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Stressed to Impress

What are we doing to our kids in the name of achievement? Is it working? And, more importantly, is it worth the price?

By Sara G. Stephens

stressed

A 13-year-old girl commits suicide after scoring poorly on a math test.  Students desperate to fulfill monumental schoolwork tap into the ADHD prescription meds of classmates-turned dealers. Cheating becomes the modus operandi for kids who’ve stopped trying to learn, focusing their efforts, instead on making the grade that will get them out of high school and into a growingly competitive college market.

Parents are digging deep to remember at what point did we become so obsessed with cultivating crops of overachievers.   Some are convinced that, no matter what problem we’re trying to fix, the solutions we’ve come up with are either ineffective, or are coming at too great a price to our children.

 

THE NEED

The underlying current that’s been pushing today’s achievement fixation is teeming with facts that are hard to ignore.

US students continue to underperform in international tests. Compared with students in 30 industrialized nations, our students rank 25th  in math and 21st in science.  By the end of the 8th grade, US students are two years behind in the math studied by peers in other countries, and 68% of US 8th graders can’t read at their grade level, according to BroadEducation.org. We worry that our kids will not grow up able to compete in a global marketplace. 

And with fewer jobs available, a college degree seems more essential than ever to even be considered for employment.  A 2010 Gallup Organization study revealed that 75% of American adults agreed that, in order to get ahead in life these days, it is very important to get a college education (up from  36% in 1978). Add to this deficit the fact that, thanks to a job-sucking recession, more high school graduates are opting out of the workforce, choosing, instead to compete  for spots in top colleges. The trend has been on a steady incline since 2007, according to Pew Research, meaning more kids are applying for the same number of college seats. We worry that our kids won’t make the cut. 

Given these facts, it’s no wonder 64% of Americans say parents are not putting enough pressure on their children to do well in school, according to a survey by Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project.

Count Houstonian Debra Randolph among this group.  “Not placing enough emphasis on our kids’ academic achievement will result in the greatest cost of all–not only for them individually but for us all as a Nation,” she says. Randolph is the mother of three kids, including  Shaylah, 15, a sophomore at Challenge Early College High School (HISD) who is taking dual courses at Challenge and HCC.  She’ll receive her high school diploma and Associate degrees at the same time. “In order to get a good job, our kids are competing in school to get into good colleges.  As they begin to vie for the best jobs, they will soon learn they are also competing in the global marketplace.  Countries like Japan and India have long been lauded for their superior focus on education.

“Value for education is built into the fabric of life in some countries.  Unfortunately it is not enough in the fabric of ours,” Randolph continues. “With the advent of reality television and our ‘looking for my big break’ mentality, education often takes the backseat to the game show of life.”

Another Houston mom, Vanessa Man, agrees. “Education in the US is still mediocre,” Man writes in a posting on HFM’s Facebook page. “People need to understand that getting to good standards requires effort. I don’t think that kids are too overworked–they are just too stressed because parents fill their schedules with other activities, because in this country, being and actor or an athlete pays more than having a brain.”

Fabiola Lopez chimes in on the Facebook discussion of whether we are putting our kids under too much academic stress, “That’s a big NO for me!” she writes. “Our kids’ brains need to be challenged all the time! The more they are challenged, the more they will accomplish in life. The brain is a miraculous organ, and, unfortunately, our kids are being short-changed with the current public education. My kids always express that they are bored even in AP classes.” Lopez, who has a child in elementary, one in junior high, and another attending Baylor University adds, “I admire teachers who push my kids to do better and succeed even if it means harder tests and more homework.”

