Reclaiming Naperville Students' Humanity

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Another school year is settling into a rhythm. Nearby, the middle school band has taken up practice, and depending on the direction of the wind, music drifts across the field to my study. Friday night lights at the high school down the street flood across the field to our house. New beginnings, and a sense of hope is pervasive: resource fairs, volunteer sign-ups, student and parent orientations, teacher in-services and assemblies, staff and board meetings. Curriculum nights. Homecoming! We are excited for the school year ahead.

All the excitement though does not dispel some of the unease that lingers in the air. Alongside top rankings that Naperville school districts routinely garner, there is the uncomfortable truth that many of our students are chronically stressed, anxious, depressed, and a number of our kids have died by suicide. 

Perfectionism. For well over a decade our Naperville students have continued to articulate the pressure of high expectations and perfectionism. Focus group interviews conducted by the Naperville Collaborative Youth Team (CYT) in 2006 identified three top student stressors: 1. perfectionism, 2. academic, athletic and material competition, and 3. over-involvement in extra-curricular activities. Students at that time commented:

       At age 12 you've got to have a life plan. Sometimes I just wish I could be a kid.  ~H.S. student

      Parents tell you to be 'your best,' but they really mean to 'the best'.  ~J.H. student

State of the Kids Survey. In 2017, a survey of almost 4,700 7th and 10th graders in Naperville showed that 26% of 7th graders and 42% of 10th graders experience high levels of daily stress. Students reported their top stressors as: 1. School: homework loads, parental and personal pressure to get good grades.  2. Competition: athletics, academics, extracurricular activities; competition with peers. 3. Peers: worry to fit in; approval by peers; bullying; lack of significant other. (Watch NCTV17’s video of the Jan. 30, 2018 results' presentation here.)

In addition, 50% of Naperville students surveyed suffer from chronic stress, i.e. that they were experiencing daily stress that makes it "difficult to perform daily tasks due to anxiety, lack of focus, and inability to concentrate.” A Harvard University study on child development states that “excessive stress disrupts the developing brain’s architecture” and has adverse effects on healthy youth development.

Illinois Youth Survey (IYS) Data. Newly released IYS 2018 mental health data for DuPage County show that 15% of all 10th and 12th graders have "seriously considered attempting suicide" in the previous 12 months; and 26% of 8th graders, 29% of 10th graders and 31% of 12th graders felt "so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that [they] stopped doing some usual activities," in the past 12 months.

National comparison. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in its 2016 report shows that nationwide 12.8% of students “had a period of two weeks or longer in the past 12 months when they experienced a depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities.” It is beyond alarming that students in DuPage County experience depressive episodes at over twice the rate of their peers nationwide.

How did we get here?  We have bought into the idea that there is a straight trajectory to “success,” which "begins with prepping yourself to be attractive to a narrow group of colleges." We have subjected our kids to unrelenting pressure to "succeed" and be extraordinary in as many ways possible with the singular focus to be admitted to a "good college” and obsess about college rankings. This very narrowly scripted path often begins before our kids even start school. It is a competition for best preschools, sports teams, drama clubs, gym & dance programs, desirable playgroups, and story times. And it is literally making our kids sick. At a recent forum on teen mental health Dr. Janice Kowalski, medical director at Linden Oaks Adolescent Behavioral Health shared that increasing and decreasing admissions in adolescent in-patient capacity directly correlated with the school term breaks and vacations. Beds fill during the school year and become available during the summer and other school breaks.

Adults are afraid.  During the panel discussion at the same forum, Angela Adamo, a panelist and WALK4Life student activist from Naperville, stated that the "adults are afraid to listen to us [kids]." Last year after the suicide of a classmate, Tessa Newman, then a junior at Naperville North HS, posted a petition on change.org, describing the pressure culture she and many of her classmates experience. Tessa reported that she almost did not want to attend school the day after the death of her classmate because she did not believe that the staff was interested in what students had to say. In an interview with the Naperville Sun, Tessa explained that "All they [staff] want to hear is that we're okay." 

Our kids are not okay.  Our kids are sharing their truth with us. And yes, their truth is hard to hear for all of us. It hurts deep down to know that many of our kids are chronically stressed, anxious and depressed. It is beyond heart-breaking that kids in our city have died by suicide. It is understandable that we'd prefer our kids to say they are okay. It feels better. It is less complicated. In Naperville we are used to be ranked #1 for many of our students’ academic and athletic 'bests.' And while we value our students’ accomplishments, they have come at a high price. We all know in our bones that just below the surface of all the accolades, awards and glossy images of "perfect people," our kids’ well-being has been and is compromised. The question, What are we doing to our kids?, is a valid one.

