We need to help them manage expectations effectively.
by Eileen Wedegartner, Blended Learning Specialist
Growing up, I remember there were high school students around me who had either attempted to take their own life or had done so. As a teen, it shook me to think that anyone felt that alone. It was sad, but it was also an anomaly.
In the last few years, a community near mine experienced a spike in suicides among high school students. It was enough of a crisis that the Boston Globe wrote about it in the article “After suicides in Acton and Boxborough, A Communion of Sorrow.”
As I read and heard about more young people in affluent and successful communities taking their own lives, I was truly perplexed. Teenage years are full of angst. Anyone who spends time with teenagers knows they face more and more pressure: pressure to succeed academically, pressure to excel in sports, pressure to be socially accepted, pressure to do it all
I vividly remember news trickling in about young people who lived just down the way. I would hear on social media or a blog post how another teenager was lost. Mothers, my peers, struggled to understand why it was happening. Many focused on how to prevent it.
The hardest blow for me was when a ten-year-old in a neighboring community committed suicide. That night, I kept an extra careful eye on my own children, who were a little younger but not far from 10.
When I heard that WGBH radio was doing a four-part series titled Stressed and Depressed on Campus I made sure to tune in. The series explored factors that have caused rates of anxiety and depression among college-age students to double over the past ten years, according to researchers at the University of Michigan.
Parts one and two of the series look at how “the early intensity in upscale suburban families about their children’s future achievement is said to be one factor behind the mental health crisis that colleges are facing.” They explore how high-achieving students experience high rates of anxiety and depression. The third part looks at how students from first college generation and low-income families experience isolation on campus. The final part discusses how some colleges are dealing with the crisis.
The series prompted me to move on to a Ted Talk by David Gleason, a psychologist and the author of a book titled “At What Cost? Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools.” The Ted Talk and the book made me reflect on my own dealings with students who are approaching and trying to prepare for the challenges of college.
Gleason talks about how, as a society, we have created a hyper-competitive environment which is damaging the mental health of our youth. While some competition and pressure to succeed is good for children, too much of it can be detrimental. He argues that we see the repercussions of hyper-pressure when students struggle in college.
Some of this has to do with behavioral strategies such as mapping and managing time, prioritizing deadlines, planning work, and advocating for oneself effectively. In my programs this year we are addressing student concerns over scores and discussing how to approach professors to better understand their grading systems and to seek help in improving performance. Learning these self-advocacy skills is a slow walk, even for students who are academically on par.
Gleason addresses the “big four” executive skills: organization, task initiation, time management, and emotional regulation. These skills are needed to be successful in college and afterward, but they do not develop at the same rate in each individual. Some students may master them in high school but others will develop them later, not necessarily by age18 when we expect everyone to be “college ready.”
Another article on the subject appeared in Psychology Today. “Kindergarten Teachers Speak Out for Children’s Happiness” by Peter Gray explores the issues teachers face when they are expected to make Kindergarten wholly academic with less and less room for social and emotional growth of young children. The article references a letter sent by a majority of Brookline MA kindergarten teachers to the school committee. The letter warns of the dangers of being overly academic with the consequent loss of essential time for learning through play and social interaction. I would not argue that children who can handle competitive work should be held back; but I would point out that there are adequate opportunities for exposure to rigor at any level. Some children may be surrounded by adults who push them constantly to excel as students, but there are other adults who are concerned that childhood is a fleeting chunk of life that cannot be reprised.
I remain thankful that we live in a state that offers a wide variety of K-12 and higher education opportunities to suit the needs of our wide variety of students. We have elite private colleges and universities and highly competitive public colleges and universities that offer programming for students with all levels of advantage and challenge. There are many paths and many ways through which people can achieve professional success and emotional stability. I am proud to be working with schools to help students develop the academic and behavioral skills they need to reach the goal of college and/or career readiness, no matter what path they choose.
- Gleason, Psy.D., David L. At What Cost? Defending Adolescent Development In Fiercely Competitive Schools (p. 147). Developmental Empathy LLC. Kindle Edition, 147.
- Boston Globe Story: After suicides in Acton and Boxborough, a communion of sorrow, 2018 (subscription may be required)
- WGBH: ‘The Pressures On Kids — They’re Born Into It’, 2019
- Psychology Today: Kindergarten Teachers Speak Out for Children’s Happiness.How can teachers bring common sense and compassion to education policy?, 2019
- Washington Post: In a liberal Boston suburb, kindergarten teachers say their students are learning to ‘hate’ school, 2019
Other posts authored by Eileen Wedegartner can be found here.