There’s a wonderful smorgasboard of online reading around traits found in high achievers. Many of these listicles contain overlapping characteristics, applicable across any age bracket. The challenge for parents, though, is not so much identifying these traits in their children, but knowing how to foster their growth and development.
What is a high achiever?
I’m not convinced high achiever status is solely determined by success. After all, how do we measure that? Is it just by the number of trophies in the cabinet? Many people in our community are considered high achievers simply because they’re at the top of their game or profession, or they’re forever busy. There are people who take an idea, whether it be their own or someone else’s, and make it a reality. They make stuff happen and we should quite rightly recognise their success.
And yet achievement and success are not necessarily the same thing to me, especially if we measure success solely by winning or coming out on top. There’s an old adage that suggests that second place is simply the first loser. While that may be the way elite athletes operate, real achievement is often marked by the amount of effort we put in, irrespective of where we finish in the race.
After thirty years spent in schools, my own top five characteristics of high achieving students include:
- Positive relationships
Goals are essential if we wish to achieve something. Put simply, we need something to aim for, so a practical and pragmatic trait to adopt is to set a goal and focus on achieving it. Reaching your set goal also requires developing strategies to achieve them. This is where pragmatism comes into play. Make lists, add dates, re-order them according to priority, re-visit the list and re-order it as required.
The best laid plans often go astray due to a lack of commitment — defining a cause and then not sticking to it. Whether you see this as commitment or discipline, it’s about knowing you have a job to do and dedicating time to getting it done. For older students, the spectre of the final years of school tend to unfairly dominate, so it’s important to pace yourself over time. High achievers view commitment as sustained dedication, accepting all of the burdens and expectations that come their way. A clear demonstration is building the task into your normal routine and not putting it off just because something easier or shinier comes up.
Persistence is about accepting all of the highs and lows that go with a set path and continuing on despite the occasional setback. It’s so important to learn how to deal with failure, let downs and a lack of motivation in order to keep the path clear and maintain focus on the end goal. Being persistent draws in that sense of focus and commitment I referred to earlier. Persistence is also about realistic thought. Knowing when to continue and when to re-evaluate a set goal is important so that we don’t continue along a fruitless path. It’s about being clear in our mind that we want to achieve our goal and have a number of paths to get there.
Ensuring our children are connected and have positive, supportive relationships with their parents, peers and teachers lends itself to high achievement through the open communication and connection it brings. One of the greatest challenges we face with young people is dealing with isolation and a loss of connectedness that can occur when relationships turn sour.
Just as schools can be a microcosm of society, they’re also an extension of our family. In this way, engagement with school life and culture goes a long way toward ensuring young people maintain focus. Your child’s school hopefully has a life-giving culture of connectedness and participation. Being involved in whatever activities the school coordinates, be it academic, sporting or cultural, is the key to engagement. Schools are a constant in the life of young people; a pillar of support and a key to achievement.
How to harness these qualities
For parents, the challenge is knowing how to foster these qualities in their children. How do we motivate and instil a work ethic that can be sustained over 13 years of education without burning them out? The starting point is understanding your child’s strengths and challenges, and setting reachable short term goals to create a sense of achievement.
Routine and structure are often the mainstay of sustained achievement, so setting study plans which are not out of reach will bring reward. We all want our children to taste success, so it’s important to define what success is for them in their own context.
Communication and collaboration are absolutely essential. Setting goals which can be achieved is a conversation to be had, rather than an expectation to be imposed. Build positive habits with a shared responsibility around what can be achieved in a week, in a term, then over a year. This process constantly seeks to gather momentum and builds on small wins.
Importantly, talk to your child about failure and disappointment. Sometimes things will go awry. An assignment will come back with a disappointing result despite their best efforts, or there may be setbacks along the way which hinder success. It’s important to teach your children about re-focussing. There will be times they feel unmotivated, disinterested or challenged. That’s where we as parents need to gently coach and support. Similarly, it’s unrealistic to suggest they need to be passionate about everything they do. Passion helps, but it’s unrealistic. I don’t love all the tasks or jobs I have to do, but I’m committed to doing my best with them. There will always be tasks that we’re unenthusiastic about or procrastinate with, but doing them anyway is often what separates high achievers. They’ve learned how to deal with that. They’ve learned the art of commitment, discipline and focus.
Learning how to talk with your children about how to apply the traits and characteristics associated with high achievers is more important than identifying the actual traits. Achievement for me always starts with a conversation.