Communities continue to use our film Race to Nowhere to spark dialogue and change. This week alone, communities in San Clemente, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco, as well as Pittsburgh, PA, will host screenings, and I’m honored to be able to attend two of them in person. In San Clemente, community members are still grieving for a student in a neighboring community who took his life, citing the endless pressure to perform in school as a primary source of his distress. Given that the national suicide rate for 15 to 19 year-olds has more than doubled in an eight year period, we know San Clemente is far from alone in their grief and desire for change.
Ready to take proactive measures, parents, teachers, and school administrators recently followed up screenings of Race to Nowhere by gathering virtually in a conversation with pediatrician and medical educator Dr. Stuart Slavin and myself about academic pressure and student wellness.
Here, we’re summarizing four ways school communities can support the health and well-being of every student.
- Identify and address student stressors—not just stress itself.
In Stuart’s studies of high school students, he asked them to identify and rank their stressors. At the top was getting into a good college. This was followed by time pressure, pressure from self, amount to learn, and pressure to not disappoint parents. Revealingly, students ranked issues like bullying and social pressures remarkably low compared to these academic pressures.
We need to make such mental health surveys commonplace in every school, to take resulting data as seriously as we do SAT/ACT scores, and then to act on that data.
With their words, actions, and rising levels of anxiety and depression, kids across the country are telling us that there’s a big problem with academic stress and pressure. But most adult responses treat the effects of stress on kids—for example, teaching kids mindfulness and stress-management techniques, telling them to exercise and get enough sleep, and integrating suicide prevention and mental health awareness into the school curriculum. All of these responses are worthwhile, but they don’t address underlying stressors and thus miss the point. The problem isn’t stressed-out kids, but a toxic educational environment that creates unhealthy stress. This is what we need to change.
- Embrace the truth that less is often more, and give students back their time.
“There’s a fundamental human belief,” Stuart says, “that more always leads to better outcomes. So if one hour of homework is good, then two hours must be better. . . . But it actually turns out that there is no human endeavor that follows that follows that kind of curve. . . . Once you get to homework amounts that are too high, not only do you start to see an impact on mental health and wellness, you actually see a drop-off in performance. People are afraid to back off because they’re afraid that performance will drop, but that isn’t true. No, we’re not lowering standards. We’re not expecting less of kids in terms of academic productivity. In fact, it’s likely to rise.”
School is 35 hours a week. With 2 hours of homework a night, the hour investment exceeds a 40-hour workweek. Adding just a single extracurricular or after-school sport tacks on another 15 hours, making it clear that we often expect kids to work a workweek that’s not humanly sustainable. Half of the students in Stuart’s surveys reported getting six hours or less of sleep each weeknight, a stunningly low amount given that we know teenagers need nine to nine and a half. Not only does inadequate sleep cause emotional problems, but it also can lead to significant cognitive impairment and learning difficulties. Sleep deprivation can affect the body in similar ways as drinking alcohol; driving while sleep deprived is as dangerous as driving while drunk. Sleep deprivation can also cause impulsivity, and has even been linked to suicidality.
We need to give kids back their time— to explore their interests outside of school, to socialize with their families, to rest and daydream, and—at the most basic level—to get a healthy night’s sleep.
- Change our collective culture.
“For too long, the conversation about student stress has been stuck in a blame game,” Vicki says. “Schools blame helicopter parents. Parents blame college admissions. But this sickness comes from all of us. It’s supported by our collective culture, and each one of us plays a role. We’ve all created this ecosystem.”
All of us need to abandon the absurdity of pursuing the elite college, recognizing that one can often create an equal, if not better, educational experience at one of the hundreds of less-publicized colleges across the country. All of us need to broaden idea of what preparation for adult life should be—recognizing that emotional preparation is just as important as academic, and that an authentic sense of engagement is what leads to real, lifelong learning and independence. All of us need to learn resilience skills beyond mindfulness, particularly to address perfectionism and unhealthy forms of comparison and competition.
- Come together and advocate courageously on behalf of all youth.
For many people, it’s relatively easy to sit back on the sidelines and say these issues are someone else’s problem, particularly if their children are getting through school okay. But as adults, we collectively hold children’s lives in our hands. As more and more children grow anxious and depressed and contemplate ending their lives, our inaction is unacceptable. Band-aid solutions, like therapy dogs at school or a homework-free weekend or holiday, are not enough. Real change will only occur if there are strong voices for change in the community.
There is power in numbers. Find five other people in your community who are of a like mind, and organize to inspire the change you want to see. It’s much harder to ignore a group than to ignore one person. Organize with other people in your community, and then reach beyond to get other local schools and organizations involved. Use our films and resources to keep your community coming together again and again; Race to Nowhere launches the conversation, Beyond Measure inspires change, and our book Beyond Measure serves as a playbook for enacting change in your community. Our action guides and other tools can support you along the path to change every step of the way.
Let’s bring our voices and actions together to put student health and well-being at the center of the school experience.
Vicki Abeles, Director Race to Nowhere, Beyond Measure, and The Gatekeeper: Math in America