Competition damages pupil friendships, psychologist warns

picture of five competitors

Children are thrust into a competitive environment from such a young age that they lose the ability to make and sustain friendships, a clinical psychologist specialising in teenage mental illness has said.

Dr Nihara Krause has 25 years of experience as an NHS clinical psychologist and lecturer at the University of Surrey, assessing and treating emotional, behavioural and psychological difficulties among children and teenagers. She is also the founder of STEM4, a charity providing mental health awareness training to schools.

And she believes that the current school system, with its emphasis on results and achievement, is affecting pupils’ social skills.

“For friendship, you need to learn how to compromise – give and take,” she said. “What seems to be more and more common among children is that sense that you’ve got to be out there, you’ve got to be the best.

“Children really lack the opportunity to develop their emotional exploration of the world, because there’s too much focus on the academic achievement side of things.”

This, she claims, is compounded by social media. “It’s all about who’s got the greatest number of followers, the greatest number of friends,” she said. “The self-promotion. That’s a big source of stress for them.”

She believes that competitive pupils tend to fall into one of five categories:

  • Cultivating competitors
    These pupils need to be top of the class: they are always looking for gold stars.
  • Cooperative competitors
    These are the super-keen pupils who want their whole team to win.
  • Combative competitors
    These pupils enter a room ready for a fight, and are ready to play dirty in order to claw their way to the top.
  • Concealing competitors
    These are the pupils who say they do not care about winning, but they really, really do.
  • Checking out
    These pupils will not even try: they say that there is no point in trying if you know you aren’t going to be the best.

Dr Krause will be speaking at a conference on the subject of children’s learning in a time of unprecedented change, to be held on Saturday 10 October at the King Alfred School in North London.

Among the other speakers are Professor Sugatra Mitra, pioneer of the Hole in the Wall experiment, in which an educational computer was embedded in the wall of an Indian slum. Also speaking will be Professor Bill Lucas, author of Educating Ruby. The book, which was published earlier this year, calls on British politicians to rethink the education system entirely.

Dr Krause will be speaking about stress among schoolchildren, and what the professionals who work with them can do about it. “Teenagers, apart from the elderly, are probably the most vulnerable part of the population to being stressed,” she told TES ahead of the conference.

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