School Stress: Rescuing Our Children

We want to prepare our children for the real world, allowing them to experience challenges and even (yikes!) fail at times, developing resiliency. We must, however, find a better balance, evaluating common stressors, and ask ourselves -- what in the educational environment no longer serves us?
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Stress, according to noted Slovakian researcher Hans Selye, is neither good nor bad. Instead, it is defined as "the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change." At some point, though, stress ceases being an impetus for productive effort in the service of positive performance and instead overwhelms our bodies, minds and spirits. The result? Fatigue, withdrawal and, ultimately, breakdown. As a pediatrician, I witness this phenomenon regularly in the form of the American adolescent, one after another, coming to me with debilitating migraines, chronic abdominal pains and severe depression.

The daily life of a high school student is marked by poor eating habits, limited physical activity, lack of adequate sleep, no outdoor time and not one minute of downtime. Any time not spent being "productive" inevitably involves a screen of some sort. According to a recent study, teens manage stress predominantly by playing video games, surfing the internet and watching TV/movies. Snapchat, Netflix, Mortal Kombat... take your pick. These diversions are our kids' stress coping skills. Sadly, it appears they're learning well from their parents. While 43 percent of adults report exercising to alleviate anxiety, a whopping 62 percent claim their go-to stress reliever involves screen time. When I ask kids how they believe their parents are coping, most say "poorly." We clearly need to be better role models for our children. The good news is there are alternative stress-coping methods that are inexpensive, accessible, safe and effective. In a newly published systematic review, my colleagues and I concluded that yoga has a significantly positive effect on pediatric psychological functioning. Specifically, educational programs incorporating yoga in stress management programs improved academic performance, self-esteem, classroom behaviors, concentration, and emotional balance. Mindfulness training for students and teachers is now widely recognized as a valuable tool to improve stress coping, improve focus and complement social-emotional learning initiatives. Pediatrician Dzung Vo, author of The Mindful Teen, has created a wonderful resource for teens to explore and integrate mindfulness meditation in their lives. Finally, kids who spend more time in natural settings have measurable improvements in health, cognitive functioning, and classroom behavior. The Children and Nature Network has compiled a thorough review of research on how nature impacts our children's well being.

School stress -- both academic and social -- is a major contributor to deteriorating adolescent health. According to a recently published landmark study, nearly half of 11th grade students surveyed reported "a great deal of stress" on a daily basis. They declared "schoolwork, grades, and college admissions constituted their greatest sources of stress." While some in the study found moderate amounts of stress could be motivating, an astonishing one in four subjects was suffering with symptoms of clinical depression. So here is the rub -- how much stress is the right amount?

Dr. Mary Alvord and Dr. Marya Gwadz are psychologists, experts in the field of adolescent stress. Both were quoted in The Atlantic's piece profiling Gwadz's study.

"[T]oo much stress has many effects on the body and mind, Alvord says. In the short term it can cause anxiety; over long periods of time, elevated levels of stress hormones can degrade the immune system, cause heart problems, exacerbate respiratory and gastrointestinal issues, and bring on chronic anxiety and depression. That's bad for anyone, but it can be especially bad for high schoolers: "Colleges are complaining that kids are disengaged, they're dropping out, taking a long time to graduate. It's not developmentally appropriate for them to work so hard," says Gwadz, one of the authors of the recent study. And since everyone has a different psychological capacity for stress, it's hard to know when a student is pushed to the point of degrading his or her health."

We want to prepare our children for the real world, allowing them to experience challenges and even (yikes!) fail at times, developing resiliency. We must, however, find a better balance, evaluating common stressors, and ask ourselves -- what in the educational environment no longer serves us?

Vicki Abeles, director and producer of the seminal educational documentary, Race to Nowhere, and a just-released sequel, Beyond Measure, believes the answers to this question are in fact many of the strategies we are employing to fix a broken-down educational system. Standardized common core curricula and testing measures are contributing unnecessarily to stress while failing to create a productive and healthy educational environment. Abeles challenges our preconceptions with a barrage of thought-provoking questions.

"Rather than ask why our students fail to measure up, the film asks us to reconsider the greater purpose of education. What if our education system valued personal growth over test scores? Put inquiry over mimicry? Encouraged passion over rankings? What if we decided that the higher aim of school was not the transmission of facts or formulas, but the transformation of every student? And what if this paradigm-shift was driven from the ground up? By students, parents, and educators? By all of us?"

The film (and its accompanying book), thankfully, does not simply point out what's gone wrong but also offers us models that could serve as templates for a brighter future. The schools profiled in Beyond Measure nurture creativity, collaboration, persistence and resiliency as critical life-long skills. They provide for us a much-needed road map to a different kind of success -- one that does not sacrifice our children's well being in the process.

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