Stressed for Success: Keeping your child's learning stress-free
“We’ve gotten into this mass hysteria that if our children are not making A’s and they’re not getting into Harvard, then they’re failures,” said Cathy Vatterott, assistant professor of education, University of Missouri-St. Louis. “Why are we doing this? Have we just sort of lost sight of what it means to be a happy person?”
From infancy to adolescence, stress plays a crucial role in how children learn.
Studies done as early as the ‘60s and into the ‘80s indicate that school stress and achievement stress are widespread, and may result in academic failure, behavioral or emotional problems, drug abuse, health problems, and even suicide. More recent research about brain development supports these findings.
Remember Robert Fulghum’s 1986 best seller All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? His list probably sounds innocent and simplistic by today’s standards: Clean up your own mess; Don’t take things that aren’t yours; Wash your hands before you eat; Take a nap every afternoon; Flush. What would that list include in the kindergarten classrooms of 2008? Fulghum’s book stripped life down to essentials—what really is important in life?
Dr. Vatterott asks parents to consider what is important in their children’s lives. What kind of adults do they want their children to become? What educational environments nurture those desires?
It Begins in Infancy
One of the first studies of the effects of stress on infants was done by Megan Gunnar, who followed 33 infants who began life in a 1,000-bed Romanian orphanage. The children were severely traumatized from lack of interaction with caregivers. The 33 infants were adopted by Canadian couples. Twenty-seven Canadian infants were used as a control group.
Gunnar found that one group of infants looked normal – normal grades, normal social interactions, normal stress hormone regulation. They were essentially no different from the control group. The other group was antisocial, had bad grades and could not regulate their stress. The difference in the two groups was the age of adoption. The infants who had been adopted before the age of four months fell into the first group. If they were adopted between 8 and 12 months, they fell into the second group.
More recent research, the ACE Study, uncovered how adverse childhood experiences (ACE) such as abuse, neglect and other traumatic stressors are strongly related to development of health and social problems throughout a person’s life. According to the Center for Disease Control’s web site, some of these problems include alcoholism and abuse, depression, fetal death, illicit drug use, multiple sexual partners, smoking and suicide attempts.
What does that mean for us as parents and caregivers? Environment counts. Even for infants. Stable emotional environments are nurturing to infants; stressful environments are toxic, and can have long-term effects.
How does this relate to education?
John Medina, PhD, is founding director of the nonprofit Talaris Research Institute in Seattle. Talaris works to improve the social, emotional and cognitive development of children birth through age 5 by providing parents with tools to raise their children effectively. Medina believes that parents are the key to a child’s ability to learn.
“Designing an education system with first grade aimed at a 6-year-old is too late…a great deal of critical brain activity occurs before 6 years of age, activity that has profound influence on a classroom later.”
Medina says that education should start at birth, not with the child, but with the parents. “By concentrating first on stabilizing the emotional climate of the home, you can build the rest of the curriculum around a baby’s brain, which is more active than it will be at any time during the rest of its life.”
Courtney Linsenmeyer-O’Brien, MHR, a Tulsa therapist, agrees that parenting is crucial to a person’s development throughout life. “Parents first need to get in touch with themselves,” says Linsenmeyer-O’Brien. “To the extent that we can face ourselves, our children will have a model for accepting themselves.”
Recognizing and accepting a child’s unique temperament and personality will nourish a child’s integrity. Linsenmeyer-O’Brien says, “As parents, we can ask ourselves, ‘Am I sending a message to my children that I want them to be different than they are?’ ‘Do I withhold my love and affection when I disagree with them or something they’ve done?’”
Lack of acceptance by parents creates stress in children. Pushing children to become something they are not causes children to “shut down…to hide or deny parts of themselves that they believe are unacceptable, compromising their development.”
She points out that young children “know” through their bodies, and can sense a parent’s stress or anxiety. In a relaxed state, a person’s heartbeat slows and becomes more regular, says Linsenmeyer-O’Brien, resulting in increased Alpha waves, which are associated with deep realization and creativity.
In a preschool environment, Dr. Diane Horm, early childhood education director of the Early Childhood Education Institute at OU, says that high quality early childhood programs benefit all children, but especially those living in poverty or stressful conditions.
For young children, a high-quality learning environment should not create frustration and stress in a child. “Preschoolers should have ample opportunity for investigation and peer interaction,” says Horm. “They should have small manipulatives for fine motor skills, dramatic play and an organized, not chaotic, environment with adults who provide gentle and appropriate guidance.”
