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Dr. Grauer's Column: Towards the Light: In Search of an Anxiety-Free Education

Towards the Light:
In Search of an Anxiety-Free Education

Those teens who are properly motivated and preternaturally clear thinking, who can plot out a graceful path from childhood to career, and who fully know this is a path that must never be forced, almost seem guided by some natural law. These are not the youths I am writing about today. Today, I am writing about the rest.

The youth of America, once released from the near-unreachable middle years, set out on their college path as though into a captivating void, focusing at first on what may feel all their own ideals but ultimately tangle with what comes to feel like epigenetic forces of parent, peer, social and even historic expectations all hurtling them towards some destiny—polar explorers pressing on into the whiteout. A false summit appears ceremoniously, then a next appears, a next socially sanctioned vision so many of our children have taken on faith, as though living in a dream has meant living The Dream: college. Sooner rather than later, the lucky ones begin to break or awaken. Only then can they call their lives their own.

"When I turned twenty-one," muses Catherine Mevs in the New Yorker, "my college had the audacity to toss me out with nothing but a degree to my name. ...By twenty-two, I had a full-time position acquiring scoliosis, carpal tunnel, and a Vitamin D deficiency. I created fifty-three versions of my résumé, emphasizing different skills and experiences." [1]

These are anxious times for the young and schools better own up to their parts. Anxiety, a self-imposed emotion accompanying the loss of control of our lives or situations despite being in no physical danger, is on the rise. Anxiety is what happens when a whole culture evaluates it kids—and to a large extent its parents - and their success as humans, based upon what college sends them a fat or thin envelope. The multitude of accompanying data on the stress, depression and suicide this model so often delivers is considered incidental by fearful parents—what could be more sardonic. In a report by the American Psychological Association, nearly half of the teenagers surveyed said they were more worried than they were the year before, yet only 28 percent of the parents similarly observed an increase in their teens' stress. [2]

Connected school communities are healing... and fun

But why? Time magazine writer Susanna Schrobsdorff notes, "In my dozens of conversations with teens, parents, clinicians and school counselors across the country, there was a pervasive sense that being a teenager today is a draining full-time job that includes doing schoolwork, managing a social-media identity and fretting about career ... you name it," and Schrobsdorff believes "the anxiety wrought by school pressures and technology is affecting younger and younger kids."

If only college were the antidote, the transition out of this, the arrival to the authentic life.

At Yale, a fourth of all undergraduates are now enrolled in Psych 157: "Psychology and the Good Life" this year. The course tries to teach students how to lead happier, more satisfying lives. [3] The Psych 157 professor, Dr. Laurie Santos, speculates that Yale students are interested in the class because, in high school, they had to deprioritize their happiness to gain admission to the school, adopting harmful life habits that have led to what she called "the mental health crises we're seeing at places like Yale." A 2013 report by the Yale College Council found that more than half of undergraduates sought mental health care from the university during their time there.

Instead of throwing a course at the problem, maybe Yale might think about restructuring its admissions process. College admissions offices cursorily pledge to honor the things that candidates show that are not so anxiety provoking and exhausting, to find the whole person. And then they don't.

"For high school seniors, April [when college acceptances hit the mailboxes] marks the conclusion of a different type of marathon — one of emotional highs and lows that strike a deep nerve in each student's sense of self-worth and the validation sought by their invested parents and educators." [4]
- Lauren Stiller Rikleen

"In reality, a lot of us are anxious, stressed, unhappy, numb," said Alannah Maynez, 19, a freshman taking the happiness course. "The fact that a class like this has such large interest speaks to how tired students are of numbing their emotions. "Psychology and the Good Life" now stands as the most popular course in Yale's 316-year history. Students complete weekly "rewirement" assignments, like performing acts of kindness and forming new social connections. Dr. Santos has encouraged all students to enroll in the course on a pass-fail basis, tying into her argument that the things Yale undergraduates often connect with life satisfaction — a high grade, a prestigious internship, a good-paying job — do not increase happiness at all. "Scientists didn't realize this in the same way 10 or so years ago."

