Sick of stress­ing out

All the pres­sure we’re putting on stu­dents is mak­ing them ill, says Vicki Abe­les

The Dallas Morning News - - POINTS - Vicki Abe­les is the au­thor of “Be­yond Mea­sure: Res­cu­ing an Over­sched­uled, Overtested, Un­der­es­ti­mated Gen­er­a­tion,” and di­rec­tor and pro­ducer of the doc­u­men­taries “Race to Nowhere” and “Be­yond Mea­sure.” Twit­ter: @Vick­iA­be­les

Some schools are find­ing im­proved per­for­mance when stress re­duc­tion strate­gies are put in place, says Vicki Abe­les.

Stu­art Slavin, a pe­di­a­tri­cian and pro­fes­sor at the St. Louis Univer­sity

School of Medicine, knows some­thing about the im­pact of stress.

Af­ter un­cov­er­ing alarm­ing rates of anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion among his

med­i­cal stu­dents, Slavin and his col­leagues re­made the pro­gram, im­ple­ment­ing

pass/fail grad­ing in in­tro­duc­tory classes, in­sti­tut­ing a half-day off ev­ery other

week, and cre­at­ing small learn­ing groups to strengthen con­nec­tions among

stu­dents. Over the course of six years, the stu­dents’ rates of de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety dropped con­sid­er­ably.

But even Slavin seemed un­pre­pared for the re­sults of test­ing he did in co­op­er­a­tion with Irvington High School in Fre­mont, Calif., a once-work­ing-class city

that is in­creas­ingly in Sil­i­con Val­ley’s or­bit. He had anony­mously sur­veyed twothirds of Irvington’s 2,100 stu­dents last spring, us­ing two stan­dard mea­sures,

the Cen­ter for Epi­demi­o­logic Stud­ies De­pres­sion Scale and the State-Trait Anx­i­ety In­ven­tory. The re­sults were stun­ning: 54 per­cent of stu­dents showed mod­er­ate to se­vere symp­toms of de­pres­sion. More alarm­ing, 80 per­cent suf­fered

mod­er­ate to se­vere symp­toms of anx­i­ety.

“This is so far be­yond what you would typ­i­cally see in an ado­les­cent pop­u­la­tion,” he told the school’s fac­ulty at a meet­ing just be­fore the fall se­mes­ter be­gan. “It’s un­prece­dented.” Worse, those alarm­ing fig­ures were prob­a­bly an un­der­es­ti­ma­tion; some stu­dents had missed the sur­vey while tak­ing Ad­vanced Place­ment ex­ams.

What Slavin saw at Irvington is a mi­cro­cosm of a na­tion­wide epi­demic of school­re­lated stress. We think of this as a prob­lem only of the ur­ban and sub­ur­ban elite, but in trav­el­ing the coun­try to re­port on this is­sue, I have seen that this stress has a pow­er­ful ef­fect on chil­dren across the so­cioe­co­nomic spec­trum.

Ex­pec­ta­tions sur­round­ing education have spun out of con­trol. On top of a sev­en­hour school day, our kids march through hours of nightly home­work, daily sports prac­tices, band re­hearsals and week­end­con­sum­ing as­sign­ments and tour­na­ments. Each ac­tiv­ity is seen as a step on the lad­der to a top col­lege, an en­vi­able job and a suc­cess­ful life. Chil­dren liv­ing in poverty who as­pire to col­lege face the same daunting ad­mis­sions arms race, as well as the bur­den of com­pet­ing for schol­ar­ships, with less sup­port than their priv­i­leged peers. Even those not bound for col­lege are ground down by the con­stant mea­sure­ment in schools un­der pres­sure to push through moun­tains of rote, im­per­sonal ma­te­rial as early as preschool.

Yet in­stead of em­pow­er­ing them to thrive, this drive for suc­cess is erod­ing chil­dren’s health and un­der­min­ing their po­ten­tial. Mod­ern education is ac­tu­ally mak­ing them sick.

Nearly 1 in 3 teenagers told the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion that stress drove them to sad­ness or de­pres­sion — and their big­gest source of stress was school. Ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion, a vast ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­can teenagers get at least two hours less sleep each night than rec­om­mended — and re­search shows the more home­work they do, the fewer hours they sleep. At the univer­sity level, 94 per­cent of col­lege coun­sel­ing di­rec­tors in a sur­vey from last year said they were see­ing ris­ing num­bers of stu­dents with se­vere psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems.

At the other end of the age spec­trum, doc­tors in­creas­ingly see chil­dren in early el­e­men­tary school suf­fer­ing from mi­graine headaches and ul­cers. Many physicians see a clear con­nec­tion to per­for­mance pres­sure.

