Education Blog

The Harmful Pressures on Kids to Succeed

by Neal M. Brown, Head of School, Green Acres School

At the risk of belaboring the point, I want, once again, to draw attention to the misguided, counterproductive, and harmful level of pressure that many schools and parents are placing on our children and teenagers. Some level of stress is necessary for most types of true achievement, but too much, coupled with too little sleep and too much fear of failure, inhibits learning and literally makes our children unhealthy. We need to set high standards for them—or better, help them to set high standards for themselves—but more homework, more rote learning, more impersonal classroom environments, less tolerance for mistakes, and increasingly narrow definitions of success are not making our students and children any smarter, healthier, or more successful.

Vicki Abeles (Race to Nowhere) captures the errors of our ways as educators in her recent New York Times piece, “Is the Drive for Success Making our Children Sick?” And Valerie Strauss, in the recent Washington Post article, “The Message our Children Need to Hear but Almost Never Do” similarly describes the pitfalls of too much parental pressure. A Times article by Kyle Spencer worth reading highlights the challenges school districts face when they seek to address these pressures.

All of these writers argue that high levels of stress undermine learning, and that setting high standards for students does not have to come at the expense of balance, health, learning, or success. Abeles calls upon parents, educators, and students to make “small but important changes: instituting everyday homework limits [ . . . ], adding advisory periods for student support, and providing students opportunities to show their growth in creative ways beyond conventional tests.” Strauss calls for “a world that doesn’t just grind up our children.” Instead of focusing our energy on worrying about children making the “‘wrong moves,’” she argues, we should focus on what they’re doing right. Referencing such an example set by a New Jersey school district near Princeton, Spencer advocates a “holistic, ‘whole-child’ approach [ . . . ] that respects ‘social-emotional development’ and ‘deep and meaningful learning’ over academics alone.”

At least some schools and districts are trying—and some parents also are listening. I’d like to believe that in the four years since I wrote Elementary School Leadership in an Age of Anxiety for Independent School Magazine, we’ve become as a society better attuned to the harmful pressures our children experience. As this issue continues to receive national attention in the media, my hope is that schools and educators will be reminded to make a greater effort to ignite a spark for learning, to celebrate effort and even failure, to focus on homework’s quality rather than its quantity, and to engage in more forthright discussions among teachers, students, and parents about what really constitutes success. Let’s instill in children what they most need for a life of accomplishment and joy.

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