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Parents should avoid pressuring young children over grades, ASU study says

Parents should accentuate kindness and respect to help foster academic success.
High emphasis on achievement leads to lower GPAs, ASU study shows.
November 28, 2016

Compassion, decency just as important during the formative years, according to research

Suniya LutharSuniya Luthar, ASU Foundation Professor of psychology

New research from ASU suggests parents shouldn’t obsess over grades and extracurricular activities for young schoolchildren, especially if such ambitions come at the expense of social skills and kindness.

Doing so, the study says, can work against helping kids become well-adjusted and successful later in life.

“When parents emphasize children’s achievement much more than their compassion and decency during the formative years, they are sowing the seeds of stress and poorer well-being, seen as early as sixth grade,” said Suniya Luthar, a Foundation Professor of psychologyThe Department of Psychology is a unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. at ASU and one of the co-authors of the study.

“In order to foster well-being and academic success during the critical years surrounding early adolescence, our findings suggest that parents should accentuate kindness and respect for others at least as much as (or more than) stellar academic performance and extracurricular accolades.”

The study, “When mothers and fathers are seen as disproportionately valuing achievements: Implications for adjustment among upper middle class youth,” is published in the current early online edition of the Journal of Youth and AdolescenceLuthar co-authored the study with Lucia Ciciolla of Oklahoma State University, Alexandria Curlee, an ASU psychology doctoral student, and Jason Karageorge, a psychologist in private practice in San Francisco.

The study focused on perceptions of parents’ values among 506 sixth grade students from an affluent community. Kids were asked to rank the top three of six things their parents valued for them. Three values were about personal successes such as good grades and a successful later career, and the other three were about kindness and decency towards others.

The researchers examined underlying patterns on scores based on children’s perceptions of their parents’ achievement emphasis (relative to children’s kindness to others). These patterns on perceived achievement emphasis were compared against the children’s school performance and actions as measured by grade-point average and in-class behaviors. 

The authors tried to determine if there were differences in how children were doing psychologically and academically, depending on their parents’ values. They chose students entering middle school because of the immense changes that children experience at this stage, both physiologically and psychologically. Results showed that mothers and fathers perceived emphases on achievement versus interpersonal kindness played a key role in the child’s personal adjustment and academic performance, as did perceptions of parents’ criticism.

Specifically, Luthar said that the best outcomes were among children who perceived their mothers and fathers as each valuing kindness toward others as much as, or more than, achievements. Much poorer outcomes were seen among children who perceived either mothers or fathers valuing their achievements more highly than they valued being kind to others. These youth experienced more internalizing symptoms, such as depression and anxiety, externalizing or acting out behaviors and lower self-esteem, as well as more parental criticism. And paradoxically given their parents high emphases on achievements, these students also had lower GPAs, and were reported by teachers to have more learning problems and disruptive behavior at school.

The findings demonstrate the value of being socially oriented, Luthar said. “It is beneficial for kids to be strongly connected with their social networks, whereas focusing too much on external validations (such as grades, extra-curricular honors) for their sense of self-worth can lead to greater insecurity, anxiety and overall distress.”

What was surprising in the study, Ciciolla said, was how strongly children’s psychological and academic performance, consistently across a number of different measures, were tied to what children believed their parents cared most about. And it did not matter much whether both parents or either parent were thought to more highly value achievement than kindness to others — having disproportionate emphasis on achievement coming from either parent was generally harmful.

It was also surprising, she said, that children who viewed their parents as valuing kindness to others much more highly than achievement did not appear to be suffering academically.

“It seems that emphasizing kindness as a top priority may not take the spotlight off achievement, because we found that these children did very well over all, including in their academics,” Ciciolla explained. “But when children believed their parents cared most about achievement, possibly related to how parents communicated this message and if it came across as critical, they did worse across the board.”

“To be clear,” Ciciolla said, “our data did not show that encouraging achievement in itself is bad. It becomes destructive when it comes across as critical, and when it overshadows, or does not co-exist with, a simultaneous value on more intrinsic goals that are oriented toward personal growth, interpersonal connections and community well-being.”

“The key is balance,” Luthar added. “Not pushing kids to achieve or succeed at the expense of maintaining close relationships to others. And, we as parents must watch our tones,” she cautioned, “because sometimes, what we might think is encouragement to perform better comes across to our kids as criticism for not being ‘good enough’ by their standards.”

