Teacher Comparisons Can Be Helpful

Dear Dr. Sylvia:

Q. Usually siblings go to the same schools and more often than not, in middle school and high school classes, they have the same teachers. How much does it affect the child if he/she feels like they're being constantly compared to siblings? How as a teacher do I try to avoid that?

A. Although we all know some children who hate to be recognized as "Jonathon's or Kristin's sister or brother", recognition as a member of a family is not necessarily a negative for children. It often happens by kindergarten and continues through high school. If their siblings have been good students and nice young people, the teachers' recollections suggest that they will have positive expectations of them as well. If the younger children are also reasonably good students, it will feel like a good start for them, because they'll be sufficiently confident that they can fulfill those positive expectations. If their older sib was a star student, that may feel a little more worrisome to them. They may not feel as certain they can live up to those high expectations. If their older sib had behavior or learning problems, these children can feel embarrassed about them and can experience very conflicting emotions.

As a teacher, you can help the younger child by not mentioning an older child's brilliance or problems, but only saying you recall that he or she was a nice person, a good citizen or a pleasure to have in class. That won't seem so hard a model to live up to nor will they feel embarrassed. If you have a few children in your class whose siblings you recall, you might even make an overall class comment on how children from the same families can sometimes have much in common and other times can have very different interests and personalities than their siblings. You can add that you always look forward to getting to know each new student in the class. Constant comparison to siblings is almost always too much, but occasional comparison can be more reasonable. As a teacher, you will of course think about the comparison much as parents do, but you'll surely want to avoid discussing these comparisons with the children or in class.

There's no doubt that siblings have great impact on each other and it can indeed be difficult for a younger child to follow in the footsteps of a child who has accomplished a great deal. It's even more difficult for older children who're followed by younger children who surpass them in achievement. It's best that parents tell their children they have a "whole smart family" and with hard work, they're sure they'll all accomplish well as they discover their special areas of interest. Teachers can also help children who struggle with sibling rivalry by making a similar assumption. Encouraging children's interests and talents is always crucial to helping them feel smart and good about themselves. In some families, siblings share similar interests, but in many families they seem to engage in very different activities, almost as a means for avoiding comparison.