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Average is Smart Enough

"Perfect is the enemy of good." Attributed to Voltaire

Ernie Collabolletta, PsyD

One of the average people in the world who is a member of the Scarsdale Counsel on Youth and Psychologist at Scarsdale High School

I am writing this article on behalf of all the students, educators and parents who are suffering because of the misconception that average means inadequate. I hope that I will not be misunderstood as being critical of parents whose intentions I know are to do the best for their children. Hopefully the reader will hear my words as an invitation to truthfully assess our attitudes and behaviors. My perspective is the result of my experiences as an educator for 40 years and a psychologist for 25 years.  The belief  that average is inadequate is as erroneous as the idea that acceptance and attendance at Ivy League colleges equals success.  I would like to offer a different perspective and some recommendations on how to refocus some of our attention on how to help the so-called “average" student.

The idea that average is not good enough is a frightening concept, considering that 68% of us fall into that range in terms of IQ scores. Students suffer from the stigma of “average” because they are often led to believe that if they are not “good enough” or “smart enough” they will not be able to succeed in this highly competitive world, a world in which success can be attained only if they are superstars. Teachers suffer because they feel so pressured to give students grades that are inflated so as not to feel the wrath of parents who refuse to accept that a “B” is a very good grade. I have participated on many educational committees that have contributed to educational changes. I have seen major changes in family structures, changes in pedagogy, changes in expectations of students, and changes in education laws. Based on all of my years of experience as a student, as an educator and as a psychologist,  I believe that what has been the most detrimental change to students and teachers is the idea that average is not good enough. 

Having performed hundreds of psycho-educational evaluations over the years, it is still a daunting experience for me to give test results to parents whose child is of average intellectual functioning.  When I inform parents that their child’s IQ is in the average range of intellectual functioning they receive the news as if I were a medical doctor telling them their child has terminal cancer!  Average has become  a curse that strikes grief in the hearts of those who hear it.  However, what average really means is that we are statistically normal. Is that a bad thing?  Average means we have strengths and weaknesses. Is this something so unusual?  Average means that we might have to expend more energy or different approaches to succeed at some tasks than others. Is that so terrible? Average means we are human.

It is also difficult for me to tell some parents to accept that their child may have both weaknesses as well as strengths and therefore their child may not be able to achieve in all areas of academics equally. However, this too is okay. Having weaknesses does not mean that a child will fail. Rather it requires that we help children to understand  their strengths and weaknesses and teach them in ways that they learn best. If they do fail, it's not the end of the world.  We cannot be successful if we never risk failing. Failures can be learning experiences which can be used to teach children about their strengths and weaknesses. Failures can also be used for teaching children to have healthy self-esteem and to feel good about themselves for their effort and motivation. 

I have noticed several negative effects that are the result of the belief that being average is such a terrible thing. First, the message we send to children when we react negatively to “average” is that they are not good enough. Certainly children can internalize this message to think they are “less than.” We need to embrace the whole child and reinforce the idea that average is normal and acceptable.  I am not suggesting that we accept mediocrity but rather that we foster their strengths and encourage children to do their best instead of pressuring them to excel at everything.  A good friend of mine, Dr. Robert Brooks, in his many books, writes about all children having “islands of competence.” Children of average intelligence have their islands of competence and passions. Parents and educators need to help children to identify their islands of competence and to use their strengths to lead satisfying and accomplished lives. 