What if we listened whole-heartedly?

Naperville students told us in the ‘State of the Kids’ survey that they wanted more sleep, more time, less homework. We are a community of educated and well-intentioned people who want the best for our kids. What if this school year, we were to be fearless and enacted transformational changes for the sake of our kids’ well-being and our community. What if we took a serious look at implementing later school start times and reviewing our students’ homework loads and workweeks?

Sleep deprivation is linked to anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts. In a October 2015 Stanford Medicine News Center report Dr. William Dement, MD, PhD, founder of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic, states that “I think high school is the real danger spot in terms of sleep deprivation.” MEDPage Today reports that an average night of sleep less than 6 hours is associated with an increase in high schools students’ “unsafe behavior, including drinking and drug use, aggressive behavior and self-harm {…].”

Adolescents find it difficult to fall asleep before 11 p.m. In the same Stanford Medicine News Center report, pediatric sleep specialist Rafael Pelayo MD, of Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic spells out the adverse effects of waking before adolescents’ natural sleep rhythms are completed: “[they] are being robbed of the dream-rich, rapid-eye-movement stage of sleep, some of the deepest, most productive sleep time,” during which the brain filters itself, consolidates experiences and learning.

In the American Academy of Pediatrics’s (AAP) call to delay start times for middle and high school students, it states that "adolescents who don’t get enough sleep often suffer physical and mental health problems, an increased risk of automobile accidents and a decline in academic performance."

Later school start times. In its recommendation for later school start times, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) "strongly supports the efforts of school districts to optimize sleep in students and urges high schools and middle schools to aim for start times that allow students the opportunity to achieve optimal levels of sleep (8.5–9.5 hours)," which improve physical and mental health, safety, academic performance and quality of life. It cites that "evidence strongly implicates earlier school start times (i.e. before 8:30 am) as a key modifiable contributor to insufficient sleep, as well as circadian rhythm disruption, in this population." 

The National PTA Association in its Resolution on Healthy Sleep for Adolescents supports the AAP's position that teens' sleep deprivation is "easily fixable" and points to the positive impact that modifying school start times have on students' physical and mental well-being, academic performance and quality of life and encourages school districts to "optimize sleep for students and encourage high schools and middle schools to aim for start times that allow students the opportunity to achieve optimal levels of sleep and to improve their physical and mental health, safety, academic performance, and quality of life."

Many schools in states around the country have implemented later school start times for middle and high schools. Successful transitions to later start times in Illinois include Clarendon Hills/Hinsdale middle schools in Barrington (District 181). Libertyville and Vernon Hills high schools (District 128) are set to start school at 8:45AM and end at 3:25PM starting with the 2019-20 school year. [Read nationwide case studies here.]

Workweek and Homework. And while delaying school start times for middle and high school students accommodates students’ circadian rhythms, Vicki Abeles, attorney and filmmaker of Race to Nowhere and Beyond Measure, is concerned that it does not ensure that kids will actually have enough time to sleep due to their unregulated workweek. She makes a compelling case to review our children’s academic and homework loads. Ables argues that students’ workweeks routinely exceed most adults’ 40-hour workweeks and adversely impact kids’ free playtime, which is essential to “their physical and mental health, and it helps them develop the social and decision-making skills they need in order to find fulfillment and success later in life.”

A recent white paper by Challenge Success affiliated with the School of Education at Stanford University, which “partners with schools, families, and communities to embrace a broad definition of success and to implement research-based strategies that promote student well-being and engagement with learning,” calls for shifting the conversation about homework from “quantity and achievement to quality and engagement.”

More time for play. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) emphasizes the importance of free, unstructured play in its August 2018 policy statement, The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children. It recommends that pediatricians prescribe “playtime” for young children at every well visit as it develops children’s social, emotional skills and executive functioning skills that human beings need to collaborate and innovate.

Anxiety epidemic. Naperville is not the only place in the country where students feel the unrelenting pressure to “succeed” and suffer from stress, anxiety and depression. In large part, we have reacted to the anxiety epidemic by engaging in downstream* work. We have consulted experts, hired more counselors, social workers and psychologists. Counseling practices around our city are expanding and adding staff to provide much needed support. Naperville schools have been implementing important social-emotional-learning (SEL) components into student curricula and discussed the concepts of growth and fixed mindsets. This fall Naperville District 203 rolled out Signs of Suicide (SOS), a new suicide and depression awareness and education program for 6th -12th grade students. While these are all important and valuable initiatives and programs, none change the pressure-filled reality our students encounter on a daily basis and the definition of “success,” which traps them in a relentless hamster wheel.

