emotional boy

A Parent’s Guide to Prioritizing Emotional Well-Being

the headlines graphic

These headlines are one reason emotional intelligence is one of the most desired 21st Century skills:

 What’s Lost When We Rush Kids Through Childhood
Emily Kaplan, Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation, September 4, 2019

We Have Ruined Childhood”
Kim Brooks, NY Times Sunday Review, August 17, 2019

“Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright”
Susanna Schrobsdorff, Time, November 2019

Unfortunately, many parents are not surprised by these headlines. Far too many parents live each day with the concerns reflected in this sampling of headlines. Too many parents see their children floundering emotionally, socially and academically. They feel overwhelmed and are often at a loss about how to help their children regain their emotional, social and academic balance.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We, both as educators and as parents, cannot continue to sacrifice the mental, social and emotional health of our children. The articles above and research currently being explored are sending us signals that are both loud and clear. We’ve unintentionally allowed schooling to become something that was never intended. This is due to our unwillingness to change what we’re used to, coupled with our acceptance that the purpose of education is not learning, but primarily to serve the economy with qualified workers. While this may have been understandable in the early 1900s, given our current advances in brain research and its connection to learning, there is no excuse.

We, parents and educators, simply cannot continue to sacrifice the physical, social and emotional health of our children. The goal in writing this is both to sound an alarm and to offer concrete suggestions for actions parents and educators can take to acknowledge and honor the way our children experience the world.

This work focuses on one part of a child’s life: time spent in school. This is not an attack on the educators— the people who care about and for our children. This is a red flag warning against the systems that create these anxiety-inducing conditions. School-related issues surface regularly in discussions with young people as a major source of our children’s emotional stress, and we, the authors of this piece, know school, and we know learning, and we believe the system can do better.

This is an invitation for parents to re-think what schooling has become and the purpose of schooling in children’s lives… a purpose that does not rob them of their childhood and trigger depression and anxiety.

the context graphic

The data about the alarming growth of pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety, and depression frightens us. Although there is general agreement that school is about learning and preparation for life, there is surprisingly little agreement about what learning actually is, how it occurs and the best ways for it to happen so not to harm a child’s emotional well-being.

what is learning graphic?

“What is learning?”  Wait! What? Everybody knows what learning is.

So write down what you think.  For most of us, this just got a lot harder. We think we know what it is, but have we ever calibrated our answers to see how aligned our thinking is?

Here’s a suggestion. Take a few minutes to consider what you have learned or are currently learning; select 1-2 things. Think about how you came to know or are coming to know these things and if these things are useful or meaningful for your life. Now, answer the “What is learning?” question based on your personal learning. Write your response down and be aware of how your thinking falls out of your brain and onto paper – or word processor. You may discover that, like me, you find the thinking part easier than the writing part.

The second question is equally big.

“Is school the only place where learning occurs between the ages of 5 and 18?”

Well, that answer is kind of obvious, so maybe a better question might be, “What’s the purpose of school?”

Think of a time when you learned a skill outside of school (ride a bike, learn about worms while helping a parent garden, swim, make a blade of grass sing between your hands). How did you do that without the support of school? What were some of the conditions that helped you learn? Were you rushed into learning the skill or idea; who helped you? What did your mistakes tell you? How did you feel when you realized you figured out worms, rode the bike a block without wobbling, realized that a 10 cent piece was smaller than a 5 cent piece, but worth more?

Now think of a time when you were in school and you were struggling or felt overwhelmed – maybe the skill was unfamiliar; maybe too many instructions coming all at once; maybe the teacher moved through the lesson too fast? Did you learn what you thought you were supposed to learn? If not, how did you feel?

I recently interviewed some high school students about what their learning experiences in school looked like, from a cross-section of the school’s enrollment. There were two students with disabilities, honor roll students, and a few of what I’ll affectionately describe as “ne’er-do-wells” – kids who spent a fair amount of time with the principal negotiating reductions in disciplinary reactions to their behaviors. The remaining 6 considered themselves “average”. After explaining that I was there to learn about their school, I asked them to pretend that they were the only people I would speak to in order to get a picture of their school and asked them to tell what it was important that I know. I also told them that I would be sharing their descriptions with their teachers the following day without identifying them, of course.

What did I hear from these consumers of schooling? One of the students with special needs began by sharing that she appreciated how good her teachers were about adjusting instruction to her needs, watching to see if she was “getting it” and offering more time/support if needed. Another young lady excitedly responded, “You’re lucky! My teachers spend so much time getting us ready to take the big tests that they apologize for not having more time for our questions.” Lots of head nodding followed by another young lady who shared how embarrassed she felt when she didn’t know an answer and how she was reluctant to ask questions for fear of seeming stupid. More head nodding and no objections. After a few seconds of silence a young man asked, “Why do we have to learn stuff that we are just going to forget?”

Questions to ponder:

* Do your children have experiences like this in school? How does it make them feel?