Is that so?

Exactly 10 years ago already, in the January 8, 2008 Grauer School Weekly Newsletter, I ran the following quote, from Jeff Brenzel of Yale University admissions, and I'm sure he wrote with the best of intentions:

"We're much less interested in innovative applications than we are in innovative students, who have shown over time the spark of real intellectual curiosity and a real enthusiasm for engaging with peers, schools and communities."

In that 2008 newsletter, I noted,

"Very few prodigies make the translation to the level of creativity, innovation, and perspective needed of a 'great.' The reason: expertise requires not only technical virtuosity, but a deep engagement in the process of discovery."

Now, a decade later, both locally here in San Diego and nationwide, independent schools and colleges are scrambling for ways to develop "whole" students, harnessing campus mental health resources in new ways, even forming partnerships with hospital mental health departments to buttress school staffs overwhelmed with stressed-out, perfectionistic kids.

Now, a decade later, we are making our kids more exhausted than ever, and often ourselves as well, then looking for ways to fix them.

A school that is a safe, connected community will fill its ranks with scholars who freely seek their passions

Says the National Association of Independent Schools, "We expect to see this kind of nervous system arousal in survivors of combat, accidents, natural disasters, or terrorist attacks, as well as those living in neighborhoods plagued by poverty and violence. We don't expect to see it in middle- and upper-middle-class children who have been raised in relative comfort and security." [5] But that is exactly what we are seeing.

Happiness courses, such as "The Question of Happiness" course at Packer School, the famed independent school in Brooklyn Heights, are being introduced into some independent schools and popular among students because the courses provide a chance for them to step back from the intense academic pressures of a college preparatory education. [6]

"Education and money may once have served as buffers against distress, but that is no longer the case," psychologist Suniya S. Luthar reports in Psychology Today. "Something fundamental has changed: the evidence suggests that the privileged young are much more vulnerable today than in previous generations." She goes on to enumerate a variety of causes, beginning with the unrealistically high expectations placed upon privileged young people by parents, schools, and even their fellow students.

Frank Bruni describes "pressures felt by high school students in epicenters of overachievement," citing how "a high school teacher recently pulled me aside and, in a pained whisper, insisted that the number of advanced-placement classes that local students feel compelled to take and the number of hospitalizations for depression rise in tandem." [7]

A former Stanford University dean describes, "a larger number of kids who are really struggling and beneath them is an even larger number of kids who feel an amount of stress and pressure that they shouldn't be made to and that's untenable."

To be clear, colleges and school officials on an individual level do not want this—they often feel as trapped as their stressed-out students.

It will take courage from all of us to do the right thing, to say "no" to some things. Last summer, at The Grauer School, we had the occasion to speak to admissions officers from three separate colleges: Princeton, Cornell, and University of San Diego. We were probing them about the craze to load up on AP courses being fueled by parents and overachiever kids who often feel trapped and fearful, if not egotistical. They all told us the same thing: You do not need to take AP classes (which evaluate students in terms of a single test score, devoid of any larger values). Honors classes, such as Grauer offers, count exactly the same and can engage the "whole" student. I repeat: top colleges do not require or prioritize AP classes over honors. Many of them have already abandoned the AP course credit that was once awarded.

Grauer students excelled in connectedness in nationwide High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE), Indiana University, 2017

Last week, following a student suicide, Dr. Sean Boulton, Newport Harbor Principal, sent this out to students/families:

Dear Sailors,
All Sailors ache for the family and friends of the student who died at Corona del Mar High School...Yet there remains valid, heartfelt concern for this tragic incident, specifically from notes that the deceased student left, notes which made mention of the pressures of school and growing up in Newport-Mesa. ... how did we get here?

Our teachers and District have simply created and maintained a system that our community/country has demanded from us over the past 20 years since college admissions mania went into hyper drive... and since earning "A's" in AP classes became the norm.

