Challenging Traditional Notions of Success

Redefining Success

What does a successful year look like for your son or daughter? If you quickly answered – taking the toughest classes, earning the highest grades, getting the very best standardized test scores – Dr. Denise Pope, senior lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and co-founder of Challenge Success, is hoping to change your thinking.  

Challenge Success encourages families and schools to create a more balanced, academically fulfilling life for students inside and outside the classroom. The initiative focuses on the relationship between academic stress and student mental and physical health. It also analyzes how hyper focus on academic performance affects learning. In addition to her work on this pioneering initiative, Pope is the author of Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students and co-author of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids.

In this Q&A, Allison Gilbert, Senior Writer for the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, has a wide-ranging conversation with Pope, who also happens to be a mother of three teenagers and recipient (three times over!) of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education Outstanding Teacher and Mentor Award.

Denise Pope, co-founder of Challenge Success
Denise Pope, PhD

Allison Gilbert: When it comes to success in school, you say parents who focus too much attention on academics are missing critical opportunities for supporting their child’s growth and development. What do you mean by this?

Denise Pope: We all want our kids to do well in school and master skills and concepts, but if we focus too much on performance, we’re forgetting the bigger developmental picture — the desire to raise independent, engaged, critical thinkers. Students may be moved to cheat just to stay afloat. They may take fewer risks. Similarly, if parents place all their attention on grades, they might be tempted to give their sons and daughters a pass on chores so they can spend every available moment studying. But chores are very important. They promote healthy development because it enables adolescents to see they’re part of a unit.

AG: This point of view challenges how many parents view success. The focus you suggest is less on test, quizzes, and grades and more on the overall learning journey. How do you help parents shift their thinking?

DP: We need to help parents realize they’re sending children mixed messages. Teens may believe their parents are only concerned with grades and test scores because these are the topics their parents ask them about. Some other questions to consider are: Did you make a new friend today? Were you able to help the friend who had that problem?

We all want our kids to do well in school and master skills and concepts, but if we focus too much on performance, we’re forgetting the bigger developmental picture -- the desire to raise independent, engaged, critical thinkers.

AG: How can we best nurture our teen’s strengths outside the classroom?

DP: Remember the acronym “PDF.”  For our purposes, the letters stand for “Playtime,” “Downtime,” and “Family Time.”  

  • Playtime: Every tween and teen needs free and unstructured playtime. This is when they learn how to be a friend and handle problems on their own.
  • Downtime: This is so important! Downtime is when adolescents process the frenzy of their lives and figure out who they want to be. As parents, we need to make sure their academic course load takes into account two equally important factors: the extent of their extra curricular involvement and their need to get enough sleep. (For more on the importance of sleep, read this.)  
  • Family time: This can be nearly any activity – just as long as it’s done together, ideally tech-free. This doesn’t have to occur every day for hours at a time. We encourage families to spend 25 minutes together, five times a week. These are short, concentrated check-ins when children feel connected and experience their parents’ unconditional love.

AG: For older teens, specifically those who are thinking about applying to college, you believe the amount students are involved in campus life is a far more important consideration than a school’s ranking or selectivity. How so?

DP: We have learned over time that for the majority of students success after college (as defined by financial outcomes) is not related to selectivity of schools. What matters most is whether students are interested in their classes and if they’re involved in activities outside the classroom. These two factors are highly related to future thriving.  

AG: In your work at Challenge Success and in your writing as an author, you explore the stress so many teens are under these days. What are your top three tips for helping adolescents manage feelings of strain, anxiety, and pressure?

DP: Talk. Sleep. Don’t overload. In terms of talking, adolescents should be encouraged to reach out to a caring adult, an adult who has their back. As for sleep, it’s critical to get enough. If individuals don’t get enough sleep, the lack of it may lead to depression and anxiety. And, in regard to the last point, parents must help their teens choose the right academic schedule that fits within the larger context of that student’s level of activity outside of school. If your son or daughter is exceptionally busy in the afternoon or at night, it may be wise not to pack their schedules with too many extremely rigorous classes. Balance is key.

About Allison Gilbert

Allison Gilbert is Senior Writer for the CPTC. Her pieces cover an array of topics including self-care, bullying, grief, and resilience. Allison is author of numerous books and speaks across the country to corporations, non-profits, and community groups. You can learn more by visiting

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