Dr. Grauer's Column - Where Does Academic Pressure Come From?
Where Does Academic Pressure Come From?
(You’ll be surprised at the answer.)
Raising a child can be a tragicomedy, and today’s anxious national climate can make it more so. Here is a story about raising my own child as an example, but please share a comment with your own examples.
We enrolled my daughter into a well-reputed school in second grade. She had been in a school that was not getting her engagedtear in reading, writing, etc. At her new school, she quickly began the catchup process, but I sometimes hampered this with my own ideas that there is more to life than school. Often, we were entertaining (as a part of my Head of School role), and other times we were focusing on family passions: time in nature, reading lots of fun stories, and occasionally going to Disneyland or some other alluring outing.
The Disneyland thing is particularly interesting. Every year at her birthday we played hooky from school. This is interesting because I noticed years later that pretty much all of my teachers who had children took up the same practice and, as employees, they gave me a bit of my own back. That’s a lateral digression and I’ll come back now.
So, one evening we had a dinner and school event, and our daughter had no time to get her math homework done. I didn’t care a thing about her missing a homework assignment if it was not a pattern, but the new school cared. Unlike me, Audrey cared. So, when I picked her up at the end of the day, she tearfully showed me her “Whoops Form,” the reprimand the school universally gave for minor infractions.
It was second grade! I tried to explain to our daughter that she was in great shape and it meant very little, but she wasn’t buying it. It was terribly important to her to comply with the teacher’s wishes and to please the teacher regardless of the request. As our psychology teacher and researcher Dr. Tricia Valeski, explains, “This is completely normal, as at this stage children are focused on understanding and following societal rules, gaining rewards, and avoiding punishment." I tried to explain to Audrey, “Whoops is when you make a mistake, but you did not make any mistake at all.”
I called up Audrey’s teacher, and I explained: “Audrey puts a lot of pressure on herself. She understands when she has not finished her homework. She beats herself up enough. The Whoops Form doesn’t help her, it only makes her feel terrible. The next time she does not do her homework, would you be willing to not give her another Whoops Form and to understand that she really wants to do it whenever she can? Besides, it’s not normally her fault.” The teacher gave me a muddled agreement.
A month or so went by, and then we were either hosting another event or going overtime with sports, and our daughter again was unable to do a math assignment. She felt worried on the way to school, and I tried to console her and, but at the end of the day, there she was with another Whoops Form, crying. This time I called up the principal and demanded this practice stop. There has to be more to our children’s lives than homework. I knew not everyone had the same philosophy as me. But privately, I just gave my daughter a big fat hug, asked her about her feelings, and moved on to the next thing, which was a lot more fun.
In today’s world, students’ self-imposed pressure has reached a new high, according to a recent survey done by the National Association of Independent schools (NAIS).Where do kids get the most pressure from today? Thoughts?
High school student feel the most academic pressure from:
Themselves, 76%. Their Parents: 63%. Their Teachers: 47%.
When we surveyed The Grauer School's parents, it turned out that Grauer parents are a lot like our teachers: their top concerns are not pressuring or controlling their kids, they care mainly about: emotional wellness, screentime, and student self-imposed pressure (Challenge Success Survey, 2022). Our parents are attuned and really support our school goals.
What’s more, when I talk to some of our own students at Grauer, I am stunned at how trapped some of them feel. They are putting incredible amounts of pressure on themselves; they often seem unclear on why they are doing it, and they treat it as though they have no choice. The heartbreaking part is that our school will move heaven and earth to help students see that we want them to have low stress and that they are empowered to take on fun activities and live a “whole” life. Every Grauer teacher wants them to know that there is way more to life than getting an A on every homework assignment. That’s why we have mastery learning and student support options. Kids need real choices.
My colleague Tricia notes, “Similarly, I often wonder why parents and coaches yell at their kids on the sports field. Don’t they see that the kids are already putting enough pressure on themselves? There has got to be a way to have fun, be successful, and not take everything so seriously. Teachers and coaches who can instill that have a gift.”
Right now, we are in a critical time where students are getting overwhelmed with information about what to pay attention to and the controls they perceive which make them feel less free. We want our students to be aware of how easy it can be for them to be manipulated. This manipulation can come from social media, concerned parents, peers, and of course teachers. Eventually, students can feel lost, as though they have little control over their lives. Since the whole point of The Grauer School is to empower students to live life freely and in accordance with their passions, this loss of control is a major issue. The research thankfully shows that few teachers intend this. At Grauer, it is extremely important to us that all students are experiencing a sense of fun, engagement, flow, and connection—stress prevents these.
Stress and anxiety have reached new heights and the impacts on students are clearly on happiness, purpose, focus, honesty, depression rates, and family dynamics. The idea that students see their teachers as relatively minor sources of stress is something to celebrate. At Grauer, we honor the motivation students develop toward their own, intrinsic goals higher than anything else.
As parents, we’d do well to check in with our students and help them understand and feel that the academic pressure they perceive is not from us. Sure, they need our genuine curiosity about what our life at school is like. Our children need us to understand what they are going through. This affirmation helps them understand that their job is not to please everyone. While my daughter was too compliant for me, I also knew that she was incredibly enterprising and liked earning money. I told her that from then on, I would give her two dollars for every Whoops Form she got! To this day, we still laugh about that.
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The level of stress and anxiety that students feel has reached new heights, which impacts their happiness, purpose, focus, honesty, depression rates, and family dynamics. Where does their stress about academic pressure come from? The answer will surprise you.