Dr. Horm says that, partly because of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), kindergarten classrooms have become much more structured. She feels that, too often, the onus for learning is placed upon the child, when it should be upon the teacher to teach any 5-year-old who shows up.
“Kindergarten is a particularly ripe time for language learning,” says Horm, “so children should have lots of opportunities for finger plays, songs, rhyme, language games and they should hear appropriate speech from adults. The adults should also be able to turn challenging behaviors into learning opportunities.”
Dr. Horm also points out that parents often don’t realize that even positive events such as moving to a new home, changing jobs, or getting married can be stressors that affect their children. Teachers and parents can watch for signs of stress in children, such as clinginess, reverting to younger behavior, or acting out. During such times, children need more support from adults in their lives.
Grade School and Middle School
Anna America, mom to a 9-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter, says that she and her husband only let their children participate in extra activities that they want to do, and would cut back if it seemed to be too much.
While her son’s amount of homework is easily manageable now, she says that she doesn’t look forward to middle school. “Parents of middle-schoolers often say their kids have to do an hour or more of homework a day,” says Anna. “I think that is just crazy. I do think homework is often just ‘busy work,’ and it sometimes runs the risk of making a subject completely unappealing. I even see that happening a little with my son. He has always loved math, and is very good at it, but I think over the years he has lost some of that enthusiasm, because so much of the time, it is just repetitive and boring, and doing pages of problems at home certainly doesn’t help.”
Anna also feels frustrated that schools have been forced into teaching to standardized tests. “Very few people will try to tell you the kids themselves actually benefit from that instruction,” she says, “and it’s frustrating that so much time has to be wasted on something that is so meaningless.”
Kristal Tomshany, mom of a seventh-grader, felt that her daughter’s sixth-grade homework and the expectations surrounding it, were stressful, ultimately contributing to her daughter switching schools.
“My daughter and her friend are excellent students,” said Kristal. “They viewed homework as a responsibility to actually complete.”
Most days, that “responsibility” meant homework until dinnertime, a shower, and maybe an hour of “free” reading time, just to “go to sleep and do it all over again.”
One day she overheard her daughter tell her friend, “Ever since we hit middle school, all they do is keep warning us about how hard high school is and how we have to push and prepare for the future…What’s wrong with just letting us be the age we are? Why do they keep making us feel like where we are isn’t good enough?”
Kristal felt that she had to explain the difference between compliance and responsibility to her daughter. “I wanted to make her aware that there were more important responsibilities than school – like the responsibility of living a balanced life and setting our own boundaries that will ensure a healthy lifestyle.”
As Kristal saw her become more stressed and depressed, she helped her daughter come up with a more reasonable schedule that allowed her to have “down” time, to get outdoors and to learn about herself. “She learned the mantra, ‘Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.’,” said Kristal.
Finding a better match for her child in terms of a learning environment has made a huge difference for Kristal and her daughter.
Dr. Vatterott says that many parents have put too high an emphasis on success in school. “I don’t know how people came to be so hysterical,” she said. “The whole trend is really troubling. We’re looking at our children as products, and the marketing aspect is huge. The media really feeds the idea that making the child a product is good business,” Vatterott added. “I watch the Today Show every morning and they have parenting segments such as how to get your child into the top college of your choice — a parent’s self-esteem becomes wrapped up in their child. They become heavily invested in their child being a product.”
Many students, as a result, are learning poor ways to cope with stress, says Vatterott. “They’re using unhealthy things to keep them going such as caffeine or energy drinks or drugs meant to be used for ADHD. We have a trend of looking at ways to de-stress our kids without looking at where the stress is coming from. We’re not looking at why a 15-year-old is stressed out. We’ve lost track of the values of what’s important in life.”
Tom Padalino, principal at Tulsa’s Thoreau Demonstration School, agrees. “In my 35 years in the profession,” he said, “I don’t see a difference in kids, but I see a difference in what they have to deal with. Kids are awfully busy these days. They need downtime from school and organized activities.”
Thoreau is a demonstration school that uses “best practices” in education, including integrating the curriculum and teaching life skill habits that encourage students to do their personal best.
Recognizing that parents are busy and stressed themselves, Thoreau offers an extended day program where students can relax, get help with homework or work on group activities with peers. Classroom instruction emphasizes cooperative learning rather than competition. Light levels in the classrooms are low. Soothing music is played, and students don’t sit in rows. Peers of varying ages get together in social groups called Tribes as a way to connect and build community, taking some of the stress of fear out of middle school interactions.
