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Lifestyles of the Young and Driven

Chris is a big, blond kid with an engaging smile who loves sports, especially basketball. He is a conscientious, enthusiastic, straight-A student at his Collin County suburban public school. So his parents were astonished when his teacher explained Chris had become so fearful of marking a wrong answer, he had begun turning assignments in blank. He’s 7 years old.

Chris’ struggle with class work has spilled over to other areas like drawing pictures. He’ll persist, becoming increasingly anxious because none are “perfect” until his mother tells him he’s used enough paper.

Unfortunately, Chris’s behavior is not unusual. Many children across the Metroplex (and the country) are struggling under intense pressure to do exceptionally well in school and keep an active extracurricular and social life. And the drumbeat to perform is striking at even younger ages.

Whose Need Is It to Achieve, Anyway?
Would you recognize it if your own child were pushing himself too hard? Experts warn that parents are probably the last to notice … and may contribute to the dilemma.

“Kids today do not necessarily exhibit the classic signs of emotional stress,” says Dr. Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege. And it’s difficult to pinpoint who is under too much strain because what might seem like an overachieving child in one family may thrive under the same conditions in another. Levine advises that stress for younger children might first show itself as headaches, stomachaches or perhaps tears, making it critical to observe your child and know when he’s been pushed too far. We have to remember children grow and progress, mentally and physically, at varying rates, she explains.

According to acclaimed research completed by Russell Rumberger, professor of education at Stanford University, the students' family background is widely recognized as the most significant contributor to success in school. And the issue is exacerbated for private school families. "Parents of children attending high-achieving schools desired and expected a significantly higher level of academic achievement than the parent of children at both of the other school groups (low achieving and moderate). In addition, they had maintained these attitudes longer than the parents at both of the other school groups," notes Rumberger.

Valerie Stowell-Hart, a past national teacher-of-the-year finalist, taught third and fourth grade in the Plano Independent School District before moving to Ohio. In the last ten years, she has seen increased pressure for perfect grades placed on children in her classroom by their parents.  “Rarely is the pressure self-imposed, unless there are some real issues with perfectionism or OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder),” she offers.  

Stowell-Hart says parents don't see that they are applying the pressure. In ‘helping’ their kids ‘cope’ many parents have their kids in counseling. “Two of my former students ended up in the psych ward of our Cleveland clinic and had to work with our team in transitioning back into the classroom,” she recalls. “Parents felt kids were pressured in school, both in AP classes and many extracurriculars, and didn't see that they were also applying the pressure and won't even entertain the thought of backing out the these classes (which are tough) or cutting back on the extracurriculars.”

And, let’s face it, different personalities handle the pressure in dissimilar ways, making it critical for parents to understand what is best for each individual student. Such differences are readily apparent between Chris and his twin brother. Chris, who is off the charts in both height and weight, is athletically gifted and has yet to find a sport he can’t play well. His brother, who was reading independently at age 4, was the only child in the school’s kindergarten class to test high enough for the gifted and talented program and has shown no struggle with homework. Nor does he concern himself with getting his homework or projects “perfect.” Instead, he moves quickly on to something new as soon as he completes a task.

Even if they love everything they are doing (and seem to handle it all with ease), parents need to monitor, and, in some cases, cut back on the intensity level for their child’s welfare — “to allow them to have a childhood,” says Dr. Denise Clark Pope, author of Doing School: How We are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students.

Sending Out an SOS
Pope is someone who is trying to make a difference. A Stanford lecturer, she founded SOS, the Stressed-Out Students project, a program dedicated to redefining the meaning of success to put the fun back into learning by shifting students' focus from the outcome to the education itself. “Nine- to 13-year-olds are more stressed by academics than anything else in their lives. And it tends to be a suburban problem,” she notes.

Through her investigation, Pope reports that "while much research on school achievement, motivation and stress has been conducted, few studies examine the students' perspective on these issues, and even fewer address the school communities' experiences as they attempt to enact change on issues of academic stress.”

She adds, “Schools place emphasis on facts that are tested, and kids have no say, no voice, no choice in what is tested or how. It's all about quantification and external numbers. The assessment setup promotes individual achievement over group cooperation.” Pope advocates a curriculum that is more project-based and less about individual assessments (which would help kids like Chris who struggle with testing anxiety). Her work has already impacted several schools, challenging administrators to reevaluate homework and testing policies, among other teaching innovations.

Claudia Kuhnast is a school counselor at Lucas Christian Academy, a college-style program in Collin County with classes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and home school on Tuesday and Thursday.

“We are seeing more students — now about 60 percent — coming to our school from the public system,” she reports.  “And we’re seeing one of two things: Either the public school children are coming in overly stressed and more than academically capable or they were not challenged enough at their previous school and find our program too rigorous.”

Kuhnast’s observations showcase a worrying trend: Kids are striving to continually make As or the students are passing classes without putting forth much effort. Either the students are overly driven and don’t know when or how to back off from the next goal, or they spend more time playing the system than actively engaging in learning.