 

THE COST

But there are plenty of other facts to consider when it comes to how our kids are being impacted in this desperate race for achievement.  “School stress is serious business,” reports WebMD, citing an American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report that indicates that, for children and teens, too much work and too little play might backfire down the road.  “Colleges are seeing a generation of students who appear to be manifesting increased signs of depressionanxiety, perfectionism and stress,” the report says.  Although some kids thrive under a “driven schedule,” the report qualifies that “for some children this hurried lifestyle is a source of stress and anxiety and may even contribute to depression.”  Mental Health America supports this assessment with its findings that 20% of U.S. teens are clinically depressed.  A leading stressor is school. One study,  “Confronting Teen Stress, Meeting the Challenge in Baltimore City,”  reveals that school work, at 68%, outpaced four other factors as a source of stress most often experienced in youth–creating more stress than parents (56%),  friends’ problems (52%), romantic relationships (48%), and drugs in the neighborhood (48%).

The numbers probably come as no surprise to Dr. Ehrin Weiss, a Houston-based child psychologist who has observed an increased incidence of anxiety in Houston children resulting from the pressures of too much homework, high-stakes testing, and year-round sports obligations. Weiss says that when she tells school officials that stress and anxiety are a primary focus of her practice, they invariably tell her how much increased anxiety they are seeing in students in recent years. And the problem  isn’t constrained to teenagers. “Even elementary school children are feeling the pressure for increased performance in school and sports,” Weiss notes. “Kids don’t get as much time to just be kids anymore.”

The stress from pressure to achieve in today’s academic environment manifests in a variety of forms, including physical–with children suffering from headaches, stomach aches, and dizziness–and behavioral, with kids sometimes attempting to dodge school to avoid the stresses they encounter there.  “Physical complaints and school avoidance often seem to go together,” Weiss adds. “Some kids develop depressive symptoms or anxiety disorders. Other kids act out with negative behaviors like anger outbursts or refusal to do work.”

Anna Eastman, HISD Trustee, District I, sees two sides to academic-related stress in Houston students, due, in part, to the broad range of demographics within the district. “Year-round sports from an early age probably affect more affluent children,” she observes. But she adds that the data she has seen does not reveal much of a change in HISD homework levels, and expresses uncertainty about the degree to which tests affect children’s stress levels.  “I think, and this is just my gut talking here, that much of the stress comes from adults and trickles down to the kids,” she says.

Parents do factor heavily into the student-stress equation, but many Houston parents are pulling back on their negative contributions to the problem and voicing their concerns.

“My kinder age kiddos are already doing spelling tests,” marvels Houston mom Tessa Race.  “Now, come on, that’s unbelievable. They are just learning there ABC’s and 123s. They don’t need to be pushed.  I feel like they are going to get frustrated.”

 

AND THEN THERE’S HOMEWORK

A 1989 meta-study conducted by Duke University revealed that the average high school student doing homework outperformed 69% of the students in a class with no homework. The study serves as a solid foundation for justifying heavier homework loads.  But, if you ask some parents, students, even scientists, the practice has spun out of control.

Despite the 10-minute-per-grade homework rule recommended by both the National Education Association and the national parent Teacher Association, many Houston parents complain that nightly homework far exceeds these parameters.  Facts tend to validate these observations. A survey done through the University of Michigan found that by the 2002-’03 school year, students ages 6-17 were doing twice as much homework as in 1981-’82.

More and more experts are writing books like “The End of Homework” and producing movies like “Race to Nowhere,” making the case that homework takes away precious family time, puts kids under unnecessary pressure, and is ultimately an ineffective way to teach kids to learn and think.

Increasingly school districts across the country are adopting no-homework policies, sending kids home solely with the task of reading.  HISD is not such a district, so parents are put in the position of having to judge how much homework is too much for their kids.  Considering recent studies suggesting that proper sleep is far more essential to brain development than homework, kids who are getting up in the middle of the night to work should perhaps be sent back to bed.

Katy mom Lissette Rodriguez Adames expresses her concern about unmanageable homework loads. “Homework should be for those [students] that choose to not pay attention in class and those that don’t participate,” she says. “The class room setting is where they can get the best learning– if they have a good teacher.” Adames adds that sometimes the problem lies not with the students, but with some teachers who do not have the ability to teach well enough for the kids to understand. Homework, in these cases, becomes a method of teaching children by pushing homework home, directing kids to learn either on their own or with the help of their parents, many of whom have little time at the end of the day to allocate to the task.

