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Are students overly stressed from school?

June 16, 2011

Picture of Richard Weissbourd

Richard Weissbourd, from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, has authored a book about how parents contribute to the emotional and moral development of their children.  His book, The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development, has received good reviews over the past few years.  Pat Bassett has it on his summer reading list (check his blog at Pat Bassett’s blog 11/06).

Weissbourd recently authored an article in Educational Leadership entitled, The Overpressured Student.  As he opens the article he references talks he has given to parents in pretigious independent schools.  While he states that he has met parents who put too many demands on their children he has also met parents who have a fairly balanced perspective on what their children can or should achieve.  However, he writes,

When it comes to academic achievement, many parents in upper- and middle-class communities have gone overboard.

To support his point, he refers to the dramatic increase in the number of students who are pushed to achieve whether it is watching Baby Einstein videos at an earlier and earlier age, securing selective preschool spots, enrolling them in numerous after-school acitivities, worrying about reviewing or tutoring for SAT tests, or going crazy over college admissions.  I found it disturing to hear about results from his research that indicates students and their parents worry more about “getting into a good college” than whether their child is a “good person.”  Maybe we have to rethink the purpose of school because given the challenges our world faces–political, economic, religious, environmental–we need a world of “good people” rather than people who know how to game the system to get into “good colleges.”  Where is the value in that philosophy?

He points out that these trends, while mostly advanced by over anxious parents, are also promoted by schools, school counselors, and teachers.

So what is the emotional and moral toll this is taking on our young people?  Are we absolutely convinced we (schools and families) don’t have a problem or do we have our heads in the sand?

The interesting piece of research Weissbourd references come from Luthar and Becker in 2002 which showed “that children who are subjected to intense achievement pressure by their parents don’t outperform other students.”  So why do we push our children, if pushing isn’t the answer.  Could it be that we have a hard time putting aside our own views of “what are children should become” or “what is good for our children?”  Maybe we should ask our children what they want out of their life.  What can we do to help them become “good people?”

Here is a question that falls out of Weissbourd’s article, “Does it help parents or schools to view children as performance machines?”  The pressue we put on chlidren to achievement at any cost contributes to their feelings of stress and their tendency to feel they don’t measure up.

Weissbourd suggests that schools and parents need to collaborate on reframing what our roles are in supporting our children.  He offers a viewpoint that schools need to help parents put into proper perspective “student achievement.”  Achieving for what?  He also suggests that schools need to find a balance and convey a message that academic achievement is only one part of the experience.  What about social, emotional and moral education?  These too should be important parts of a school’s overt curriculum. 

He concludes with the idea that it “takes a village” to educate a child. 

Academic achievement is an escalating contagion: Schools often compete and ramp one another up, and parents feed off one another.

Village

We cannot act alone to address this problem.  We will need to collaborate and view each student as a central and precious part of our mission to educate “the whole child.”  Really, what does it mean when a school has that phrase in its mission?  Does it REALLY demonstrate a commitment to the idea of educating the whole person.  How does your school answer that question?

I really liked Weissbourd’s article because it made me think, question my own parenting, and reflect on my role as an educator over these past 33 years.  If you have some time, pick up the article and see what you think.

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