“The more parents are able to balance their encouragement of personal success with encouragement of maintaining kindness and personal decency, the more likely it is that children will do well,” she added. “This is especially true for kids in high achieving schools and communities where the reverberating message they hear from their earliest years is that above all else they must distinguish themselves as top-notch, or the very best, across their various activities, academic as well as extracurricular.”


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ASU grad students reach out to troubled children with play therapy

ASU grad students reach out to troubled kids with play therapy in new program.
November 28, 2016

Counselors in training work at Phoenix elementary school in pilot program

The figurine of a bird in a nest looks like a little toy, but it’s also a powerful tool of expression for children who can’t talk about their worries.

“It’s called play therapy, but it’s very serious work for children,” said Jennifer Pereira, a clinical assistant professor in the Counseling and Counseling Psychology graduate programs in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at Arizona State University.

This semester, six ASU graduate students were part of a pilot program that embedded their “Introduction to Counseling Children” course in a Phoenix elementary school. The students learned how to utilize play therapy and a dozen young children were able to have free sessions, all under the supervision of Pereira.

Figurines are part of the play-therapy items found at Kyrene de los Cerritos Elementary School as part of an ASU pilot program for grad students who ar learning to be play therapists. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now


Pereira decided that the counseling course would be more effective if the students could actually work with children.

“On campus, they’re role playing with each other versus working directly with kids,” she said. “I wanted to get them out into the community and practicing what they’re learning in real time.”

She started calling area schools and the administration at Kyrene de los Cerritos Elementary School in Phoenix jumped at the chance to have therapy sessions for a handful of students.

Principal Darcy DiCosmo said that a non-profit group used to provide support for students who had social and behavioral issues that was paid through tax credits, but those funds have dwindled and the service ended.

“We recognize that kids need social assistance more than we’ve ever seen before, such as learning how to like themselves and how to step into unknown situations and be confident and secure,” she said.

Cerritos gave Pereira and her students a classroom, and with funding from her department bought items that would be found in a play-therapy clinic — art supplies, dolls, dress-up clothing and figurines. Some toys are meant to help children safely express aggression, such as plastic swords, and others represent home life, including doll houses.

Play therapy is a structured, theoretically-based process that is used with children between the ages of 2 and 9. The kids use play to confront problems and find solutions.

“We allow the child to have space and to play out the issues they’re experiencing,” Pereira said.

“The trained therapist understands the themes and patterns in play, and the things they’re doing as the pieces of life that are distressing and concerning to them.”

The ASU students visited the school once a week, spending the first 90 minutes on coursework with Pereira and then working with the kindergarteners, first- and second-graders for half an hour. The children were selected by school staff.

During a recent class, the grad students discussed the therapeutic uses of sand trays, in which children create scenes with figurines in a tray filled with sand.

Students in ASU's Introduction to Counseling Children course were embedded at Kyrene de los Cerritos Elementary School, where they worked with children in play-therapy sessions. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now


“You can say, ‘Show me what it’s like to live at Grandma and Grandpa’s’ or ‘What does the tree say to the bird in a nest?’ " Pereira told them. “Ask them, ‘Are you in here?’ Are they active or just watching, if you think about kids in a domestic violence situation.”

ASU grad student Kris Mastin said it was exciting to see his young clients make progress over the semester.

“We started with child-centered play therapy, letting them take control and getting used to not actively directing the child. I tried to understand what they were showing me, and I tried to interpret,” Mastin said.

“I had one child who was very timid at the beginning, and by the end of the last session he was having a great time without having to ask for permission or check to make sure it was OK,” he said.

The grad students also created modules to teach all the children on topics such as how to be a good friend and how to deal with bullying.

Pereira will have 12 ASU students in the spring semester cohortThe counseling program has another clinical project — the long-running Counselor Training Center, a community clinic on the Tempe campus in which graduate students provide low-cost counseling services while working with faculty who are licensed psychologists., and they will work with 24 Cerritos pupils, including the ones from the fall program. She’ll also start collecting data next term, with teachers filling out questionnaires on how the children are doing with emotions and behavior as a result of being in the program. She hopes to expand the program to include an advanced class.

Some of the graduates from the program will go on to become certified play therapists and others will go into general private practice.

“One of the neat things about the training in child therapy," Pereira said, "is that it doesn’t matter your area of interest, because in this field, you will end up working with children.”


Top photo: Jennifer Pereira, a clinical assistant professor in the counseling and counseling psychology graduate programs in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, launched a pilot program that had master's students working with children at Kyrene de los Cerritos Elementary School in Phoenix. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now.

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now