 

“LEARNING” TO TEST

If teachers are not teaching for true subject comprehension, it might be because they are forced to spend valuable classroom time preparing students for state-mandated standardized tests, a practice commonly referred to as “teaching to the test.”

When the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was passed in 2002, states were required to put in place testing and standards in core subjects.  Correspondingly, schools became required to test students annually in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and at least once in grades 10 through 12. Students must also be tested in science in at least one grade in elementary, middle and high school.

“Each state chooses its own test and standards of proficiency,” explains the GreatSchools website. “Any  school that does not show that students are making ‘adequate yearly progress’ toward achieving proficiency is subject to federal sanctions, including loss of federal funds, providing free tutoring, allowing students to transfer to another school, and if all else fails, a complete restructuring of the school.”

GreatSchools outlines several problems with this dynamic.  “Test scores give you an indication of how students are performing at a particular school. But they don’t tell the whole story. The test scores …compare groups of students from one year to the next, but they don’t tell you about individual student progress.”  The site adds additional issues with test scores. “They don’t tell you about the richness of the curriculum–whether there is art or music, or opportunities for individual or group exploration into a particular subject. They don’t tell you whether students are learning critical thinking skills or how engaged students are in the learning process.”

People in favor of state standardized tests argue that they motivate schools to ensure all kids achieve basic skills and provide a measure of accountability for classroom activities. Given this argument, it is interesting to note a 2011 study by Pew Research indicating that “nearly six-in-ten (58%) college and university presidents say public high schools are doing a worse job than a decade  ago [when No Child Left Behind was enacted] at preparing students for college. About a third (36%) say there has been no change.”

Critics express concern that “pressure cooker” demands to raise scores result in students’ cheating with greater frequency and teachers’ “teaching to the test.” The academic environment suffers collateral damage—not only in terms of less emphasis on art, music and other enriching subjects not addressed in standardized tests—but also in teachers’ not being able to teach.  The test-oriented teaching that does occur diminishes emphasis on higher-order thinking, devotion to complex assignments, and delivery of high cognitive content in the curriculum.  And the pressure on kids to perform well on the tests is tremendous.

Weiss acknowledges that the push in Houston for such high performance on standardized tests presents a major source of stress. “Schools feel pressured for their students to perform to a certain level so that they can get funding or high rankings, and that pressure gets passed down to the children,” she says.  A three-year study conducted by the Gesell Institute of Human Development revealed that this emphasis on testing is making “children feel like failures now as early as preK.”

The pressure to produce high test grades has also prompted less than scrupulous behavior on behalf of the nation’s high schools. CBS.com referred to 2011 as the “year of the test cheating scandal.”  USA Today investigation found 1,610 suspicious anomalies in year-over-year test score gains.

Furthermore, a study by researchers at Rice University and the University of Texas-Austin revealed that Texas’ public school accountability system, the model for the national NCLB, directly contributed to lower graduation rates.  To makes matters worse, the study found that school ratings increased partly because low-achieving students dropped out at increasing rates.  (When HISD Superintendent Terry Grier accepted his job at HISD in 2009, he publicly committed to cut the district’s dropout rate.  A press release issued in July 2012 indicated that graduation rates had increased 30 percent in the last four years.)

Parents and teachers across Houston began appealing to the district with their concerns about “high-stakes” tests, in particular. These high-school exit exams must be passed before a student receives a high school diploma.

The district listened,  adopting the Resolution Concerning High Stakes, Standardized Testing of Texas Public School Students in May 2012.  More than 400 Texas school districts, including HISD, appealed to the state to cut its heavy reliance on standardized tests. The resolution urged state lawmakers to change the school assessment system to reduce the emphasis on the new STAAR test.  By January 2013, 86 percent of Texas school districts had also adopted a version of the same resolution.

