How Can Adults Help Kids Compete?

A Concealed Envelope

When I was young, at certain times of the year I watched for the mail carrier like some children watch for the ice cream truck. I would run out to retrieve the mail and then plunk down the bills and Publishers Clearing House envelopes (we may have already won, after all) for my parents to read and then go about my business. My regularly recurring zest for the mail was sparked by the envelope that I pocketed—the one marked with my school’s return address. I knew I couldn’t keep my report card to myself forever. If I were to wait too long, my parents would wonder where it was. Of course I would share it with them, eventually. I didn’t even try to sneakily open it and read the results. I just held onto it for a while.

Grades Matter

All children have some weird habit, and I guess report card swiping was mine. I wasn’t hiding it because I was a bad student or because I was afraid of my parents’ reaction. (Actually, I was a good student.) But because I cared deeply about my grades and how they would help me get into a good college, the line between A-minus and B-plus agonized me. Even at an early age, I knew that small difference was extremely important for my future, and often, it seemed to be in the teacher’s hands. Maybe choosing when to see the results made me feel a little more in control of the outcome. 

Through Science from Scientists (SfS), I’ve been able to spend a lot of time with teachers and kids and think about how to help prepare students for the challenges they face. SfS strives to foster curiosity and inspire students, which we hope will result in more kids growing up to choose STEM careers. But kids need more than that to succeed. There’s no sugarcoating it. The educational system is very competitive. The whole world is very competitive.

College by the Numbers

My report card hiding days are behind me, but unfortunately today’s kids face even greater pressure. Let’s look at a statistic. How many people apply to MIT and how many are accepted? Here are the general admissions statistics for the Class of 2022 from MIT’s admissions website:

First-year applications: 21,706

First-year admits: 1,464

That means 6.7% were admitted.

That’s a huge number of students who applied but weren’t admitted. Of course there are other great schools, but if your child desires a spot at MIT (or another prestigious school), they will face similar statistics.


What Can Parents and Educators Do?

Getting into a good school is important and education credentials will follow a child their whole life—and it isn’t the last time they’re going to have to work for something. Undue stress is not good for kids (or adults), and parents may fear over-pressuring their children. However, a little pressure is good. Encouraging kids to do well (in school and beyond) is a necessity. But also, feed your children’s curiosity and willingness to learn and succeed. I will always be the biggest advocate for STEM education, but there are certain life skills behind all successes. There are many times when, even though we are doing our best, elements are out of our control. Resilience, a strong work ethic, curiosity, and the ability to set goals helps us face those moments and to keep striving.

Adults can help kids compete by…

  • Being engaged. Electronic communication now ensures that parents are able to see how their kids are doing in school, often on a weekly basis. You may not have a lot of time, but set clear expectations. Talk to teachers. Hold kids accountable.

  • Teaching the whys. Ask kids what they want to do when they are grown up and then illustrate how doing their best in school will set them up for success.

  • Addressing problems. Identify barriers to good school performance. What can you do to help?

  • Supporting, but not excusing. Urge repetition. Let kids know that doing something new perfectly the first time is not usual. Don’t be harsh when they don’t get it right the first (or second, or third, etc.) time.

  • Letting them fail. Perseverance is a big part of success. Some kids never have a chance to feel like they accomplished something because they are always protected from failure.

  • Helping them develop a range of skills. STEM is important, but practicing music, athletics, creativity, communication, and caring for others makes a well-rounded student.

  • Encouraging curiosity. Questions lead to deeper understanding and should never make a kid feel dumb. Practice wondering aloud. Talk about how you can find answers.

  • Setting goals. Create timelines and work toward goals, even small ones, to show children that accomplishments take time. 

  • Being a good example. What are your own goals? Let children see you progressing.

The Ability to Bounce Back

Today’s kids need any edge they can get, and these skills are a good start. Because of the harsh competition, even great students who have written excellent essays won’t get into their first-choice school. Any number of unplanned things can get in the way of the life we want. Adults can show kids how to deal with challenges and enjoy the process of achievement, not just the outcome. Reflect on your own life. In all your successes, there’s probably plenty of not-great stuff that happened and a few things that didn’t work out. But while they are children, students also have your constant support, so start building these skills as soon as it’s appropriate. Let the edge you give them be the robust life skills they need to keep moving forward.



erika_angleABOUT ERIKA 

Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle received her Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 2012 from Boston University School of Medicine. She holds a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Erika is the Executive Director and Founder of Science from Scientists, an award-winning, National non-profit which sends real, charismatic scientists into classrooms to improve the attitudes and aptitudes of 3rd-8th-grade students in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM). She is also the CEO and co-founder of Ixcela, a biotechnology company aimed at developing tests and interventions to improve gut microbiome efficacy and health.