Second, because of the perception that average is not acceptable, parents will often anxiously seek ways to enhance the average student’s performance. How do they do this?  Some might attempt to enhance the child’s performance with extensive tutoring.  I don’t mean tutoring that is justified for the student who is failing or getting a D.  I mean tutoring for the B or B+ student whose parents feel their child needs to get A's. I suggest that parents read Dr. Sonya Luthar’s work on stress on middle class children to better understand the cost this pressure can have on children. Other parents might seek to enhance an average child’s performance by seeking psychiatric diagnoses which would enable a child to get extra time on tests or medication. I have seen cases where parents want medication for their normal child to enable the child to focus better. Dr. Mark Olfson of Columbia University found that the use of psychotropic medication for teenagers increased 250 percent between 1994 and 2001. Why not?  After all, “better living through chemistry” seems to be an adage we often follow.  I call this the “ARod” syndrome. Alex Rodriguez, a very talented baseball player, was not satisfied with his performance in baseball.  He needed to excel more (as if he weren’t already good) by taking performance enhancing drugs which would make him bigger and better. How it translates into the school setting is as follows:  Well-meaning parents whose child is of average ability, who is doing well in school (by well I mean getting B’s and A’s, maybe a C) bring the child to a psychologist because they know there must be something wrong with the child because he is not getting all A’s.  After extensive testing it’s discovered (at the age of 17 and just before the SAT's) that their child has ADD, a reading disability, executive dysfunction, or slow processing speed and therefore should have more time on tests.  Educators say, “But the child is doing well and does not qualify for extra time.”  The parents respond, “But my child can do better.” When is doing well good enough?

The last point I would like to make is that in the educational system, teachers also suffer.  So many caring teachers feel pressured to give students grades that are inflated. More than one teacher has commented to me that they would rather give a student a B grade rather than a C+ to avoid conflict with the student or the parent.  Is it the grade that should be the priority?  No! The priority should be on learning and developing an interest in learning?  For many years, Dr. Michael McGill, superintendent of Scarsdale, eruditely has tried to speak to the community about instilling in children “the love of learning.” In defining education he writes that its purpose is “To find what is within, to nourish it, and bring it to flower.” Dr. McGill shares much of the same thinking as Dr. Brooks. Teachers are often put in compromising positions because of too much emphasis on grades, and not enough emphasis on learning.

We need to encourage our children to do their best without sending them the message that average is not good enough. We need to support them in their uniqueness and their passions. We need to help them to feel good about themselves no matter how they perform. We can teach our children to accept themselves when they perform imperfectly and to feel good about themselves for the effort they have extended. We can teach them to value learning for the sake of learning. We can learn from our mistakes and even from our failures. We can teach them that people with normal intelligence are smart enough to get into college and graduate. We can help them to focus on their strengths and to pursue their passions. We can teach them that having a normal IQ is smart enough to succeed in life.  More importantly, we need to put more effort in creating students who are moral citizens in this global world.  We need to go beyond grades and competition and develop students who are caring and emotionally healthy people.

Brooks, R. .& Goldstein, S. (2002). Nurturing Resilience in Our Children.  McGraw-Hill: NY.

Luthar, S. S. & Barkin, S.H. (2012). Are affluent youth truly “at risk”? Vulnerability and resilience across three diverse samples. Development and Psychopathology, 24, 429-449.

Olfson, M., (2014). National Trends in long-term use of antidepressant medications: Results     from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry,75 (2), 169-177.

Disclaimer: Although Dr. Collabolletta is a board member of the Westchester County Psychological Association (WCPA), the views in this article are his and not the views of WCPA.

Statements contained  in the authored articles on the Westchester County Psychological Association (WCPA) website are the personal views of the authors and do not constitute WCPA policy unless so indicated. The information in the articles on the WCPA website is for educational purposes only. The information contained in the articles is not intended for diagnosis, psychological advice or medical advice.  It is not intended to be treatment and is not a replacement for psychotherapy. If you are in need of psychological treatment, you can utilize our clinician database which can be accessed by clicking on the link, "Find a Psychologist." WCPA and its directors and employees are not liable for any damages resulting from the utilization of information contained in articles posted on the WCPA website.

Ernie Collabolletta received his doctorate in School Psychology from NYU and is a certified school psychologist as well as a licensed psychologist in New York. He is the school psychologist at Scarsdale HS and maintains a small private practice in White Plains. He has been on the boards of WCPA and NYASP and is the current president of WCPE.



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