“For me, and I believe most of our board, we wanted to make a statement that we do not support the test controlling the classroom,” says Eastman.

“If you have the focus on high-stakes testing, on standardized testing, other things will suffer — things like AP courses, or AP exams, or scholarship preparation or college prep courses,” said Letty Reza , a member of Community Voices for Public Education,  the group that lobbied HISD board members to approve the resolution.  The group noted that preparing for standardized tests can take up to as many as 45 class days per year.  “School is hard already, and with these exams, and so much is riding on them, it makes the student not only stress out– it takes time out of the classroom.”

Reza’s group proceeded to appeal to HISD to change its own district policies, including considering excluding STAAR test results in the calculation of grade point averages and the limiting of test scores to no more than 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

At this point, Eastman could not provide concrete examples of such changes at the district level, although she says HISD has limited the district-level benchmarking in most district schools. “I’m not sure we’ve fully defined what “teaching to the test” means,” Eastman says.  “Of course you should be taught information that you are going to be tested on, but rote, tightly directed instruction to a test that is not proven can result in a bunch of kids passing a single measurement without much else to show for it.

“I’d like to see us give teachers more authority over their classrooms, have a ‘what’ that the kids are expected to learn and then leave the ‘how’ up to the professionals, the teachers.  That said, you have many levels of expertise in a system as large as HISD and there must be support for those who aren’t hitting it.

On February 6, 2012, Texas lawmakers responded, in part, to protests for such tests by passing a bill to end the mandate that students’ grades be tied to their scores on state exams.  The House Public Education Committee filed and omnibus bill aimed at reducing high-stakes testing and giving students more options for coursework.

Eastman’s response to the legislation is mixed. “I understood the original intent of this mandate to give the kids some ‘skin in the game,’” she says, “but as a policy maker I was frustrated that the state did not set out guidelines for districts on implementation.  As it was, it allowed for far too much variance across districts.”

The HISD trustee adds that she had lunch with a high school algebra teacher who was disappointed to learn about the reduction in end-of-course (EOC) requirements.  Eastman agrees with the teacher, saying that having a high standard for all kids is critical. “It’s really a civil rights issue for me,” Eastman says. “I’ve also talked to teachers who say they’ve never seen their peers invest as much in their students’ learning as they did with the STAAR EOC addition.  That meant kids were being taught to a higher standard.” On a separate note, Eastman does agree that more flexibility around high school diplomas is “a good thing.”

 

THE COLLEGE FRENZY

Another great source of pressure and anxiety about school stems from the college admissions race. When college gets more competitive, high school naturally follows suit. This trickles to middle school, then down to elementary school. “Once students get to the last four compulsory grades, the pressure to constantly excel and perform has already been shoved into [students’] growing bodies,” says a recent article on BachelorsDegreeOnline.com.  “So when kids do succumb to the pressures, chances are they may very well have been lurking beneath the surface long before freshman year,” the article continues.

One side effect of this pressure is a changing attitude among high school students about cheating.  A CNN poll of 4,500 high schoolers showed that 75% engage in “serious cheating.”  More than half plagiarize directly from the Internet, and around 50% do not consider copying answers to be a form of cheating.  Students are doing whatever it takes to get into their dream college. When grades make all the difference, cheating seems an easy answer, despite the compromising effect on students’ own education.

Another way students strive to stand out in the competition for college is to load up on advanced placement (AP) courses—college-level courses taught in high school that offer college credit and weighted high school grade point averages (GPA’s) for students taking them.   The classes impose heftier workloads than their level and honors counterparts.  Students complain about the sheer volume of learning, having to rush through material in hopes of scoring a “5” (perfect score) on the end-of-year AP test.  Ultimately, many critics observe these students come out of these courses with knowledge that’s a mile wide and an inch deep.

