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Jul 08, 2021

If we were to eavesdrop on the inner thoughts of some students, we might hear something like this:

"There is no way I belong in this honors-level class with all these geniuses!"

"I got into jazz band on a lucky break. Once they hear me play, they'll know I don’t deserve to be here."

"Why did I take AP Art? This class is for real artists, not me."

Whether it’s in a specific subject area or with one of their habits, every student has their areas of challenge - even high-performing ones. Too often, we find that students believe that their own unique challenges are an indication that there’s something wrong with them - that they’rejeswin-thomas-wRdYnqXtyYk-unsplash inadequate, unintelligent, or inferior when compared to their seemingly perfect classmates. This can even happen when the evidence around them is to the contrary - they may be in advanced classes, attending a rigorous school, or earning solid grades. Yet, those negative self-perceptions persist - why is that?

When students doubt their ability to do something successfully and fear that others will discover that they’re less capable than they appear, they’re experiencing a common phenomenon called Imposter Syndrome. According to one study conducted in 2011, 70% of the general public reported feeling Imposter Syndrome at one point in their lives, and that percentage only increased in the world of academia. 

Individuals with Imposter Syndrome are unable to internalize their success and self-worth, often attributing any achievements to outside factors. This is notably different from the moments of insecurity we all experience from time to time. Imposter Syndrome creates a type of self-doubt that prevents us from ever feeling truly proud, despite our hard work. 

In specific terms, someone who has Imposter Syndrome may:

  • View all successes as flukes or lucky breaks
  • Procrastinate due to fears rooted in perfectionism
  • Over prepare to compensate for their self-doubt
  • Be reluctant to seek help in fear of "exposing" themselves
  • Regularly experience heightened levels of anxiety/stress

Factors that contribute to Imposter Syndrome in students are often a combination of the following: 

  • Tendency to place a lot of importance on achievements
  • Expectation that they should be perfect/do error-free work
  • Presence in highly competitive environments 

As high schools have become more geared towards standardized tests and college admissions, and colleges continue to compete for top spots in university ranking lists, it’s no wonder why the academic world is ripe for Imposter Syndrome. Combine this with the rise of social media where students are constantly comparing themselves to their peers on Instagram or TikTok, and it’s clear why this problem is more prevalent now than ever. 

So what can you as a parent do to help your student beat Imposter Syndrome and feel worthy & capable? 

#1. Encourage a Shift in Language 

In many cases, Imposter Syndrome is the consequence of negative thinking patterns that have become ingrained as habits. With guidance, students can identify ways to frame what they’re feeling in a more hopeful way than those statements at the beginning of this article. 

Laura Thoresen, an Executive Function coach at Beyond BookSmart and a lifelong educator, likes to emphasize with her students the power of shifting to a more positive form of self-talk, simply by adding the word “yet” to their negative statements. 

For instance: “I don’t know as much as the other students do.” shifts to “I don’t know as much as the other students do, yet.”

According to Thoresen, “By training ourselves to add the word 'yet' to correct these types of negative self-talk, we are both retraining our unhealthy thinking habits while also providing immediate reassurance that we can work our problems out - it may just take a little time. This shift from a negative mindset to a positive one can change the entire way we view ourselves and the world. As a coach, this approach has been a true game-changer for the clients I work with.” 

That powerful little word, “yet”, allows space for a student to start making a plan to address where they may need some extra help. And it provides a sense of hope that with the right approach, progress can occur, which leads us to our next tip...

#2: Embrace Imperfection as Part of a Growth Mindset 

In its simplest description, a growth mindset is the perception that our most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work - natural talents are just the starting point! Students with Imposter Syndrome often see the accomplishments of their classmates and make negative assumptions about themselves such as “I’m not as smart” or “they’re just more gifted than I am,”  but these perceptions are almost always incomplete. In reality, the path towards success of any kind is filled with self-doubt and imperfection. Encouraging your student to embrace those mistakes as an essential part of the journey will help them move toward accepting imperfection along the way. 

It’s also worth taking the time to reflect on recent disappointments and identify what went wrong and why. From there, your student can work out a plan for how they’ll either strengthen the missing skill or adjust their approach next time to avoid a similar outcome. By taking this same approach that led to one achievement and applying it to the current problem, you’re illustrating that their next goal is also achievable, even if it requires baby steps to actually reach it. This leads to our final tip...

#3: Remember to Celebrate Small Wins 

It’s easy to notice when we fall short of a goal - but if you look hard enough, you’re likely to find small successes, too. Maybe your student didn’t do as well as they wanted to on that exam in Algebra. But where did they go right? Maybe they stayed and worked with the teacher for an extra help session. Maybe they did a bunch of practice problems for active studying. Maybe they didn’t miss any homework assignments leading up to the test. Sometimes, even if they just care that they didn’t do well can be seen as a sign of engagement that may have been missing before - and that can form the basis of an action plan to help them do better on the next assessment.

Each one of those actions is worth celebrating in its own right as they’re all concerted efforts towards growing from past mistakes and changing one’s approach. As we know, this kind of change is really hard and sometimes all we need is a little positive reinforcement to keep going. Best of all? By taking the time to celebrate small accomplishments, you’re actively countering the negative self-talk that is so unrelenting for those struggling with Imposter Syndrome. Thoresen and her educational support team dedicated time each week to celebrate small wins that their students made which resulted in marked improvement in their students’ outlook and progress. 

The Takeaway 

Everyone encounters self-doubt at one time or another - but when Imposter Syndrome lingers, it can rob students of their ability to feel pride and accomplishment. Every student has their own unique way of dealing with self-doubt. Some may express it openly but others may keep quiet, internalizing this type of negativity. If you’re unsure of your student’s mindset, find time to ask about their recent accomplishments. If you notice that they’re being dismissive of their abilities, it may be the tip of a deeper Imposter Syndrome iceberg. Outside support like a coach or therapist can be truly transformative resources for students with deeply ingrained Imposter Syndrome.  By combining the tips above with proper outside support, you may find that your student feels more confident and capable - and what more could parents want for their children?

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

 

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About the Author

Laura Thoresen and Sean Potts

Laura Thoresen is an Executive Function Coach and Coaching Coordinator with Beyond BookSmart. Laura has a full educational career as a certified School Psychologist, Principal, and Director of Special Services. She has nearly 20 years experience working with students in both special education and general education peers. Laura graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a Bachelors and Masters and received her NJ State certificate as a School Psychologist. As a lifetime learner, Laura attended and graduated from Caldwell College where she received a Masters in Educational Supervision and Administration. She later received her NJ State certificate as a Principal. Sean Potts is the Marketing Specialist at Beyond BookSmart and a graduate of Ithaca College’s Integrated Marketing Communications program. As a former coaching client and intern at BBS, Sean has spent the better part of the last ten years witnessing firsthand the positive impact Beyond BookSmart's mission has on transforming students’ lives.

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