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March 30, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Q and A with Denise Clark Pope Q and A with Denise Clark Pope (March 30, 2005)

Can you paint a portrait of a stressed-out student?

Students manifest their stress in many different ways. When we talk about academic stress, we see students who have too much work to do and too little time in which to do it. They are overscheduled - both in school -- with too many classes, or too many advanced courses, and out of school - with so many extracurricular activities, sports, tutoring, etc. that they have no time to reflect on what they are learning/doing. Many admit that they are simply "doing school" - not engaging in depth with material or even enjoying the activities that they do. As one student explains, "we are "robo-students" - just going page by page, doing the routine. School is lifeless." This particular student is taking 5 AP classes and participates in over 20 different activities in and outside of school. She often doesn't get home until 10 pm (after sports practice and club meetings) and then faces hours and hours of homework. She relies on caffeine and no-doze to stay awake, and she averages 3-5 hours of sleep each night. She skips meals to find more time to study and she lives in a constant state of stress.

What are the origins of all this pressure?

Students feel pressure from a variety of sources. They feel pressure from the middle schools and high schools to go to college, to take college prep courses, and to do well on standardized tests. They feel pressure from their parents to get high grades and test scores that will make them eligible for selective colleges. They feel pressure from their peers to compete, to keep up with each other and even outdo each other in terms of grades and participation in extracurricular activities. (i.e. if "everyone" has a tutor, so must I - or if "everyone" is doing SAT prep courses, then I need to take these as well - or I will fall behind....) And they feel pressure because they know that more students than ever before are applying to colleges, and that approximately 80 percent of these college-bound students are applying to the same small (approximately 20 percent) number of selective schools. We send messages as parents, educators, and as a society, that those who get the best grades and who go to the best schools are considered successful. There are kids out there who believe that getting a B in a class is equivalent to failing. And that going to community college will shame their family and ruin their future. How wrong they are. ... I blame all of this on a problematic definition of success.

When did you see the goals shift from learning to just getting straight A's?

This has always happened to some extent. ... But historians agree with educators that they have seen a steady increase in this behavior since the 1980s, and that in the past 10 to 15 years, things have escalated to a point of frenzy.

Since your book came out in 2001, has it gotten better or worse?


What will this generation be like as adults?

We are finding that these overscheduled, stressed-out kids are actually less innovative than those who grew up with free, unstructured time to play, to make mistakes, to tinker around. Imagine if Steve Jobs had no time to tinker in his garage because he had to go to piano lessons and SAT prep class and art class and was on a travel baseball team that had practice five times a week and away games on the weekend. ... I am not sure he could have invented the Mac.

What are parents and students focusing on and what should they be focusing on?

Here's what they should be focusing on - what is best for each individual student. Look at your child's schedule. Are they taking courses they WANT to take? Do they have enough time to play, relax, hang out with friends? Are they involved in extracurricular activities for the right reasons - not just to pad the resume or to please mom and dad? Even if they love everything they are doing, they might need to cut down for their health - to allow them to have a childhood or healthy adolescence. Families need to sit down and discuss together - with the kids-what do we mean by success? What do we want out of our education? How do we want to spend our time? They need to send the message that success can take many, many forms, and that this drive for the top grades/colleges is actually hurting our kids. Then they need to take actions to counter the system - including modeling this behavior themselves, working with the schools to change the messages being sent, and advocating on behalf of their children's health.

Why are parents so over-bearing and protective today?

We know more today about safety, about how people learn, about what we can do as parents to help our kids thrive. We can't just open the door and say go outside and play freely and come back before dark. We know that babies need stimulation (but that doesn't mean flashcards or formal music classes necessarily). Many of us also have more resources available to us - more option for our kids afterschool, more opportunities for tutoring, etc. and we feel guilty if we aren't doing as much for our kids as others seem to be. There is definitely parent peer pressure going on. What many parents don't realize is that they are contributing to the frenzy this way and they are hurting their kids. A Palo Alto educator calls them "helicopter parents" - they hover and they swoop in and they don't want their kids to make mistakes or get hurt or have any real freedom to mess up. But kids need this freedom, even to get hurt and make mistakes, or they won't be able to thrive now or later in life

What are schools doing wrong?

This is not the fault of the school - many schools are stuck having to teach to the test or meet state standards that limit the kind of curriculum and system we know to be best for our students. Students need to see the relevance of what they are learning, they need to have choice and voice in the curriculum, they need active, project-based learning that allows them to think and ask questions and meet their individual learning needs instead of reiterate a teacher's lecture and cram or cheat to do well on a test. ... We need to change the focus from grades and test-scores to real learning and growth for each student.

Do you have kids? Do you, or did you, worry about this type of pressure for them? How did you handle it?

I have three young kids (Grades 3, K, and pre-K). I do worry about this pressure, and I guard their free play time. My husband and I work hard to send healthy messages. Instead of asking, how did you do on the spelling test, we try to ask, what did you learn today, what are you excited about. ... Instead of over-scheduling our kids, we limit the afterschool activities to one or two days during the week. We send our kids to a school where homework load is appropriate - 10 minutes per grade level, and where they don't have assignments over the weekend or over break times, and where they promote a love of learning over competition for grades. And we talk about success in multiple forms.

Is this type of pressure more prevalent in affluent areas? If so, why?

This kind of frenzy over grades and college admissions tends to be more prevalent in affluent areas where more students are college-bound and where more families have the resources to schedule their kids in extracurricular activities, prep courses, apply to more colleges, etc. Imagine how great the gap is now - between those who attend schools with inadequate resources, without adequate materials, etc. and where families don't know the process of applying to college and can't afford to pay for the application process vs. the families who spend thousands of dollars hiring professional college counselors to help get their kids into the best colleges.

What do these stressed-out students think they're going to get out of this?

Quote from my book from a 10th grader: 'People don't go to school to learn. They go to get good grades, which brings them to college, which brings them the high paying job, which brings them to happiness, so they think.' Students honestly believe that the better the college they go to - the better off they will be in life. This is a misconception that needs to be debunked. We have studies that show that you can go to over 100 different schools -- some folks say over 200 -- and get an excellent education and have very little variation in income 20 years later from graduates of Ivy league universities. I want students and families to believe that college is not a "trophy" and that they need to find the best match between school and student as opposed to go to the place with the most prestigious reputation.

What are some of the outrageous goals parents are setting for their students, or for that matter, that students are setting for themselves? What type of goals should they both be setting?

I see so many kids and parents striving for perfection - according to a flawed definition of success (super parents/uber-kids). This is truly impossible. Instead, we should be striving to be healthy - mentally and physically and spiritually. We need to slow down, re-focus, and set better examples. I would rather my kids be happy and healthy above all else, even if this means not going to the "best" college or not being the "best" atheletes, artists, etc. in the neighborhood. I know many truly successful people who followed this path.

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