But beefy GPA’s are hard to resist in the race to college, and it’s becoming increasingly common for high school students to enroll in more honors or AP courses than they can handle, then pile extracurricular activities on top, observes Denise Clark Pope, PhD, a lecturer at the Stanford university School of Education in Stanford, California, and author of “Doing School:  How We are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Mis-educated Students.”

The burgeoning workloads bring to bear another outcome of today’s achievement culture: sleep deprivation.  “It’s not unusual for 30% or 40% of [students] to get 6 hours or less,” Pope says.  “Almost none are getting the required hours than an adolescent needs, which is 9 ½ hours.”  She adds that adequate sleep alone would make a significant difference in teens’ stress levels.

Nathan, a student in Katy Independent School District who works as cashier at the local HEB, would probably agree with Pope. He makes a wistful comment about wishing he could go home after work that evening and “act like it was Friday–”meaning “relax.”  It’s only Tuesday, though, and Nathan knows he would pay the price for an evening of relaxation, given his course load of all AP classes.  His work associate, Stevo, is a sacker at the grocery store and takes two AP classes.  He listens with interest to Nathan’s dilemma but has a different take on the situation.  “I just don’t do it,” he says with a shrug, adding that the homework loads every other day are simply overwhelming and completely unmanageable.

Eastman acknowledges that HISD tends to make AP the default track for students.  “From what I understand, it’s not for every kid,” she says.  “Parents  who are plugged in need to help their kids balance these choices.”

The AP obsession is further explained, with surprising candor, by an undergraduate admission specialist at U.C. Berkeley, Naima Jahi-Coleman. Jahi-Coleman appears in a documentary film, “Race to Nowhere,” to talk about the “big business” nature of college.  “The more applicants there are, the more it increases a school’s reputation,” Jahi-Coleman says. “And universities are looking for the best.

Jahi-Coleman sees herself as a perpetrator of over-achievement madness. “I’ve gone out and told kids, ‘You have to take this AP class or this honor class, and take as many as you can. We want to see if you’ve taken total advantage of the opportunities at your high school.’ I don’t think we realize the pressure and stress that are on these kids to perform,” Jahi-Coleman says.  “We just know the ultimate goal and what we want.  We want the top students because we are a top institution.  But I wonder sometimes at the expense of what.”

Seeing the high emotional price tag of AP courses on their students, some high schools around the country are eliminating their AP programs.  The prestige that comes with offering these classes is not worth what the schools deem to be a dangerous and unnecessary emotional and physiological toll on students.  Many claim that AP programs have no impact on graduates college acceptance and success.

Dr. Beth Dennard , an educational consultant with Houston’s Bright Futures Consulting, has seen this kind of stress firsthand. She suggests a remedy of thoughtful introspection, challenging how students and families define success and focusing primarily on students living up to their potential. “That’s how students achieve their college dreams,” Dennard asserts. “Too many students succumb to the pressure to attend a certain college because of its name, popularity at his or her high school, or the school’s ranking in a national magazine. This is not how to pick a college. Students should pick colleges that fit their own individual needs and goals.”

Dennard also challenges the root of this fierce focus on college. “I find that most stress comes from the individual, high-achieving student and is fed by other high-achieving students,” she says. “The media also fuels the pressure to ‘get into’ certain colleges.  I rarely see the stress originate in a school or with the parents.”

 

THE PARENT TRAP

That said, even the most caring and well-meaning parents might unintentionally blur the barely visible but oh-so-significant line between raising an academically prepared child and encouraging borderline destructive demands. Many parents become consumed with the idea that a child’s performance in school—even elementary school—will have non-negotiable impact on the child’s future.  Weiss says she’s seen parents push children to start making decisions about college when they’ve just entered high school, for fear they won’t get into the “right” college. “Kids are being given the message everywhere they turn that performance is all that matters,” she says.

