I loved elementary school. My classmates did too. We learned cool stuff there. We made friends. We had recess! We had homework, but not much. We had tests, but not many. We were pushed, but never harder than we could handle. My generation born at the tail end of the Baby Boom was allowed to develop in our own time, to experiment, and to take risks. Anxiety wasn’t part of our vernacular. No one expected that who we were at eight years old would determine who we would be at twenty and certainly not at forty. Wow, have things changed.
The national crisis of under-served and at-risk public school students confronts us every day in real time and in the media. This is a pressing issue I intend to address in future blogs. But today I want to talk about a far less publicized yet equally dangerous crisis afoot among a different student population – the over-served and at-risk. Children at the top public and private schools across the country are envied for their privilege. What few people realize is that they’re also literally dying for it. (The Silicon Valley Suicides) For many of these high-achieving children, the pressure placed on them at school has become unbearable.
I just got off the phone with Michelle, a mother who described her fifth grade daughter, Olivia, as “paralyzed with anxiety.” The words fifth grade and anxiety shouldn’t even be spoken in the same sentence. And yet, there they were. And there they have been with increasing frequency for twenty years.
In the best of all possible worlds, ten-year-olds shouldn’t be anxious – ever. Ten is the perfect age. It’s the time when children have a solid grasp on reality, but wonder still prevails. When they can think critically but don’t respond cynically. When their capacity for compassion hasn’t been crushed by heartache. When they are intellectually curious and can satisfy that curiosity with an impressive degree of independence. When they have begun to be socially savvy, but that hasn’t impaired their spontaneity. In other words, ten-year-olds are awesome!
Sadly, there is no best world, and children bear the brunt of that reality. Neglect, abuse, divorce, racism, and sexism are just some of the forces which create anxiety for our kids. School should be a safe haven from all that. School should be the place where children are free to flourish intellectually, emotionally, and artistically, unencumbered by what a mess the adults have made of the outside world. Not only should school be that place; it can and must be. But I now regularly meet with students and their parents for whom academic anxiety has become a daily part of their lives. How has school become the source of so much psychic pain, and why isn’t something being done about it?
The picture Michelle painted was all too familiar. Her sweet, joyful, talented, and extremely intelligent little girl, who has always adored school and loved to learn, had been welcomed back to school by her teacher’s boastful admonition, “Fifth grade is a killer year. We really lay it on thick to prepare you for sixth grade, which is brutal. Few of you will survive this year without deep psychological wounds, deadened intellectual curiosity, and dwarfed creativity. May the best ten-year-old win.”
Okay, so I exaggerated a little. But it’s now common to scare the hell out of kids ostensibly to ready them for the future. Kindergartners are terrified of first grade. Middle schoolers are terrified of high school. College students are terrified of what awaits them after graduation.
Olivia and her classmates, like millions of children across the country, carry so many textbooks that their backpacks weigh more than they do. We’re raising a generation of children with scoliosis. And have you read those textbooks? They’re horrible -- flat-footed, mind-numbing, and even dishonest (Texan mom wins fight against textbook that 'erased' slavery. )
The axiom that we learn from our mistakes has been taken to such ridiculous proportions that scholastic mine fields are intentionally set for the kids. Tests are cranked so far above even the most gifted student’s level that failure is guaranteed.
Olivia, the reigning spelling bee queen at her school, failed a spelling test including the words eudaemonic and insouciant , notably both qualities her teacher lacks, and neither of which Olivia was told to study.
Schools have now taken it upon themselves to “prepare children for the real world.” I’m not talking about preparing them in the way of nurturing critical thinkers and conscientious citizens. I’m talking about exposing them to images and information that they’re developmentally unprepared to process all in the name of readying them for the adult world. Olivia’s science teacher showed the class a film about flesh eating diseases. When was the last time your “real world” threw you in the face of necrotizing fasciitis?
We the parents and the reasonable educators are the first and potentially most powerful line of defense against the anxious tide flooding our schools. It’s time to act!
If you want to read about a school that’s doing it right, check out New Roads School http://www.newroads.org/. And if you know of other great schools, please share them here.