A Trajectory of Growth

by Lisa VanDamme

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Recently, one of the themes of discussion at VanDamme Academy has been “trajectories of growth.” We continually have to remind our students, our parents, and most importantly, ourselves that what matters is an overall pattern of growth rather than an absolute standard of achievement in any particular area.

This issue comes up every year, when I encounter students who are compulsively grade-focused, and fearful of a less-than-perfect performance in any realm. I always try to encourage them that their goal should not be a particular grade in any particular subject, but an overall trajectory of growth across the whole of the school year. I tell them, illustrating with physical gestures, “What I want to see is this [a growth curve]. I don’t care if you start here [at the bottom], or here [at the top], or here [in the middle]. What matters is only that you progressed in your own personal and intellectual development.”

It comes up in our discussion with parents, who, understandably anxious that their child be equipped for success, can lose the forest for the trees. They sometimes make the mistake of applying absolute standards for success in individual areas (which standards and which areas usually being derived from cultural norms or their own particular values). We encourage them instead to allow for differences in personality, interests, talents, and even the taboo IQ, and rather than looking at how their child performs in any particular realm, to instead observe whether they are demonstrating an overall pattern of growth.

It comes up among us as teachers, because we can continually fall prey to the trap of measuring our success in the classroom by some simple metric (the most dangerously convenient of which is…again…grades), rather than appreciating in a more nuanced way the progress of our unique and diversely talented students.

But in recent days it came up for me most powerfully in my own home.

One morning, in the midst of the too-often-frazzled morning routine of getting myself ready for work and my kids ready for school, my 6-year-old son asked me to help him get dressed. I said, in a frustrated tone that it pains me to recall, “Seth. You are six. You can get dressed by yourself.”

A few minutes later I came out into the living room to find him curled up in my husband’s arms. My husband was gently questioning him about what had upset him, and Seth, who often has difficulty identifying or expressing the source of his emotions, was unable to say.

I took him in my own lap and said, “I am going to try something. I will take your hands in mine, and make some guesses about what is bothering you. You can squeeze this hand to say I am right, and this one to say I am wrong.” After a few attempts, I said, “You are hurt that I said you should be able to dress yourself.” He gently squeezed my hand to mean, “Yes.” I tried to hold back my own tears, as I am trying to hold them back recalling the moment now.

A word of context. Seth has always been averse to both picking out his clothes and to dressing himself, whereas his younger sister has, from the age of two, exercised fierce, autocratic control over her wardrobe. Seth is also, among many other things, an intense and focused little knowledge sponge, who skipped a grade at school and two grades in math. In this and countless other realms I can safely say that he is exhibiting a pattern of growth.

So, now, when he asks me to help him get dressed, I happily agree. For whatever reason, that seems to be an area in which he still wants to be dependent, to be little. As the old saying goes, I need not worry that he will still be asking me to — in this case, dress him — when he goes to college. Meanwhile, instead of insisting on any absolute standards of “you-should-do-this-because-you’re-six,” I can just step back and appreciate his overall pattern of vital and confident growth.

It has often felt tempting to beat myself up for my mistakes, in this and all the other situations they inevitably happen. But instead, I will just pride myself on my own trajectory of growth as a parent.