Under pressure Organization challenging narrow version of success

As students prepare for their first day back to school after summer break with newly bought clothes and fresh supplies, many will return to campus with a weight on their shoulders.

Everybody wants their kid to be successful, but I’d argue pushing your child too hard ensures the opposite of what you’re hoping for,” said Madeline Levine, clinical psychologist and author of “The Price of Privilege” and “Teach Your Children Well.”
Levine co-founded Challenge Success, an organization committed to changing the way teachers, families and students view and treat education, alongside Jim Lobdell, an educational consultant, and Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford University’s graduate school of education.

“Kids are doing too much in and out of school and the payoff is not what you expect,” said Pope. “You would think they are well prepared, but that’s not the case.”

Pope, Maureen Brown, executive director of Challenge Success, and Sarah Miles, research director, authored “Overloaded and Underprepared,” a book addressing the issue of pressure put on some students to succeed and how to change the classroom environment.

“We surveyed [in] high schools and middle schools across the nation and asked questions about ‘academic worry’ and to what extent do [students] worry about college acceptance and grades,” said Miles.

After interviewing more than 16,000 students at 27 high schools, they found 73 percent said they were “often” or “always” stressed about their school work.

What worries Levine, though, is how even when parents back off, the kids are still under pressure.

“It’s a matter of internalizing parental values,” said Levine. “Mom says, ‘Don’t take the cookie.’ Kids learn to not take the cookie. If parents are always at the door asking, ‘How did you do on the test?’ Kids internalize that.”

This stress ultimately takes a toll on students mentally and physically. Of those 16,000 students surveyed, over a third reported experiencing headaches, exhaustion and difficulty sleeping within a month of taking the survey, all of which are signs of stress.
As a lecturer, Pope has seen the pressure students feel during middle and high school does not subside in college, even though parents are out of the picture. At Stanford in particular, students have duck syndrome; although a duck may look calm while it glides across the water, beneath the surface it is frantically trying to stay afloat.

“It used to be a badge of honor to show how hard you were working,” said Pope, referring to students who brag about staying up late or only getting so few hours of sleep. “Somewhere between then and now if you want to be considered really smart, you have to make it look easy.”

Pope said that this attitude would lead some students to self-sabotage, where instead of studying for a test and risk failing, they would intentionally stay up late or not study at all. If they ended up failing, then they’d have something to blame it on.

However, Pope’s book outlines the problems in the first chapter and then moves onto the solution, which is framed around the acronym S.P.A.C.E: scheduling; problem and project-based learning; authentic and alternative assessment; climate of care; and educating students, parents and teachers.

The impetus for change not only lies in students’ well-being, but also in the softer skills that some students miss out on such as critical thinking and building resilience to setbacks. Pope, who sent all three of her children to Jewish day school, thinks this is where Jewish day schools outshine others.

Said Pope, “I think Jewish schools tend to do social and emotional learning fairly well because it is built into the mission of what it means to be a good person and live in a just and righteous society.”

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

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