely the brainstem and limbic system, have evolved to see social isolation as a very real threat – one that would have led to certain death in our more primitive past. As a culture we have of course evolved far past this.  We now have numerous resources at our disposal to prevent harm, yet our primal brain still exists and until we are in our mid 20s it is by and large in the driver’s seat (more about brain development in my next post). So what does this mean? Well when our primal brain senses a threat to our survival or safety, whether real or just perceived, an entire chain reaction of internal events are triggered that serve to help us survive the immediate future.  This means that resources allocated to areas of the brain normally devoted to long term growth and planning are rerouted to the parts of our brain that deal in fight, flight, freeze or faint responses. We become acutely aware of and sensitive to non-verbal cues from those around us and we are more likely to react from a place of emotion rather than respond from a place of logic. Essentially, when we experience shame, we are not able to be our best, most human selves, and when we are not able to be our best, most human selves, we are not able to learn, grow and build healthy relationships.  

Perhaps rather than encouraging kids to find fault in one another, as was the case when my daughter’s friend lost her pod a ticket because a classmate ‘caught’ her speaking in English rather than French (this is also a commonly used strategy), educators could offer tickets to students who support one another in kind and compassionate ways.  They could provide a special prize at the end of the week that can be enjoyed by everyone because the whole group has worked together in creating an environment of safety, cohesion and community. And to be clear, this is not about bubble-wrapping our children and preventing them from ever feeling as though they have failed. Failure is a hugely important experience. This is about creating an environment where our children feel safe enough to fail without judgment as many times as they need so they can discover that the reward is just as much in the effort as it is in the outcome.

So the question I have for childhood educators everywhere, be you teachers, parents, coaches, mentors or anything in between, is what type of learning environment are you trying to create?  One that encourages a child to survive and claw their way to the top, or one that fosters a sense of safety, security and community? For it is in the latter environment, when a child’s primal brain is at ease, that a child can truly flourish.

There is a growing amount of research on the negative effects of competition and shame.  I recommend checking out Brené Brown’s work if you’d like to read more.   

Charlotte King-Harris is a Registered Clinical Counsellor, Registered Social Worker, Registered Play Therapist and Certified Trauma Treatment Specialist working in private practice in Victoria, BC. She also sits on the board of directors for the BC Play Therapy Association and can be found sharing all sorts of fun stuff on both her Instagram and Facebook pages.

Charlotte King-Harris is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and Registered Social Worker in Victoria, BC. Charlotte specializes in working with children, teens and parents and uses a combination of mindfulness and play-based therapies to help her clients discover their best selves.