When Students Get Caught in the Trap of Performance—And How to Help Them Get Out

Being the best shouldn't always be the end goal.

“You do well in school. Period.” I cannot tell you how many times my mom said that to me as I was growing up. Doing “well” in school meant that I had to get good grades. Not good by my standards but good by her standards. That meant all A’s. When I say all I really mean all of the grades must be A’s. No B’s—and absolutely nothing lower.

While I know that my mom and many parents really mean well when they push us to achieve at high levels, many parents don’t realize that this intense focus on grades or achievements actually backs young people into a trap. I call this the trap of performance. 

When I look at the extremely powerful image pictured above, I think of all of the kids I have taught that have fallen into the trap of performance. They are so concerned with making the grade and competing for the highest GPA that they forget to be a kid. This trap of performance leaves kids paralyzed and stuck.

As parents and educators, we need to help kids move in the other direction. We can still encourage our kids to do good work, but let’s deemphasize the exclusive focus on a certain grade or number. Instead, let’s look for ways to avoid the trap of performance entirely.

Encourage kids to stop seeking perfection and start seeking growth.

I’ve seen students crying in the hallway over a 93. Yep, an A. I have seen students storm into my classroom equipped with airtight arguments about why I should bump up their 98 to a 100. I was once in a conversation with some fellow teachers about this. Many in the group expressed how impressed they were with certain students for taking “such fantastic initiative” and praised the way these students “really cared so much” about their grades. I drew blank stares when I piped up and said, “Actually I think the way students care so much about their grades is really unhealthy.” 

Want to know how to clear a teachers’ lounge? Say that. 

There are a lot of reasons why students chase perfect grades, but most students do so for one of three reasons: 1) parental pressure, 2) school programming or organization requirements, or 3) getting into competitive colleges and universities.

Grade chasing is really just perfectionism in disguise, which can be really unhealthy for anyone. We’ve all heard it said that no one is perfect. No one. So when students chase after perfect grades, it can often be really bad for their mental health. Perfectionism leads straight to the trap of performance. Students should know that failure is not the end of the road but part of the process of growth. As parents and educators, we can do our part to remind students of this, time and time again. Yes, it might be different than what some students think or even hear from adults in their lives. But they need to hear this side, too. 

Students need to learn the difference between healthy and unhealthy competition.

The day before I graduated high school, the talk around the senior class was that our valedictorian cheated her way to the top. There were five students who had constantly competed with each other academically. For four years I watched them work themselves into the ground, only for four of them to lose out to an alleged cheater. 

All four of the other students and their parents separately made a case to the principal and me, the senior class president. They adamantly believed that all of the GPAs should be adjusted and recalculated. When I asked one of my fellow students if this was all really worth it, he looked at me perplexed and said, “Harvard is worth this.” So here was a guy with a near-perfect GPA, worried he wouldn’t get into Harvard unless he was valedictorian. That is the day I really learned the difference between healthy competition and unhealthy competition. 

Teachers, psychologists, and experts can all tell you about the benefits of healthy competition. It can be a good thing, but we need to make sure our students aren’t taking it too far. This study found that students in high-achieving schools are now considered at-risk for chronic stress because of their “excessive pressure to excel.” They are listed right alongside kids who are living in poverty or kids who have a parent who is incarcerated.

Now whether my high school valedictorian actually cheated or not is pretty irrelevant to this discussion, in my opinion. But let’s say she did. I’m sure if you asked her why she would tell you it was the pressure of the intense competition that led her to make that choice. This is going too far, and we need to speak and be an advocate for our kids. 

We have to get students to see that they are more than just what they accomplish. 

“Coach if I don’t get this scholarship, who will I be?” That was one of the most heartbreaking things I heard as a basketball coach. That year, I’d coached a very talented player who lived in the shadow of his family’s athletic accomplishments. There were Olympians, D1 Athletes, NBA, and NFL players in his family. He was supposed to be next in line. His parents only cared about his grades being high enough to play and get into whatever D1 program would offer him a full ride to play basketball. 

When he found out he might not be getting a scholarship offer to the University of North Carolina, he broke down. It was clear that the pressure of his family’s accomplishments and his accomplishments had backed him into the trap of performance. He was convinced that his value as a person came from his on-court performance or his ability to get a scholarship. This wasn’t true at all, yet I’ve seen it happen time and time again with my students.

The trap of performance will convince you that only your accomplishments matter, and that simply is not true. The only way I knew how to help this student was to share a message I believe all students, young people, and adults need: You are not just what you accomplish. You are much more than that.

Here’s how to get out of the trap. 

As teachers and parents, it is not easy to watch a student become or remain stuck in the trap of performance. It often affects other parts of their lives. In every case mentioned in this piece, the students in the trap often missed school dances, new movies, and hanging with friends. They missed out on things that many people would describe as some of the best times of their lives.

Researchers have studied this enough that we now know it can have serious long-term effects on youth. It can even have mental health implications if it gets severe enough. It shows up in the recent documentary Chasing Childhood, where Let Grow is featured. (Learn more about the film here.)

So how can we help students get out of the trap? I put together a few suggestions on ways I think we can help. 

Try these four things.

  1. Affirm the student for who they are outside of their performance. Do your best to let students know that they are valuable because of who they are and not what they do. 
  2. Focus on growth over outcomes. I’ve been trying this with my children when they leave basketball or gymnastics practice by focusing my questions on growth, not results. Instead of asking, “How many points did you score?” I try to ask things like, “What did you get better at this time?” or “What can you do today that you couldn’t do last time?” Then we celebrate that growth. 
  3. Help them see the big picture. A lot of people have trouble seeing the big picture and often need help from someone looking at things from the outside. Help your child or student see what they may not yet see. 
  4. Model healthy behavior in this area. If you allow your work performance to trap you, it is likely that your child picked up on that. Do your best to avoid the trap of performance so that you can model healthy behaviors. 

I want to be clear. There is nothing wrong with extremely high levels of performance, athleticism, or achievement. All of those things are amazing. Winning feels good. Being on top feels good. Being the best is spectacular. Young people should try to achieve at the highest level possible for them. It is just not worth letting that performance and ambition trap us.