Don't Be Fooled by the Back-to-School Frenzy

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This year's back-to-school emails are stacked up in my inbox, shouting in all-caps and exclamation points that my child is already behind the curve when it comes to school. School has barely begun, and tutoring and test prep companies are already knocking, warning us to get started on extra help before it's "too late." Coaches are already scheduling the season's early morning practices, angling to make up for "lost" summer time. Music schools and rec departments are urging that I pay attention to deadlines for sign-ups--some of them many months ahead of the activities themselves, when my teenage son could be an entirely different human--with wildly different interests--than he is now, in September.

As I squinted and sifted through my inbox, dreading the crazy school-year pace that was about to descend on my family, the truth hit me: I can delete all these emails. I can preserve my family's precious time and my children's empty calendars. Forget deadlines and registrations and extra practice. Forget everything that tells us to hurry up and catch up and compete. What our kids really need as they head back to this school year is relief.

Let me be clear. I'm not suggesting a lowering of standards or a slacking off. I'm not suggesting that my teenager approach his education with apathy or insouciance. Instead, I'm observing--as a mother, and as a filmmaker whose focus is on issues of education and childhood--that for too many of us, back-to-school comes with a high price: an achieve-at-all-costs educational culture that drives too many kids to sickness and sadness. All those practices and tutoring sessions and test prep classes add up. And in addition to boosting scores or college acceptances, they can also add up to anxiety, stress, depression and disengagement.

Most parents know this, intuitively. I did and it sparked me to spend hundreds of hours talking to educators, psychologists, and children themselves to understand the problems at the heart of this issue, which became my critically-acclaimed documentary "Race to Nowhere." In researching my new book, Beyond Measure, I found that the effects of a rat-race educational culture on children's physical and mental health are even worse than we imagine. Studies reveal that sleep deprivation is epidemic among children and teens, with research showing piles of homework as a primary cause. Pediatricians report ulcers and migraines afflicting students in primary school. And by the time they reach college, rising numbers of students are arriving on campus with depression, anxiety, and other severe psychological problems. College professors and employers widely lament that today's grads are misguided and constrained by fear: they are great at following precise instructions but afraid to innovate and unprepared to manage themselves.

Why? The well-intentioned but increasingly competitive atmosphere surrounding our children tells them they must constantly outperform each other in academics, sports and activities in order to succeed. They feel they must be constantly on-alert for opportunities to outdo themselves and their peers. They learn to be ever-focused on doing more, better, faster. And we--the collective chorus of parents, teachers, coaches, instructors and mentors who guide them--often tacitly promote a frenetic pace. We sign them up for the lessons and meet the registration deadlines. We entertain the so-called "opportunities" that are meant to help our children grow and learn and "keep up." And the school day itself fuels this culture, as students cycle through six or seven subjects (each with its own assignments) a day. The sum total isn't learning and growing so much as it is a childhood spent racing to meet impossible, impersonal ideals of achievement and success.

And so I propose a new back-to-school culture. Instead of a new slate of activities and a packed agenda of courses, extra-curriculars and resume-padding, let's give our children the tools that contribute to real learning and growth: adequate sleep, family time, play, chances to explore new ideas and meet new people--at their own whim and pace. Let's keep their calendars empty of the kinds of churning, competitive tasks that will lead to burn-out and uncertainty when they get to college. More than measurement and deadlines, let's give them downtime: to invent, to ponder, to be curious, to test their limits.

These opportunities cost nothing--except our collective commitment to look squarely at what we actually want for our children and come together to make a change. The benefits will run deeper and last longer than a morning soccer practice or late-night tutoring session can.

This fall, consider joining me. Delete the deluge of back-to-school emails in your inbox. Resist the urge to reply. Clear your inbox and focus instead on what really counts.

And if you're having trouble seeing through the clutter, consider this list of what all students really need to learn--a list I compiled as I wrote my book, after hundreds of school visits and years of research into the parents and teachers who are leading the way toward a new definition of school success:

Time. Time to rest, relax, and keep healthy habits. Time to connect with family, friends, and themselves. Time to discover who they are when they're not trying to be all things to everyone else. Without that time, children cannot fully form into healthy, whole people. We, the parents, educators, and other adults in their lives, need to limit our demands on their days--restraining runaway homework, capping excessive practice and rehearsal hours, resisting the rush for outside tutoring for material that teachers don't have time to reinforce in class. And we need to support kids in selecting fewer commitments, academically and outside of school, as well. School communities from Gaithersburg, Maryland, to Potomac, Montana, to Fremont, California, are showing that it's possible to do this. Sometimes the most important learning happens when there is no assignment.

Sleep. Brain science makes clear that sufficient sleep is critical for maintaining health, attention, and memory. Students can hardly be expected to learn well without those capacities. Yet our schools consistently drain kids' sleep reserves by forcing them to wake up before dawn for early first bells, occupying them late into the evening with over-long practices, and then keeping them up still later with hours of studying. We can help our students this year by campaigning for more humane school start times and homework limits that respect healthy bedtimes. Communities such as Ridgewood, New Jersey, and Boulder, Colorado, have already begun.

Play. Structured activities such as soccer practices and dance rehearsals can be fun and beneficial for kids, but they should not be mistaken for play. True play, in which children design their own pastimes without adults' direction, is growing ever more rare these days. Yet it is essential to healthy development. In fact, recent research shows that children who get fewer chances for unstructured playtime tend to lack critical self-management skills. By freeing some our children's time from scripted activities--and freeing ourselves of the nagging feeling that we must fill their every moment--we can help them hone important skills. Who knows to what discoveries an unencumbered afternoon, spent reading or playing outside or building a fort or tinkering in the garage, might lead?

Support in pursuing genuine interests, not cramming their résumés with credentials. The accelerating arms race for college admission convinces children and families that they must acquire an exhausting list of academic and extracurricular achievements, always aiming to do a little more than the next kid. Lost in this competition is the value of real learning, not merely getting the trophy or the grade. The race deprives individual children of chances to pursue the particular subjects and activities that truly stimulate their minds, and leave them little room to make mistakes and grow from them. This year, let's give our students space to choose the pursuits they truly care about, and to risk trying something new no matter how well they might score. Schools such as High Tech High in San Diego, California, and the entire district of Trigg County, Kentucky, can be our guides.

Opportunities to learn deeply, exploring problems without prescribed answers. The pressure of standardized tests keeps our education system hooked on narrow questions and right answers. In the rush to cover everything that might be tested, teachers and students miss chances to create and explore. Some of the best preparation we can give our kids this year might be an open-ended challenge--a research question of the student's own choosing, a project to solve a community problem--and the support to tackle it. Schools in New York's Performance Standards Consortium, for example, encourage this kind of inquiry.

A new definition of success. Almost from birth, our kids absorb society's image of success. And it's a narrow one: score the highest, run the fastest, get into the most prestigious college, and get on your way to a high-income career and a high-status life. Too many young people mortgage their childhoods to get there, fearing that anything less will be failure. They need relief. Starting now, our students need to hear from us that their health matters more than their alma mater. They need a new set of exemplars, model adults who didn't go to Dartmouth but still found their way to satisfying work and financial stability--of whom there are many. And they need us to show them, in our words and deeds, that what counts most in life is integrity, wellness, purpose, interpersonal connection, and joy.