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Education Supplement: How Much Is Too Much?

Dr Amanda Dahir

With language classes, extracurricular activities, sports teams, IB programs and more facing the youth of today, there comes a point where parents have to ask themselves “How much is too much”? Dr Amanda Dahir, the Clinic Director for the Essential Learning Group, looks at how children at international schools can become balanced students.

Being a kid can be tough in this day and age. Actually, it has always been tough. Generation after generation the world produces the next tough life challenges that our youth must learn to deal with. While growing up in a foreign country and experiencing another culture is an amazing opportunity filled with adventure and intrigue, it often carries with it an additional layer that further complicates life and the school experience.

In Shanghai there are many fantastic education options, from local Chinese schools to a number of various international schools with curricula from around the world. Many of these schools have world-renown credibility, an excellent track record for graduation rates and a list of good universities that their graduates attend. These privately operated organizations recruit the best of the best teachers, setting both educators and students up to be successful; however, this reputation for producing the next generation of the best and the brightest young adults also carries with it some adverse side effects. Sometimes the push to produce excellence comes at the cost of increased rates of anxiety, hyper-perfectionism, depression and individuals who lack emotional intelligence.

Most will agree that everyone needs balance in life, and the best and the brightest are no exception. What does make an individual balanced involves an enormous amount of subjectivity, which inherently contains biases. Does memorising the periodic table of elements make a balanced student? Does doing four hours of homework a night make a balanced student? Does a balanced student need friends? Does a balanced student play sports or need to know how to get along in groups? This topic has been a heated point of discussion in popular news recently. People have vehemently chosen sides in the dichotomous public debate on Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. A summary of the debate is beyond the scope of this article; however, the main point is something that surfaces time and time again in the expatriate population – “How much is too much?”

The common ground that most parents will agree upon is that they want their children to be successful – that is the easy part. The difficult part is deciding how to define success. If you ask one million parents from all over the world to define success, it is likely that you will get one million different responses. Regardless of how one defines success, education is widely accepted as the key to a better future. Further complicating the matter are many more factors influencing any one individual’s capacity to learn. Factors that are biological in nature (i.e. learning disabilities) and those that are influenced by our environment (i.e. poor educational opportunities) - the classic nature AND nurture.

Education is arguably one of the best gifts you can ever give your children. Some children struggle with the academic rigor at Shanghai’s international schools, despite being able to get high marks in their home country with little effort. This drastic change in what is expected academically can have a taxing effect on a child’s self-esteem and sometimes leads to anxiety and depression. It is important for educators and parents to tune in to how a student is coping. Many international schools are well-equipped with counselors who can help kids that are feeling a higher than normal amount of stress, but it is up to parents and educators to look out for the warning signs in order to intervene as soon as possible.

Another adverse side effect of pushing students beyond their limits is that diagnosable clinical childhood conditions may be overlooked. Parents and educators may be putting stress on a student that may not be able to perform at the expected level. We must understand the difference between a student who “can’t do” the schoolwork versus a student who “won’t do” the school work. For example, a student with an undiagnosed disability that interferes with their ability to learn is very different from a student who understands the concepts but does not see the value in performing well on a test. For the latter, we must consider increasing their motivation to perform in order to make the work meaningful to the student, while academic modification may be warranted for the student who finds it difficult to learn.

There is no magic recipe that will produce well-balanced and well-adjusted young adults without fail, but there are some steps parents and schools can take to increase the likelihood that their children will have the skills to cope with life’s challenges. Foster open communication with your child. It will allow more opportunities for you to understand when your child is being pushed to their limits or beyond them. Allow your child opportunities to exercise control in some of their educational decisions, giving them a sense of ownership of their education. Recognise that education is not one size fits all. If your child continues to struggle for a prolonged period of time, your child may have a disorder that may be interfering with their ability to learn and you may want to consult a professional. 

How much is too much? Well, it depends on one’s approach to life. Most parents agree that they want their children to be successful in life and genuinely want what is best for their children. The drive to push them hard now is done with the child’s best interest in mind. In fact, struggling can be a very healthy and rewarding part of an individual’s accomplishments. The key is to tune in to when the push is too much versus just enough.

Dr Amanda Dahir has her doctorate in School Psychology and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. She is the Clinic Director for the Essential Learning Group.


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