A while back I wrote a piece about the work being done by psychologist Dr. David Gleason. In his book, At What Cost: Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools,Gleason describes the ways in which schooling contributes to the rise in adolescent mental health issues. The title of Gleason’s book is misleading. While his own work focused on interviewing students at highly competitive schools, the studies he cites in his work refer to students in middle and high school years, regardless of their school type. Additionally, the pressures associated with performance on high stakes, large scale assessments have dramatically changed the cultures of many “non-competitive” schools for both students and educators.
Gleason’s work builds on studies which indicate that the rate of anxiety, stress, and depression in our young people has risen dramatically since 2010. For additional detail about this development (many would accurately use the term “crisis”), check out this article which appeared in the NY Times.
Gleason points to what he called “the bind”… the realization by many parents and educators that the old story of “work hard, get good grades, go to a good college, get a good job and enjoy lifetime security” is no longer applicable for many of our young people. The “bind” occurs when we recognize that we have no consistent advice to share with our children and our students other than the “old story”. What do we do? We know that the old story is dead/dying, but there is no similar consensus about a new story… a new path to share with our kids and students.
In the studies cited by Gleason and detailed in the NY Times piece, the students are included as statistics. The problem is described and viewed from the perspective of the problem it presents for adults. While certainly not Gleason’s intent, “the bind” reflects a kind a hierarchical thinking that prevails in most schools. In most instances the employees are engaged in conversations about the students while, with few exceptions, the voices of these “customers” are largely absent.
In today’s post, I wanted to call attention to two pieces of work that offer insight into this threat to our kids as seen by the kids themselves. I was in awe of the eloquence of the student voices following Parkland. I am no less awed by the eloquence of the students as they describe the pressures and the stories of their experiences with navigating a path through an increasingly complex time.
In his new film, Eighth Grade Bo Burnham, adds texture to this complexity though the voice of the most affected by this dilemma, the students themselves. In Eighth Grade, Burnham shares the way this complex story is unfolding for those reflected in the statistics. In a recent article from the Atlantic which includes an interview with Burnham, “In Middle School, You’re Trying To Build a Parachute While You’re Falling”, Julie Beck describes the dilemma faced by the film’s main character, Kayla. And here’s a short trailer with Kayla’s own words.
In the film, a 13-year-old girl named Kayla is feeling her way through the dark forest of middle-school social life. On-screen, the scenery keeps changing: How should she act in the classroom? At a popular classmate’s pool party? At the mall with a new group of friends? And is she a totally different person on the internet, in the vlogs she makes in which she offers advice and pep talks? “Being yourself can be hard,” she says, “and it’s like, ‘Aren’t I always being myself?’” Kayla’s sweet and stumbling attempts to answer that question in these different scenarios—in real life and online—are the driving force of the movie.
While Burnham captures the dilemma of increasing complexity faced by kids, a piece in last week’s EdWeek by high school senior, Gabrielle Weber, calls us to action.
Let me give you a bit of a preview of Gabrielle’s insight and I like to urge you to read her piece. It is both eloquent and touching. Beyond its eloquence and emotional impact, however, lies a truth that we must confront. We have allowed the efforts of educational “reformers” to drive our system of public education to a place far removed from what we know in our hearts to be a better place… a place which nurtures the unique talents and needs of each child in our care.
In Gabrielle’s words, …
Achievement is blatantly valued above health. This prioritization instills in students the feeling that we’re not good enough, making it difficult to reach out. In short, it sabotages learning. You know, the thing we go to school for?
…No one advocates for the students struggling to live up to unreasonable standards because that struggle is viewed as ideal. It’s seen as virtuous, when in reality, it’s extremely detrimental.
…In order to solve this problem, schools must prioritize well-being as the fundamental foundation of learning. It should never be a question for kids whether they’ll have someone to turn to when they need it. Expanding supportive staff in schools—including psychologists, counselors, and social workers—would provide the kind of support students both need and deserve. Students with disabilities, disorders, problems at home, and many other disadvantages are particularly affected by the current lack of support in schools. We can do better for them and for our community as a whole. We need to do better.
I urge you to read Gabrielle’ thoughts and her suggestions. Her work begs us to reflect on some critical questions. Here are a few of mine. I’d love to hear yours. This is conversation that we cannot afford to avoid. Let’s get it started.
We often read and/or talk about socio-emotional intelligence as a skill set to be developed in our students. What about the socio-emotional health of our students? Why would students think we place greater importance on academic achievement than on their well-being? What should we do to change this perception?
Have we moved beyond the times when it is fair to demand that school guidance counselors , regardless of case load, be able to recognize and deal with the emotional needs of students presenting symptoms of significant stress, anxiety, and/or depression?
Is our continued use of chronological age grouping ignoring the research relating to the developmental readiness? If so what fears keep us from alternative grouping approaches?
Summing it up…
From the NY Times Magazine article referenced at the beginning of this piece…
Over the last decade, anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services. In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase — to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 — of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. Surveys that look at symptoms related to anxiety are also telling. In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.
Hardly a day goes by when I don’t receive one or two blogs/newsletters about the importance of school culture. While the numbers cited above are taken from surveys of college freshmen, the issues did not begin in summer between high school and college. Last week I watched a PBS show extolling the benefits of kindergarten boot camp. Burnham, Kayla and Gabrielle are sounding an alarm. We have created or, at the very least, are participating in a culture of accountability, expectations of high achievement, and fear which research and our hearts are telling us is unhealthy for both adults and children.