Peer Excellence & Negative Comparisons in the Classroom

GEORGETOWN - Peer Evaluation(1)Starting early in life, we recognize certain individuals with accolades for stellar achievements. From posting the names of students who make the honor roll on a plaque in the hallway to advertising select adults as “Employee of the Month,” various motivational strategies are employed to encourage positive outcomes. While it is of course important to reinforce children’s efforts to work toward their full potential and adults’ dedication to their jobs, questions arise regarding the impact of knowledge of peer excellence on others’ motivation and performance. This issue may be particularly relevant for children with learning challenges, as it can be difficult and disheartening to watch their peers succeed. The elementary and middle school years often serve as a critical period in the development of children’s attitude toward academics. Students with low academic self-confidence and negative feelings toward school may be less likely to put forth their best effort in the classroom.

In a recent article in Psychological Science, Dr. Todd Rogers and Dr. Avi Feller published findings about the phenomenon of “discouragement by peer excellence.” Specifically, Rogers and Feller found that when students were exposed to peers’ excellent performance, there was a decrease in performance outcomes. Interestingly, this decrease in performance appeared to be at least in part due to perceived feelings of unattainability. As such, when students felt they were unable to achieve a similar level of excellence as their peers, they were most negatively impacted.

For children with learning challenges, school can be a daily source of frustration and distress. Based on the aforementioned findings, it is important for parents and teachers to be mindful of students’ perceptions of their abilities and comparisons toward their peers. If students feel unable to perform at a level comparable to their peers, these thoughts and feelings may negatively impact their motivation and ability to making progress academically. Therapy can serve to help children develop feelings of self-confidence and modify maladaptive attitudes toward school.