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Losing Our Moral Compass: The Negative Effects of Overstressing Academic Achievement

I look at the story headlines in various magazines and newspapers. “Gotta Start ‘em Young!” shouts one; “Test Scores Down” shouts another. Article after article talks about getting children into the best preschool in order to give them a strong academic foundation and increase chances to go to the best colleges. There are debates about the national test score-focused “No Child Left Behind,” where many believe teachers have to sacrifice control and creativity in order to “teach to the tests.” Others decry our nation’s weak scores in key areas of science and math as compared to other countries.

Meanwhile, there are the other stories, the ones that concern me more, to be honest. Depression and suicide rates are rising among teens and especially among pre-teens. Mental health problems are a virtual epidemic on college campuses. But the headline that really triggered this column was “School cheating scandal divides N.H. town.”

In Hanover, New Hampshire, where an Ivy League school, Dartmouth College, is located, nine students from the local high school were arrested on charges of breaking and entering. They allegedly carried out a plan that involved stealing keys from teachers, breaking into the school, stealing copies of finals, and distributing them to friends.

There are two interesting aspects to this story. One is that students would go to such great lengths and commit criminal acts to try to get better test scores. The other is how the parents of those accused are furious that the police were brought in and believe the matter should be handled “in house.” That’s another way of saying, please just give our children a little slap on the wrist and forgive their foolishness so their chance for greatness won’t be diminished.

It really does start with the parents, their values and beliefs, from preschool years and on. They are both victims and perpetrators. The former refers to parents being inundated with misleading information from the media and various “experts” that keeps claiming it is academic achievement that will determine your child’s chance for a successful life. Too many parents have bought this story line even though research and common sense make it clear to be a false set of values. Parents then behave in a way to hold their children to these standards and expectations, creating an unreal amount of stress in home after home.

It’s really a shame. Let’s start with preschool. What should children really be learning here? It is their introduction to the educational system. They need to learn to respect and trust teachers as important adults in their lives. Of course, for that to happen, the teachers need to make them feel safe by identifying their strengths and interests and building on them, by using play as the central learning mode because that is most age-appropriate, and by helping children to develop early social skills. If the neighborhood preschool does this satisfactorily, then I urge parents to choose it over the “better preschool” in another part of town that makes life more complicated and, usually, carries with it increased expense, higher expectations, and the start of making school performance a source of great stress for the entire family.

We chose the easy, neighborhood path with our two sons. They had wonderful experiences, walked there with their friends, and it was a relaxed time for all. Being in the Boston area, there were obviously choices that would have put more stress on beginning academic skills just as the option of private schooling was readily available over the rest of their public education. But the boys wanted to stay with their friends and we didn’t really believe private school was necessary for either child.

Please note I do believe that private school is a best fit for some children, whether it is due to the need for smaller classes, the need for a curriculum that emphasizes different strengths (especially the artistic, creative children), or a program better suited to a child with special needs. Beyond that, it’s just not essential to spend all that money and set all those higher expectations.

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Both of our sons have very successful careers despite ordinary preschool experiences and just “good colleges.” Their degree of personal happiness, as is the case with nearly everyone, is not determined by academically related factors. It is based on many psychological and social issues that schools never address: Marriage, family, friendships, self-awareness, and self-confidence. It is also impacted by chance events such as medical issues.

Losing Our Moral Compass: The Negative Effects of Overstressing Academic Achievement

Kalman Heller, PhD

Dr. Kalman Heller is a retired psychologist who ran a successful private practice. He previously wrote a monthly column for a local newspaper, and later took his "ParenTalk" column online. This article is reprinted from his online column with his permission.

APA Reference
Heller, K. (2018). Losing Our Moral Compass: The Negative Effects of Overstressing Academic Achievement. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.