Much of Thoreau’s practices are designed to support “brain compatible” learning, recognizing the fact that a stressed student can’t learn effectively.
And Thoreau’s low-stress, supportive atmosphere is working. The school does not select students on ability, yet, according to Padalino, Thoreau’s methods are paying off. “We have the highest math and highest writing scores in Tulsa,” said Padalino. “One hundred percent of the kids who took the high school algebra test passed and 99 percent of the kids who took the writing test passed it.”
But Padalino says what goes on socially is as important as academics. He says to ask schools, “What are you doing in meeting those developmental needs? What are you doing to address what is going on socially and emotionally? We know that it affects kids’ academics.”
High School – “Doing School”
Robyn Sanzalone is the mother of two National Merit Scholars who graduated from TPS’s Edison Preparatory School, then went to OU. While both probably could have chosen more “name-brand” universities, her children are happy and productive. Her son is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Irvine and her daughter is majoring in French and Zoology.
Robyn feels that schools would be better off offering students extra mentoring, extending the school day or providing special help to those students who need to master a concept rather than piling on more homework.
“I believe kids are more stressed,” said Robyn. “Many children live in poverty or in stressful home situations. They are labeled failures at school when they are unable to leave those stressful situations behind and do well in school. Motivated, successful students face tremendous stress related to balancing tough curriculums, extracurricular activities and the perceived ‘need’ to be accepted into the ‘best’ schools. Kids do not have much time to simply be kids.”
Dr. Vatterott encourages parents to listen to themselves. “Parents are so busy,” she says, “that they tend to listen to other parents rather than their own gut. It’s okay to be the B student. We don’t talk to kids about what their passion is. We talk about what their grades are and what college they’re going to.”
Q & A with Denise Clark Pope
Denise Clark Pope is the author of Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students.
Can you paint a portrait of a stressed-out student?
Students manifest their stress in many different ways. When we talk about academic stress, we see students who have too much work to do and too little time in which to do it. They are overscheduled - both in school — with too many classes, or too many advanced courses, and out of school - with so many extracurricular activities, sports, tutoring, etc. that they have no time to reflect on what they are learning/doing. Many admit that they are simply “doing school” - not engaging in depth with material or even enjoying the activities that they do.
As one student explains, “we are ‘robo-students’- just going page by page, doing the routine. School is lifeless.” This particular student is taking 5 AP classes and participates in over 20 different activities in and outside of school. She often doesn’t get home until 10 pm (after sports practice and club meetings) and then faces hours and hours of homework. She relies on caffeine and no-doze to stay awake, and she averages 3-5 hours of sleep each night. She skips meals to find more time to study and she lives in a constant state of stress.
What are the origins of all this pressure?
Students feel pressure from a variety of sources. They feel pressure from the middle schools and high schools to go to college, to take college prep courses, and to do well on standardized tests. They feel pressure from their parents to get high grades and test scores that will make them eligible for selective colleges.
They feel pressure from their peers to compete, to keep up with each other and even outdo each other in terms of grades and participation in extracurricular activities. (i.e. if “everyone” has a tutor, so must I - or if “everyone” is doing SAT prep courses, then I need to take these as well - or I will fall behind....)
And they feel pressure because they know that more students than ever before are applying to colleges, and that approximately 80 percent of these college-bound students are applying to the same small (approximately 20 percent) number of selective schools.
We send messages as parents, educators, and as a society, that those who get the best grades and who go to the best schools are considered successful. There are kids out there who believe that getting a B in a class is equivalent to failing. And that going to community college will shame their family and ruin their future. How wrong they are. ... I blame all of this on a problematic definition of success.
When did you see the goals shift from learning to just getting straight A’s?
This has always happened to some extent. But historians agree with educators that they have seen a steady increase in this behavior since the 1980s, and that in the past 10 to 15 years, things have escalated to a point of frenzy.
Since your book came out in 2001, has it gotten better or worse?
What will this generation be like as adults?
We are finding that these overscheduled, stressed-out kids are actually less innovative than those who grew up with free, unstructured time to play, to make mistakes, to tinker around.
Imagine if Steve Jobs had no time to tinker in his garage because he had to go to piano lessons and SAT prep class and art class and was on a travel baseball team that had practice five times a week and away games on the weekend. ... I am not sure he could have invented the Mac.