Our teachers feel the pressure, administration and counseling feel the pressure, and now parents/students are really feeling the pressures. When we grew up nobody asked us what our GPA was, and it was "cool" to work on the roof of a house. This competitive culture has significantly impacted our young adults. We endlessly discuss test scores, National Merit Scholarships, reading scores, AP scholars, comparisons to other school Districts and this is when we start losing our collective souls--and our children.

We often shield our students from failure. We think that earning a "C" grade in a class is the end of the world, and we don't allow our students to advocate for themselves. ...We must reach the point where, if our sons and daughters don't live a perfect young adult experience, it is not the end of the world...it is simply an opportunity to lift the sails and head in another direction.

We need to start now.

Sure, some stress is inevitable and our teens must manage it, but I have never seen any research indicating systematic or routine stress or anxiety improves education and I have only seen research to the contrary, and mountains of it.

A school that is pressure-filled and college-rank oriented might grind out a few exceptional scholars, but a school that is a safe, connected community will fill its ranks with scholars who freely seek their passions—which is, I hope axiomatically, exactly what the world needs of them.
- Stuart Grauer

What factors make a community, such as a school, a place where people are happy? In their fascinating "Soul of the Community" study, the Knight Foundation and Gallup interviewed 43,000 people in 26 communities to find out.

Openness: People are happy when they live in a community that is welcoming to all.
Natural Beauty: Living in a scenic or charming community, with lots of trees and green space, makes people happier.
Social Connectedness: When a community is designed to foster social connections —community spaces, trails and other public spaces — people are happier. [8]

Stacy Caldwell is Executive Director of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, of which The Grauer School was an early member, and which is charged with real change in secondary schooling which will allow schools and students to demonstrate more authentic achievement than possible in the current, reductionist, test-centric, letter grades model. She notes, "All students should have an opportunity for engaging learning experiences that provide deep learning," rather than turning their high school experience into an exercise in transcript creation. (Personal communication, Feb. 6, 2018)

We know a school that is not only designed to foster openness, beauty and social connection, but that puts it on the report cards. The Grauer School is designed for students coming of age, coming into their very own, finding original voices that articulate evolving and original student purposes: The Grauer School has a long and continually strengthening tradition of embedding high trust and low threat into all programming, and then providing evidence of the success of that programming. From green fields and green architectural to pedagogy, Grauer provides "open space" in and out of classes rather than control, provides student choices, focuses on intrinsic motivation (rather than ranks or scores of any kind), and grades students not only on homework and test scores but integrating the achievement of universal values.

Results from the nationwide High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE), Indiana University, 2017

In a nationwide survey conducted by Indiana University that included our school, 95% of The Grauer School's students claimed "I am comfortable being myself at this school." 77% of public school students felt that way and 84% of students at independent private schools felt that way. One typical Grauer alum noted, "I gained self-responsibility and personal empowerment ... I loved attending!" (Vanessa B., Class of 1996). Let's measure that.

If you are stressed out and anxious at school or at the thought of it, routinely, and over a substantial amount of time, know this: it is not because you are performing at such an advanced and accelerated level or that you are a prodigy. It is because there is something wrong. Coming of age, even with occasional stresses, should be a beautiful, opening experience that is making you happy, proud of your community, and optimistic about your future.

[1] MyTwenties: A Retrospective, Catherine Mevs, The New Yorker, July 2, 2016.

[2] Stress in America, American Psychological Association, 2009.

[3] Yale's Most Popular Class Ever: Happiness, David Shimer, New York Times, January 26, 2018.

[4] The Dark Side of Getting Into College, Lauren Stiller Rikleen, March 18, 2014.

[5] First Do No Harm, NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools), Fall 2015.

[6] Exploring the Question of Happiness, NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools), Spring 2017.

[7] Best, Brightest - and Saddest?, Frank Bruni, New York Times, April 11, 2015.

[8] What Makes People Happy With Their Communities?, Knight Foundation.

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