Is School a Healthy Place for Your Child?It continues to amaze me that contemporary parents who are so concerned about their children’s health and safety continue to ignore all the evidence that school is increasingly an unhealthy place for their children.

Yes, it’s September. Your children are back in school and it is time for my annual article urging parents to work toward creating a healthier and better-rounded education for their children.

In a recent three-week period, there were three newspaper articles underscoring how schools have increasingly become pressure cookers that may be harmful to your children. A few years ago, in the Boston Globe, there was an article about some local high schools trying to develop ways of reducing teen stress. I have reported in past columns about the epidemic of anxiety, depression, and eating disorders among high school students. Parents and high school staff, especially in affluent suburbs, have become obsessed with building resumes in order to get into the best possible colleges, even though the evidence continues to say that the college you go to is not a significant predictor of life success.

The Globe article described groups of parents and staff who are recognizing this and even report that college admissions offices are accepting some responsibility for this trend. The admissions staff are concerned about a rise in the number of new students who are arriving on campuses in poor physical and mental health. (Again, I have reported before about the epidemic of mental health problems among college students that are simply overwhelming the inadequately staffed college counseling centers.)

Small steps being taken by some schools include eliminating homework over vacations, eliminating mid-year exams, and adding yoga to phys ed. (Of course phys ed is disappearing from our schools!) I love the idea of yoga classes in high schools. There is an abundance of evidence that teaching some form of stress management is essential for reducing the negative impact of excessive stress. In turn, learning to manage stress is a critical component in developing problem-solving skills and boosting self-confidence.

Of course, some administrators see this as psychobabble and talk about asking more of their students rather than less. I think these administrators are more concerned with the ranking of their high schools than the needs of their students. In our country’s obsession with getting results now, we are turning high schools into junior colleges with an ever-increasing focus on having students taking honors and advanced placement courses. Meanwhile, high schools continue to ignore the plea by physicians that our teens are suffering from sleep deprivation, noting that high school schedules (early morning starts) ignore the changing sleep patterns of teens. Research has shown that students learn more when they have had a good night’s sleep and have eaten a reasonable breakfast and lunch. Such obvious needs are being ignored. And we trust our children’s welfare to these people?

On August 6th, a Boston Globe article reported that elementary school lunches are shrinking. In just the past two years, lunch periods, on average, have been reduced from 30 minutes to 24 minutes. That’s the lunch period. Subtract the time it takes to get to the cafeteria, assuming the students leave class exactly on time (which, reportedly is often not the case), and children generally have less than 20 minutes to eat. Much too rushed.

It’s not only about having time to eat. Lunch period is an important socializing time as well as a break from the rigors of the classroom. When you add to this, reports of shrinking recess as well, there is a clear pattern of schools increasing anxiety about statewide test scores and trying to cram more academics into the school day. The school day unfortunately has become increasingly focused on teaching to the tests and less on teachers being able to introduce creative curriculum.

If there really isn’t enough time in the school day to address all these needs, why not lengthen the school day? When did six hours become the golden rule? The best of our schools, highly rated private day schools, keep children all day and add mandatory participation in sports as well as providing increased access to teachers and smaller classes so education can be more individualized. No reason public schools can’t do this. Except for unions. Private school teachers do this for less pay and benefits. It shouldn’t be about the money. Most teachers spend hours at home correcting papers and planning classes. If they had a longer day at work, time could be made available for their “homework” to be done at school.

The distorted expectations just keep creeping downward. The pressure to achieve academically is increasingly dominating our model of education, ignoring the old saying about teaching the total child – cognitive, social and emotional aspects need to be balanced for a healthy life. Schools are failing our children by ignoring the social and emotional needs and parents have unfortunately become their accomplices in this process. In fact, parents are often the driving force.

Think I’m exaggerating the scariness of these trends?

In a Wall Street Journal article a few years ago, the headline read, “Falling ‘Behind’ at Age 3.” Age 3!! Apparently elementary schools, again succumbing to pressure to do well on statewide tests, have begun giving messages to parents and pre-schools that children need to enter kindergarten with stronger academic skills. Thus, many preschool programs now market themselves as being focused on developing stronger academic foundations. Another driving force is that there is more state and federal money being invested in early education and the government wants data to prove it’s a worthwhile investment.

The article reports that many preschools are teaching very young children in groups in order to achieve higher levels of basic skills in numbers, letters, and vocabulary. Parents of some three-year-olds are being told to drill their children at home because the children are not keeping up with their peers! Do you still think I’m overstating my concerns? Have educators totally lost sight of everything we know about early childhood development?

Oh, it doesn’t help when Newsweek comes out with a cover story in August about how much more intelligent infants are at birth, how much they “learn” in the early days and months of life. Despite the inclusion of comments by leading professionals that this is not a call to overstimulate your infants, this is bound to result in companies publishing more trash to anxious parents with guarantees to raise your child’s IQ by using their new proven techniques on your week-old baby.

What everyone keeps forgetting is that children develop at different rates, in different ways, with different temperaments. There is a proven value in taking children who lack reasonable exposure to parents who talk and read to them (especially those parents who lack English language skills) and giving those children a “Head Start.” But for the rest of the children, it is much more important to create an academic track that speaks to their individual differences as well as includes a significant focus on physical, social, and emotional development.

The sad thing is that this emphasis on academic achievement, on the IQ aspects of the child, is being misplaced. Obviously it is important to provide children with solid basic academic skills as well as to challenge the mind of our more gifted children. But not at the TOTAL expense of what we have come to call “Emotional Intelligence (EQ).”

At a recent workshop, I listened to the latest data on the evolution of the concept of EQ and research results underscoring how it is EQ, not IQ, which primarily differentiates the winners from the losers in the game of life. High EQ adults have several of the following traits: emotional awareness, empathy, strong interpersonal relationships, positive self-regard, real-world problem-solving skills, flexibility, social responsibility, stress tolerance, impulse control, and the ability to enjoy life in the present and to anticipate that future life will be good. The data is beginning to demonstrate that emotional skills end up accounting for two-thirds of career success compared to only one-third being attributed to technical skills.

If this EQ data is correct, and my 35-plus years as a therapist strongly convinces me that these skills are the critical factors in creating career and personal life success, then our society needs to take a long hard look at what we are supposed to be teaching our children to best prepare them for the real world. Sadly, the academic world has such little relationship to the real world. So many poor students have successful lives and too many outstanding students never live up to their “potential.”

Thus every small step that can be taken to reshape the focus of our schools into addressing the needs of the whole child, from yoga classes to more sleep for teens to ridding high schools of junk food to the elimination of most homework is a step in the right direction. In the end, only parents can make this happen. If you are really concerned about the best way to prepare your children for their future as adults, you will take these concerns seriously and demand healthy changes in the way we educate our children.

 

APA Reference
Heller, K. (2012). Is School a Healthy Place for Your Child?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/is-school-a-healthy-place-for-your-child/00011432
Scientifically Reviewed
    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
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