What are parents and students focusing on and what should they be focusing on?
Here’s what they should be focusing on - what is best for each individual student. Look at your child’s schedule. Are they taking courses they WANT to take? Do they have enough time to play, relax, hang out with friends? Are they involved in extracurricular activities for the right reasons - not just to pad the resume or to please mom and dad?
Even if they love everything they are doing, they might need to cut down for their health - to allow them to have a childhood or healthy adolescence. Families need to sit down and discuss together - with the kids - what do we mean by success? What do we want out of our education?
How do we want to spend our time? They need to send the message that success can take many, many forms, and that this drive for the top grades/colleges is actually hurting our kids. Then they need to take actions to counter the system - including modeling this behavior themselves, working with the schools to change the messages being sent, and advocating on behalf of their children’s health.
Why are parents so over-bearing and protective today?
We know more today about safety, about how people learn, about what we can do as parents to help our kids thrive. We can’t just open the door and say go outside and play freely and come back before dark. We know that babies need stimulation (but that doesn’t mean flashcards or formal music classes necessarily).
Many of us also have more resources available to us - more option for our kids afterschool, more opportunities for tutoring, etc. and we feel guilty if we aren’t doing as much for our kids as others seem to be. There is definitely parent peer pressure going on.
What many parents don’t realize is that they are contributing to the frenzy this way and they are hurting their kids. A Palo Alto educator calls them “helicopter parents” - they hover and they swoop in and they don’t want their kids to make mistakes or get hurt or have any real freedom to mess up. But kids need this freedom, even to get hurt and make mistakes, or they won’t be able to thrive now or later in life
What are schools doing wrong?
This is not the fault of the school - many schools are stuck having to teach to the test or meet state standards that limit the kind of curriculum and system we know to be best for our students. Students need to see the relevance of what they are learning, they need to have choice and voice in the curriculum, they need active, project-based learning that allows them to think and ask questions and meet their individual learning needs instead of reiterate a teacher’s lecture and cram or cheat to do well on a test. ... We need to change the focus from grades and test-scores to real learning and growth for each student.
Do you have kids? Do you, or did you, worry about this type of pressure for them? How did you handle it?
I have three young kids (Grades 3, K, and pre-K). I do worry about this pressure, and I guard their free play time. My husband and I work hard to send healthy messages. Instead of asking, how did you do on the spelling test, we try to ask, what did you learn today, what are you excited about.
Instead of over-scheduling our kids, we limit the afterschool activities to one or two days during the week. We send our kids to a school where homework load is appropriate - 10 minutes per grade level, and where they don’t have assignments over the weekend or over break times, and where they promote a love of learning over competition for grades. And we talk about success in multiple forms.
Is this type of pressure more prevalent in affluent areas? If so, why?
This kind of frenzy over grades and college admissions tends to be more prevalent in affluent areas where more students are college-bound and where more families have the resources to schedule their kids in extracurricular activities, prep courses, apply to more colleges, etc.
Imagine how great the gap is now - between those who attend schools with inadequate resources, without adequate materials, etc. and where families don’t know the process of applying to college and can’t afford to pay for the application process vs. the families who spend thousands of dollars hiring professional college counselors to help get their kids into the best colleges.
What do these stressed-out students think they’re going to get out of this?
Quote from my book from a 10th grader: ‘People don’t go to school to learn. They go to get good grades, which brings them to college, which brings them the high paying job, which brings them to happiness, so they think.’ Students honestly believe that the better the college they go to - the better off they will be in life.
This is a misconception that needs to be debunked. We have studies that show that you can go to over 100 different schools — some folks say over 200 — and get an excellent education and have very little variation in income 20 years later from graduates of Ivy League universities. I want students and families to believe that college is not a “trophy” and that they need to find the best match between school and student as opposed to go to the place with the most prestigious reputation.
What are some of the outrageous goals parents are setting for their students, or for that matter, that students are setting for themselves? What type of goals should they both be setting?
I see so many kids and parents striving for perfection - according to a flawed definition of success (super parents/uber-kids). This is truly impossible. Instead, we should be striving to be healthy - mentally and physically and spiritually. We need to slow down, re-focus, and set better examples. I would rather my kids be happy and healthy above all else, even if this means not going to the “best” college or not being the “best” atheletes, artists, etc. in the neighborhood. I know many truly successful people who followed this path.
Reprinted with permission from the Palo Alto (California) Weekly.