Let’s Get This Right: Raising Healthy Children

Last week I referred to an excellent piece by NAIS President John Chubb entitled Thinking About Emotion.  I hope you read it, because it describes in a most thoughtful way a central challenge facing schools, parents, and everyone who cares about young people: the alarming rates of anxiety and depression among our children.

Last year, the World Health Organization released a report calling depression the number one cause of illness and disability in teenagers and pre-teens worldwide.  In 2010, Psychology Today reported that five to eight times as many high school and college students exhibit symptoms of “major depression and/or an anxiety disorder” than teenagers of fifty years ago.

In the face of such alarming trends, it should give us pause to hear Mr. Chubb say “We know far more about how to teach reading and mathematics than how to promote emotional growth and happiness.”  While this statement rings true, I hope neither educators nor parents will relent in seeking better outcomes for our children.  After all, what good are great academic and college placement resumes if we produce young people with neither the non-IQ skills that correlate with professional success nor the emotional well being to lead healthy, productive lives?

Recently, a high school student in Palo Alto, California wrote this powerful essay for her local newspaper.  In it, she describes the destructive impact of constant high expectations and the achievement culture reinforced by school and parents.  Honesty compels us to admit that we live in a similar environment here in Fairfield County.  But even if we didn’t, we should take seriously the likelihood that our children experience the same pressures and the same emotional risks as middle and high school students across America.

And don’t we—parents, schools—know a few things about how to promote emotional growth and happiness?  I think we know a lot, but we find it difficult to do what we know breeds healthy, happy kids. We fear that doing those things will lower their test scores, enable others to garner the limited places in highly selective colleges, and weaken our competitive advantage.  But getting this right could mean the difference between raising healthier generations or worsening the rates of adolescent depression and anxiety.  In the end, will we re-prioritize?  Will we implement new practices that support children’s wellbeing?  Or will we rely on conventional practices, unreasonable achievement expectations, success measured by test scores and college admissions, and other approaches that seem to do children so much emotional harm?

We don’t need to drive kids crazy to educate them. Given freedom and opportunity, without coercion, young people educate themselves. They do so joyfully, and in the process they develop intrinsic values, personal self-control, and emotional wellbeing.”  

This excerpt from Psychology Today points to something our faculty has observed (and been thrilled by): Give students more control over learning and they are more motivated. They find work that they influence more rewarding, valuable, and enjoyable. We’ve seen this for years in our Scholars and Independent Study programs. We’ve seen it in many individual teacher’s classrooms (think of Nancy Sarno’s art classes where students are pushed to explore and trust their instincts).  But recently, we’ve had opportunities to see it on a larger scale. And we like what we see.

This year’s J-Term offers a powerful example. The entire ninth-grade participated and as one student said: “J-Term is really your journey, and you choose what you’re going to get out of it.” What teachers got out of it was deep satisfaction as young students embraced responsibility for meaningful learning. These children were ready to collaborate and plan. Ready to research and interview and reflect. Ready to knock our collective socks off at the final symposium.

designLab Director Michael Mitchell has a name for the joy and investment found in self-directed work: Hard Fun.* He sees it in his engineering courses where students learn through a “mastery” approach—moving forward at their own pace as they master concepts. He sees it in St. Luke’s various maker activities, and school-wide, optional experiences such as our Hackathon, and Rube Goldberg events—where students work tirelessly, not for a grade, but for pure pleasure.

Certainly “hard fun” is not the single antidote to student angst and depression. But ideas for educating without driving kids crazy certainly merit our attention.

As always, it takes a village to care for our children. I welcome your thoughts on this important topic. Please share your views using the comment button (just click on the speech bubble icon just right of the headline) or send me an email: davism@stlukesct.org

*From Seymour Papert’s Hard Fun

UPDATE This very relevant piece just in from the NYTimes: When the culture expects “uber-excellence,” kids suffer, and even die: “Push, Don’t Crush, the Students”