* What if these feelings have become a part of their daily school experience?

* What if the feelings are not sporadic but rather a constant in the lives of our children?

* What if our accountability measures have too many unintended consequences?

* Did we intend to see an increase in pressure to perform on large scale assessments?

* Did we intend to see an increase in the time spent on test preparation?

* Did we intend to see a loss of experiences in the arts? Did we intend to focus on “academics” at the expense of playtime and recess?

Kids have a limited sense of what Martin Luther King called “someoneness,” or sense of belonging.  They feel pressured by adult concerns. Beyond their circle of friends they feel isolated. They feel pressured to do well, while not having access to the conditions (safety, freedom to ask questions, choice in learning) needed to first learn then excel. The Time article cites a study which revealed that 70% of teenagers characterized anxiety/depression as a “major problem”. Is that enough for us to do something?

The Time article and many others make a clear connection between the unintended consequences and the deterioration of the mental and emotional health of our children.  In spite of this growing awareness, we continue to hang our hats on stories of achievement. Achievement is what we know, but shouldn’t we know and honor learning?

Doing the wrong thing “righter”

For the broadest view of this issue, I’ll begin with Russell Ackoff. Prior to his death in 2009, Ackoff was a Professor Emeritus of Management Science at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He offered a starting point for what we might consider in response to the threats impacting the emotional and social health of our children. Ackoff is well-known for making the following distinction:

There is a difference between ‘doing things right’ and ‘doing the right thing.

Doing things right is about efficiency – i.e., how do we manage lots of kids in a school building safely and efficiently. We do this through the establishment of uniformity. We group kids by age not because they are similar, but because it is convenient. We organize instruction by subject, not because the world is neatly organized by subject, but because it is convenient. Doing the right thing is about effectiveness. Our current system of education here in the U.S. (and around the world) is replete with stories of attempts to doing things right, school consolidation, common core standards, large-scale “accountability” assessments. As Ackoff points out, it should surprise no one that these efforts have born little fruit. In his own words, Ackoff notes that focusing on doing things right just makes the situation “wronger”. After 30+ years of doing school right, NAEP schools remain flat, ACT scores are falling, achievement gaps continue and instances of childhood stress, anxiety, and depression have reached epidemic proportions!

But what is the right thing?

Here we’ll turn to Clark Aldrich who has suggested that there are three purposes for education:

    1. To help kids learn how to learn
    2. To help kids learn how to do
    3. To help kids learn how to be.

These three things constitute Ackoff’s definition of doing the right thing. In the context of our focus here, think ‘helping kids learn how to be.’ Obviously, given the current incidence of student and physician reported stress, anxiety and depression among our children, we need a shift our focus away from a focus on higher academic achievement to a focus on “how to be”.  In his film Eighth Grade, Bo Burnham’s title character describes her dilemma as follows,

“I feel like I’m rebuilding a parachute while I’m falling. I’m one person when I sit with my friends at lunch in school, another when I’m in the car with my dad, another when I’m at a party with my friends, and even another when I’m on Facebook.”

For additional reading on the idea of helping kids learn how to be, see the following:

Clark Aldrich, Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education.

For more background on the issue of stress, anxiety, depression in our kids and how school contributes, you might find Dr. David Gleason’s book, At What Cost: Defending Adolescent Development In Fiercely Competitive Schools, useful. The Modern Learners Podcast featured David in episode 38.

For an interesting piece written by parents Adam Grant and Allison Sweet Grant, you might be interested in Stop Trying to Raise Successful KidsAnd start raising kind ones.

While not specifically about stress and anxiety, the authors note that kids take their cues about what matters by watching what adults seem to value.  Most frequently identifying achievement as the most desirable accomplishment. The authors, like most parents, are particularly interested in the development of caring, kindness, and empathy in what has been termed our “Age of Separation”.  The connection between their thinking and our focus on how we, as adults whether parent or educator, contribute to the strain on their emotional well-being.

Missy Emler, a member of the Modern Learners team, wrote this letter to her son on the first day of his freshmen year. She gives him permission to prioritize his emotional well-being over his academic excellence.

So, as parents, what can we do to ensure our children’s schools are willing to explore the ways in which their policies, practices, and procedures may be unintentionally increase the levels of stress and anxiety in students?

exploring how tos graphics

Leveraging Parental Concerns to Change Schooling

By law our schools are required to act “in loco parentis,” in the place of parents. In trying to do things right, too many schools are creating environments that as parents we would never do. School systems continue to focus on test scores, orderly buildings, and traditional convenient practices while largely ignoring the emotional impact these practices are having on our children.

Students’ schedules are frequently crammed and stressful as adults’. As parents, we need to begin needed conversations to help us identify the right thing. Then we can move away from our preoccupation with doing things right to focus on doing the right thing, recognizing that schools are part of a system, and that change in systems grows increasingly more difficult the longer the system is in place.

Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline, focuses on the process of changing systems. Senge notes that systems can be depicted as circles, the walls of which become thicker as the system ages. He suggests that the thicker the walls of the system become, the harder it is to make change.

As many of us can attest, trying to crash through the walls of a mature system results in a lot of bumps and bruises but very little change. Senge offers a solution. He suggests that the walls of most systems are not uniformly thick. In each system there exists a weakness in the wall that may allow the opportunity for leveraging that weakness into change or moving the system in a new direction.  Your concerns, your interests, and your involvements are that weakness. It’s hard for most schools to ignore concerned, well-informed, and well-intentioned parents.

Successful change efforts rely on finding ways to circumvent the natural response. Research in this area reveals that reliance on fact-based speeches rarely changes deeply held beliefs. Successful change efforts have relied primarily on the creation of emotion-based experiences. What is more emotional than the reality that our kids are suffering and experiencing stress, anxiety and depression in record numbers? Are we helping our children express themselves to the school system they exist in? Is that school system listening? Does the school system see your child?

What Can I do to Prioritize My Child’s Emotional Well-Being?

Emotion-based responses in school systems are more effective when they make more use of numbers of people than the eloquent words of a single, well-informed parent.

Step 1: Explore the concerns about social-emotional health with friends. Enlist the interest and support of the local parent organization. Consider the benefits of a social media presence.

Step 2: Build a group of people who are willing to address concerns about students’ emotional well-being with school leaders in a focused conversation. If met with resistance or inaction, move the conversation to the level of the board of education at a public meeting. Simply request time in advance to address the members of the board.

Step 3: Ask questions!  Here are some critical sample questions that you might consider:

* What are the outcomes, attributes, dispositions we seek to develop in our students?

* What is the basis for grades in our school?

* Why do we have grades? Why don’t we use narratives instead? If you think these are necessary, that is the first thing to research. They are a largely meaningless convention, statistically invalid and unreliable.

* What do we use as measures of success and achievement? Do we have a school-wide/district-wide consensus on the meaning of these terms?

* We know that kids develop at different rates and in different ways. Why do we group kids by age?

* What options are available for my child to obtain official recognition for learning done outside of school?

* How many opportunities for self-directed learning are available in the school day?

* Look at your school or district mission statement and ask what are the intentional practices aimed at the accomplishment of these goals? How is success measured?

* What intentional responses have been developed to combat increasing stress, anxiety and depression in our students? What practices, policies, procedures have we eliminated or modified to demonstrate our prioritization of students’ emotional well-being?

In Conclusion

While it seems clear to us that big changes are needed in an effort to improve the emotional well-being of our children, not everyone is ready to just jump in. Dr. James Ryan in a commencement address at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (2016) offered a guide for exploring difficult and complex ideas.  He offered guidance for when we are faced with very disturbing information and seeking to engage others in discussion.

He notes that an expected response to what we have offered in this essay might be…”What? Wait!You mean that 70% of kids surveyed characterized anxiety/depression as a “major problem!”  He suggests that productive discussions begin more often with questions than statements.  He reminds us that inquiry is often more effective than advocacy. Here are his suggestions for your consideration and use.

I wonder what we are doing in our families, in our schools, in our society that is causing this dramatic rise among our youth. I wonder if my kids feel like they belong at their school? I wonder what school policies/practices my kids find stressful?

I wonder what we could do differently in our families, in our schools, in our society that could make a difference. I wonder why we still have grades, age grouped classes, separate subjects? I wonder what would happen if, like some schools, we tried to eliminate them?

Couldn’t we at least try? Should we just keep doing what we are doing even though we know it’s making kids anxious?

How can we help one another?

What really matters?

Today’s guest post was co-authored and contributed by Modern Learners Community members Susan Clayton and Rich TenEyck. Below is a note from Richard:

Some months ago, Susan Clayton and I, separated by an international border and 3 times zones, decided to collaborate on a response to this increasingly alarming trend of young people self-reporting dramatic increases in stress, anxiety and depression.  The incidence of suicides among young people in this age range has never been higher.  We decided to write for parents and focus on what we knew best… schools, schooling and learning. Midway through our project, Susan’s husband was diagnosed with advanced cancer. He died this past week.

This piece is dedicated to Robert and Susan Clayton. Throughout Robert’s treatment Susan remained steadfast in her love and support for both her husband and her children. Her commitment and her concern for helping parents understand how they might positively support their children during this critical age remained  unchanged. This piece reflects our combined thinking. The good thoughts come from Susan. The mistakes in writing are solely mine. Thank you. -Rich TenEyck

2 thoughts on “A Parent’s Guide to Prioritizing Emotional Well-Being”

  1. Another question to ponder is What about the following quote has meaning for educators?

    The quote: Every child is beautiful and gifted. For proof, ask the grandparent.


      What’s your sense of the answer to your question?

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