Competition in the Classroom: How to Balance Fun and Fairness

Admittedly, competition in principle is a good thing.

Going head-to-head with someone else helps to spur action, foster more creativity and ultimately create the best final product. Just look at the quality of the things we use every day. All of them were created in a competitive atmosphere where a company tried to put the best product on the market, and we get to enjoy the benefits.

Classroom competition can drive kids to improve their skills, but you have to avoid overdoing it.With little to no competition, I doubt that we’d have such high-quality items in our lives. Yet too much competition — the cutthroat, pressure-driven kind that tempts people to cheat — isn’t good for anyone. It just leads to toxic environments and poor decisions.

These factors have to be on our minds when we try to find the right competitive balance for our students and our classrooms. Here’s how to strive for that balance:

Take age and interest into account

When creating situations where students will be measured against one another, we have to account for their age, developmental expectations and interest levels.

If you are teaching a high-level honors course, most students will be interested in the subject and prepared for going head-to-head with their classmates. This is far different from taking a low-interest, lightly engaged class and creating competition in the (empty) hope that some spark will come alive in them.

Strive for fairness

Competitions are most fun, enriching and enjoyable when they match people of equal strength and ability. If you want to introduce competition into your class, make sure that everyone involved is operating at the same level.

Nothing is worse than seeing someone get clobbered by another person. Make it a fair fight and people won’t be so eager to complain about the outcome. You don’t want matchups where a stronger student easily defeats a less-capable classmate.

Make fun a priority

The stakes don’t always have to be high to engage students. The best competition is just plain old-fashioned fun. Bragging rights, satisfaction in trying your best and having a good laugh (and not making everything a high-stakes referendum on their worth as students) are wonderful things to foster in your class.

Teaching students not to take themselves so seriously gives them a great coping skill for today’s somewhat intense world. Non-intense competitions also help children deal with other challenges in their lives, and enable them to take it easy on themselves when the going gets tough.

Build teamwork skills

Competition doesn’t always have to be one-on-one: It can also help foster student collaboration and teamwork. This is a good life skill because the evolving world of work is creating a rising expectation that people learn to work together effectively.

Another benefit of team-based competition is that the shared pursuit of a goal helps to bond people together. That further develops a child’s ability to foster and continue successful relationships.

Promote being a good loser — and winner

Nothing is more socially alienating than the child who throws a tantrum after losing a competition. Friendly and fun competition helps a child learn how to lose with grace and avoid thinking that every defeat is a measure of their self-worth.

The opposite applies to being a good winner. Bragging, gloating and otherwise being unkind after a victory is a surefire way to lose friends and ruin social interactions. Be on the lookout for both and correct as necessary.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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