These are the kids who inspired Pope to form SOS.

How One Family Copes
Meet Zander. He is an articulate, well-adjusted eighth-grader who was home-schooled for years before attending his current private school in the Dallas area. He likes his classes, a split between the eighth and ninth grade level, with his ninth-grade physical science course being the most challenging. He and a friend do compare grades, but because their scores tend to be similar, it doesn’t bother him. In fact, that competition makes him try harder. Zander’s parents have clear goals for themselves and their children. Their house rule is to endeavor to do your best and understand the material being taught; the grade itself doesn’t matter.

Zander enjoys school, especially the social interaction, though he does get stressed when his homework and sports vie for his time. He says his parents help coach him on how to handle both commitments. Zander’s mother reports, “He just had a game that was an hour away, so we knew that it would eat at least three hours from his homework time. We sat him down the night before the game and talked to him about what he could do then and what time he’d have available the next day after the game. We work hard to teach our kids to think about the big picture and how to break that down into smaller, more manageable chunks.”

Levine says the problem with over-scheduling and high achievement isn’t the multitude of activities, because kids are very robust. It is the amount of criticism and evaluation that go along with these structured activities. Constant judgment can stifle creativity and imagination. “You’d never tell your toddlers that if they continue to fall down, they’ll never walk,” says Levine. “Falling down is part of learning how to get up. It’s not aided by adult commentary.”  

“Parents have to realize that they [the parents] are educated and capable at some things but average at others,” continues Levine.  “I have children in my practice telling me a C is the new F. But a C is an average grade, not an F.”

The bottom line: Kids need time to decompress, too.  “Down time is necessary; it’s why we sleep,” explains Levine. It’s also a time when children process the volume of information they’ve been exposed to throughout the day. Free play and time outside are activities that advance a child’s cognitive skills.    

What Educators Are Doing
Schools like Zander’s and Chris’ are trying to combat society’s perception that kids must achieve continually and at high levels to be considered successful. There will always be a multitude of activities and advanced classes for students to take.

The trick is finding the right balance for your family. Zander’s mother says,  “There’s only so much time you can give to outside activities and have time together as a family, which is our number one priority. You draw the line when the household is not enjoying each other and not enjoying the process. We try to eat together as a family at least four nights a week, and dinner may last an hour and a half. It’s our stress relief. We’re having this discussion at the school now because if the students pursued all the activities that were available, they’d burn out.”

Susie Wolbe, PhD, is the principal of the Ann and Nate Levine Academy, a school that is known for its rigorous academic and religious studies. After reading about the SOS program, she immediately went out and bought 10 copies each of Pope’s and Levine’s books for her faculty. Because parents and staff had been looking for ways to ease student strain, the school sent a delegation to the next SOS Conference.

“We’ve already modified our project/test calendar so that children have no more than two tests or projects on any given day.” The school just eliminated the academic honor roll to lessen competition between students and has started offering a “show off” portion on tests. “These kids study all this material, but only X amount makes it on to the exam. So, we give them space to tell us what else they know for extra credit, which makes them feel good,” she reports.

Highland Park Independent School District has earned a reputation for turning out high-achieving students, with more than 97 percent of its student body going on to attend college. To combat the growing concern that students are not coping well with missteps and setbacks, HPISD instituted resiliency training for its teachers and staff. Now educators lead students through an A.B.C. process:  Adversity, Belief and Consequences. The final step is Disputation, or the process of challenging one’s thinking to identify destructive behavior.  

“We try to help the students focus on their feelings. Self-awareness is the key because there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” says Margaret Arnold, Highland Park Middle School counselor. As Arnold adds, stress may be a perception, not a reality based on prior experiences of success and failure. So while some kids are driven to succeed, others may become overly fearful, like Chris, and simply shut down.

HPISD places emphasis on teaching students to ponder ideas and theories rather than memorizing facts in the textbooks. Arnold and Barbara Clinton, another HPISD counselor, say teachers focus on imparting critical thinking skills in their curriculum, especially as many of the jobs these kids will have by the time they graduate from college do not yet exist.  

Time to Simply Tinker
It’s important to let kids slow down to ponder what they want and to allow them to make their own mistakes. Chris’ parents are working with him, teaching him that part of the learning process lies in getting answers wrong. They need to show him that they make mistakes and learn from them, as well. Children pick up on both verbal and nonverbal communications, so it’s necessary to be consistent in how you act and what you say, says Pope.

Happy, healthy and educated kids are possible. It’s the need to attain perfection in all areas of life that may affect mental and physical health. Perfect grades and a six-page college resume still may not get your student into Harvard. But she will remember the hours spent trying to get there. School is part of the process of becoming successful, and so is unstructured time to play, to make mistakes, to be creative.

As Pope points out, imagine if Steve Jobs had no time to tinker in his garage because he had to go to piano lessons and SAT prep class and art class and was on a travel baseball team that had practice five times a week and away games on the weekend. … “I am not sure he could have invented the Mac,” she wryly notes.