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What is toxic achievement culture?

Can achievement really be toxic? Jennifer Breheny Wallace says that achievement turns toxic when it becomes the sole determinant of one’s value and identity. In many middle and high schools (and even elementary schools), the pressure of achievement culture has reached alarming levels, leaving a trail of behavioral and mental health challenges in its wake. Research shows that students in so-called high-achieving schools are particularly vulnerable. One example of this was the infamous Varsity Blues Scandal of 2019, where the relentless pursuit of success led to deceit and corruption.

Who’s to blame for toxic achievement culture?

It’s a complex web of pressures emanating from parents, teachers, and institutions alike.

Parents just want what they think is best for their kids- to secure their children’s future. So they inadvertently make things worse by overemphasizing academic success, college admissions, and extracurricular achievements.

Teachers, under pressure to meet educational standards often contribute to the culture of competition and comparison. And schools, both public and private, get caught up in performance metrics that prioritize results over student well-being.

But what can we do to combat this pervasive culture?

Here are some practical tips for both parents and non-parents alike:

Affirm Their Worth

Remind students that their value extends beyond their achievements. A healthy self-esteem is grounded in the belief that they are inherently worthy, regardless of their grades or accolades.

Set Boundaries

Establish clear boundaries around discussions of achievement. For example, limit conversations about college to designated times and durations, ensuring that these discussions don’t overshadow other aspects of life.

Mind Your Words

Be mindful of the way you offer criticism and praise. Avoid overly critical remarks that can erode self-confidence, and refrain from excessively praising achievements, which can reinforce the idea that worth is contingent upon success.

Self-Care is Key

Prioritize your own well-being as a parent or mentor. Build a support system, engage in activities that bring you joy, and prioritize your mental health. Remember, you can’t pour from an empty cup.

Create a Safe Haven

Make home a sanctuary where students feel loved and accepted unconditionally. Let them know that they don’t have to constantly prove themselves to earn your affection.

Validate and Engage

If you’re not a parent, find ways to make teens feel valued and significant. Seek their input, involve them in decision-making processes, and recognize their unique talents and contributions.

By collectively challenging the toxic norms of achievement culture, we can create environments where students thrive not just academically, but emotionally and socially as well. Let’s prioritize the well-being of our youth and foster a culture where success is measured not just by what we accomplish, but by who we are as individuals.

Also in this episode:

  • The rising use of caffeine pouches.
  • Caleb’s take on the Apple Vision Pro.
  • One strategy on winning college scholarships adds up.

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About Us

Karlie Duke

Karlie Duke

Director of Communications

Tobin Hodges

Tobin Hodges

Program Director

Caleb Hatchett

Caleb Hatchett

Podcast Host

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