“Some parents turn into ‘helicopter parents’ who are always trying to pave the way for their children to succeed or experience perceived success, even if they didn’t earn it.,” Weiss says, adding that this constant patrolling and posturing  sets kids up for disappointment and a host of other problems when they enter adulthood.

“It’s sad because the most important developmental task of adolescence is to develop an identity, and children aren’t being given the time or freedom to figure out who they are or who they want to be,” Weiss continues. “Their identities are being chosen for them.”  When a child pursues an identity in this fashion, without having explored the identity and made decisions about he is and what he values results in a situation called “identity foreclosure,” which can negatively impact the child’s  future.   For this reason, Weiss stresses that spending time with peers, learning to socialize appropriately, and being able to explore different interests, can be just as important as any academic learning that takes place in school.

This exploration may involve school sports, but even this route is paved with dangerous curves and bumps.  Weiss frequently encounters parents who place a higher priority on school and/or sports above everything else, even a child’s mental health.  “Parents may realize their children are struggling emotionally and come to me for guidance on how to handle it, but sports and school obligations get in the way of them following through on my suggestions or sometimes even finding time to schedule sessions,” Weiss explains. “Some kids wind up just shutting down under the pressure or engaging in self-destructive behaviors. The more their emotional needs are ignored, the worse it gets.”

It can be exciting to have a kid who shows athletic promise. Eastman’s own daughter competed in gymnastics, which consumed many of the child’s early years.  She decided to give up the sport, not wanting it to dominate her life.  Eastman fully supported the decision.  “We as parents have to revisit our obsession with sports,” Eastman cautions.  “There seems to be this fear that if you’re not in it from age two or three you’ve lost your chance.  Some kids thrive in it, but I’d say they’re the exception and not the rule.  This is not coming from schools.  It’s taking place outside of schools and seems to be mostly parent-driven.”

Dennard sees the same parental push toward sports and agrees it is detrimental to children.  She has seen an increase in sports-related, overuse injuries with young athletes whose bodies are being pushed beyond their capabilities in an attempt to secure college scholarships.  For example Nikki, a high school swimmer, suffered a severe ankle injury from an accident. Rather than resting the ankle as her doctor recommended, she continued to push herself, resulting in the injury taking twice as long to heal. Although her parents and coaches “suggested” she take a break, no one actually stopped her from practicing and competing– even while wearing an ankle brace. “One could argue it was Nikki who decided not to take a break,” Dennard says, “however, when students get mixed messages, they may find it hard to stop themselves.” Eventually, Nikki quit swimming altogether.

As a parent, Dennard has seen families, including her own, whose lives revolve around children’s sports. In some of these families, the children have no time for just relaxing or pursuing hobbies or volunteer work, because their sport consumes just about all of their free time. In the end, so few of these children go on to pursue their sports in college, either because they’re just tired of all the practices and competition, or because in the end, they’re just not skilled enough to compete at the college level (according to the NCAA, only 2 percent of high school athletes will get any type of athletic scholarship and for those who do, most will only get partial scholarships). “I’m not saying this effort is wasted, because children learn many valuable lessons from competitive sports– time management, teamwork, dedication, and other life lessons,” Dennard says. “But kids who take a more moderate approach to athletics can also learn these same lessons.”

“If a student loves a sport and wants to compete at the top levels, parents should support those dreams in any way they can,” she says. “However, the drive has to come from the student and from the student’s real desire to play college sports.”

 

WHAT’S A PARENT TO DO?

Understandably, parents are caught in the dilemma of just how much they can push their kids to succeed, without sending them over the edge. Weiss offers her ideas for how to manage this delicate balance:

  1. Emphasize the process over the outcome and reinforce your children for factors other than grades or how well their team does. Rather, reinforce your children for working hard, sticking with difficult tasks, being good friends, helping others, being a good sport, etc.
  2. Make sure that your children have time to socialize in non-structured settings and to explore their own interests, such as crafts and hobbies.
  3. Guide your children toward making responsible decisions rather than making the decisions for them, within the bounds of safety, of course. Anything that has the potential to cause serious long term negative consequences should not be a choice. But within these bounds, allow children to experience the results of whatever decisions they make–for better or worse–and to see that small failures or mistakes are not the end of the world.