“I’m talk­ing about 5-, 6-, 7-year-olds who are com­ing in with th­ese con­di­tions. We never used to see that,” says Lawrence Rosen, a New Jersey pe­di­a­tri­cian who works with pe­di­atric as­so­ci­a­tions na­tion­ally. “I’m hear­ing this from my col­leagues ev­ery­where.”

What sets Irvington apart in a na­tion of un­healthy schools is that ed­u­ca­tors, par­ents and stu­dents there have cho­sen to start mak­ing a change. Teach­ers are re-ex­am­in­ing their home­work de­mands, in some cases re­viv­ing the school district’s for­got­ten home­work guide­line — no more than 20 min­utes per class per night, and none on week­ends. In fact, re­search sup­ports lim­its on home­work. Stu­dents have started a task force to pro­mote healthy habits and bal­anced sched­ules. And for the past two years, school coun­selors have met one on one with ev­ery stu­dent at reg­is­tra­tion time to guide them to­ward a man­age­able course load.

“We are sit­ting on a tick­ing time bomb,” said one Irvington teacher, who has seen the prob­lem worsen over her 16 years on the job.

A grow­ing body of med­i­cal ev­i­dence sug­gests that long-term child­hood stress is linked not only with a higher risk of adult de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety, but with poor phys­i­cal health, as well. The ACE (Ad­verse Child­hood Ex­pe­ri­ences) Study, a con­tin­u­ing pro­ject of the CDC and Kaiser Per­ma­nente, shows that chil­dren who ex­pe­ri­ence mul­ti­ple trau­mas — in­clud­ing vi­o­lence, abuse or a par­ent’s strug­gle with men­tal ill­ness — are more likely than oth­ers to suf­fer heart dis­ease, lung dis­ease, can­cer and short­ened life spans as adults. Those are ex­treme hard­ships, but a sur­vey of the ex­ist­ing sci­ence in the 2013 An­nual Re­view of Pub­lic Health sug­gested that the per­sis­tence of less se­vere stres­sors could sim­i­larly act as a pre­scrip­tion for sick­ness.

“Many of the health ef­fects are ap­par­ent now, but many more will echo through the lives of our chil­dren,” says Richard Sch­ef­fler, a health econ­o­mist at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. “We will all pay the cost of treat­ing them and suf­fer the loss of their pro­duc­tive con­tri­bu­tions.”

Para­dox­i­cally, the pres­sure cooker is hurt­ing, not help­ing, our kids’ prospects for suc­cess. Many col­lege stu­dents strug­gle with crit­i­cal think­ing, a fact that hasn’t es­caped their pro­fes­sors, only 14 per­cent of whom be­lieve that their stu­dents are pre­pared for col­lege work, ac­cord­ing to a 2015 re­port. Just 29 per­cent of em­ploy­ers in the same study re­ported that grad­u­ates were equipped to suc­ceed in to­day’s work­place. Both of those num­bers have plum­meted since 2004.

Con­trary to a com­monly voiced fear that eas­ing pres­sure will lead to poorer per­for­mance, St. Louis med­i­cal school stu­dents’ scores on the med­i­cal boards ex­ams have ac­tu­ally gone up since the stress re­duc­tion strat­egy was put in place.

At Irvington, it’s too early to gauge the im­pact of new re­forms, but ed­u­ca­tors see promis­ing signs. Calls to school coun­selors to help stu­dents hav­ing emo­tional episodes in class have dropped from rou­tine to nearly nonex­is­tent. The AP class fail­ure rate dropped by half. Irvington stu­dents con­tinue to be ac­cepted at re­spected col­leges.

There are lessons to be learned from Irvington’s lead.

Work­ing to­gether, par­ents, ed­u­ca­tors and stu­dents can make small but im­por­tant changes: in­sti­tut­ing ev­ery­day home­work lim­its and week­end and hol­i­day home­work bans, adding ad­vi­sory pe­ri­ods for stu­dent sup­port and pro­vid­ing stu­dents op­por­tu­ni­ties to show their growth in cre­ative ways be­yond con­ven­tional tests. Com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try — like Gaithers­burg, Md., Cadiz, Ky., and New York City — are tak­ing some of th­ese steps.

In place of the race for cre­den­tials, lo­cal teams are work­ing to cul­ti­vate deep learn­ing, in­tegrity, pur­pose and per­sonal con­nec­tion. In place of high-stakes child­hoods, they are choos­ing health.

Lale Westvind /The New York Times

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.