Parents also strike a healthy motivational balance by being supportive and involved. From her own experience, Randolph surmises that by parents’ being involved and supportive, they help their children carve out the appropriate amount of time for studying, making homework more manageable for kids.  “When a child keeps up with homework assignments and has good study habits, they are more likely to understand the subject matter and pass standardized tests,” Randolph says. “Likewise, when parents use a critical but creative eye when approving or selecting extracurricular activities that enrich and support their child’s academic pursuits, a better balance can be found.”

Randolph also stresses the importance of parents’ enforcing boundaries that place academics first and extracurricular activities second, last, or not at all if a child fails to perform academically.  “If Billy plays great football but cannot read, the clear choice should be teaching Billy how to read, because with one injury his football career could be over.”

WebMD suggests other ways parents can help ease the burden of academically stressed teens:
1. Watch for signs of school-related stress (cutting, comments of despair, headaches, stomach aches, reluctance to go to school).
2. Teach kids time-management skills (use a planner, do homework at the same time every night).
3. Consider whether your child is over-scheduled (too many AP courses and extracurricular activities).
4. Encourage sleep, exercise and family mealtimes.
5. Watch parental pressure (rethink how you define success in your family).
6. Keep the fun in childhood and teen years.

Educational consultants can help parents and kids keep matters in perspective by helping everyone understand a student’s unique needs, personality, and motivators. Dennard’s firm administers the Birkman questionnaire, which gives parents objective insight into their child’s needs, interests, and motivation. This helps Dennard assist in choosing a college major and provide college guidance.  “The Birkman also helps parents see their student as he/she really is, rather than who they may wish them to be,” Dennard explains. “Parents can also be sure their children hear the message, ‘When you do your best, excellence will follow, and our expectations will be met.’” Dennard also emphasizes that parents should not compare their children to other people’s children or even to siblings. “Each child is an individual and should be admired as such,” she says.

Dennard often tells her clients to ignore what other families and other students define as success. She even stresses that parents should keep their children’s grades, class ranks, and test scores private. “That information is no one’s business and only feeds the ‘bleacher mafia’s’ grapevine,” Dennard says. The only thing that matters is what their student and their family considers success and that each student is living up to his or her own potential.

“Students’ common misconception is summed up in, ‘I’m a hero, or I’m a zero,’” Dennard says. “ A hero or zero mentality results when students judge themselves instead of appreciating their unique learning needs, interests, passions, and individual qualities.  The college admissions process is an American rite of passage during which students should withhold judgment, and rather ask themselves questions that empower them to determine who they are, what they need, and what matters most to them.”

 

FROM DISTRESS TO EUSTRESS

Because the international community of students and workers is getting increasingly competitive, Dennard does not see a need for Houston schools to adjust their academic programs in response to concerns about students’ mounting stress. “However, everyone can do better to encourage students to do their personal best,” she says, adding that the concept of stress being “bad” oversimplifies the issue. “Not all stress is bad,” she says. “In fact, the concept of Eustress, positive stress that energizes and keeps us moving forward and keeps us satisfied with our accomplishments, is essential. What we want to avoid with students is Distress, the negative stress that takes away their focus, causes illness, and basically stops them in their tracks.”

As Randolph sees it, such “distress” would stem from pushing kids beyond their abilities.   Informed and involved parents can partner with schools and the community to provide the resources to allow their kids to reach their greatest level of achievement possible and love them no matter what.  “That love translates to self-love, self-esteem and a respect for others that our Nation lacks,” Randolph conveys. “An emphasis on academic achievement leads to an educated and informed society of leaders, problem-solvers, and infinite possibilities.”

 

 

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