Transformational Changes. What if we were to engage in even more upstream* work before our kids grow anxious, weary and wear out? What if we heard our students’ requests for more sleep, time and less homework? What if we assessed homework loads, student workweeks and tweaked school schedules? What if we enacted transformational changes that take the focus off grades and made room for authentic success, curiosity, creativity and engaged learning?

Definition of Success. What if we challenged our current definition of success that is about grades, GPA’s and test scores? What if we expanded the meaning of “success” to include student health and well-being, character, resilience, engaged learning and being truly prepared for the 21st century? What if Naperville schools joined Challenge Success’s network of over 150 schools in the country that have embarked on a path to “improve student health and increase learning and motivation.”

Challenge Success collaborates with schools, examines their site-specific needs and implements appropriate changes based on its SPACE framework:

  • Students’ Schedules & Use of Time

  • Project and Problem-based Learning

  • Alternative and Authentic Assessments

  • Climate of Care

  • Education for the Whole Community

Hearing and trusting our students’ voices.

What if we heard and trusted our students’ voices and together enacted transformational changes that reclaim their humanity?

We have surveyed Naperville students about the stress caused by perfectionism, academic, material and athletic competition for well over a decade. The tremendous academic pressure to excel at everything and the never-ending college-admissions race have habituated many of our students to feel “less than” all the time. The results of this strategy are in: Even with all their seeming advantages, our students experience the highest levels of anxiety disorder and depression of any socioeconomic group through increasing social and academic pressures, coupled with a lack of ability to be heard by us, the adults.

Let’s hear our students. Let’s trust their voices. Let’s reclaim our students’ humanity.

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by Dagmar Kauffman, founder & executive director, On Balance Parenting. © 2018 All rights reserved.

* The ‘downstream’ and ‘upstream’ metaphors are borrowed from Dr. Tina Bryson Payne’s presentation, The Whole Brain Child: No Drama Discipline on 9.26.2018 hosted by the Glenbard Parent Series.

Find resources for mental health disorders The National Institute of Mental Health

YOU ARE INVITED! Interested in talking with other parents & caregivers about the definition of “success”? Join us on Oct. 16th for Heart Talks: Parenting Courageously! a monthly conversation group for parents & caregivers. More info and free tickets here.

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In an upcoming post, we will examine what parents & caregivers can do to nurture and launch competent, resilient children who live whole-hearted and balanced lives.

What Do Recess & Free Play Have to Do With Our Children's Mental Health?

Kids Need Play and Recess. Their Mental Health May Depend On It.

The above Education Week post, written by Michael J. Hynes, E.D., Superintendent of Schools for the Patchogue-Medford School District (Long Island, NY), is a call for action for communities to implement more recess and free (=self-directed) play to provide kids with the opportunity to learn to "take control of their lives," which mitigates against anxiety and depression. 

Free and unstructured play with other children and without adult supervision foster children's development decision-making. They learn to manage their emotions and figure out how to get along with others. Children develop competence, resilience and their internal sense of control.

As our children's free play and recess have been replaced with structured play and organized activities over the years, anxiety and depression rates among U.S. school children have risen sharply due to the lack of internal control. Hynes draws on research by Peter Gray, developmental psychologist at Boston College, who notes that the presence of anxiety and depression is closely related to people's sense of control (or lack thereof) they have over their lives.

DuPage County, Illinois. According to the 2018 Illinois Youth Survey (IYS) data, 26% of 8th graders, 29% of 10th graders and 31% of 12th graders in DuPage County have "[felt] so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that you stopped doing some usual activities" in the past 12 monthsAsked if they had  considered "seriously attempting suicide" in the previous 12 months, 15% of both 10th and 12th graders responded that they had.

Call to Action. Hynes believes that "there is one noteworthy reason that has contributed to this mental health crisis like no other, recess and play are on the endangered species list in our public schools."  He has implemented 40 minutes of recess and 40  minutes of lunch in all elementary schools in his school district and challenges school leaders to "focus on the benefits children receive outside of the classroom and on the playground. Indoor/outdoor free play and recess benefits the development of physical, emotional, academic and social skills."

 

http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/finding_common_ground/2018/08/the_existential_mental_health_crisis_in_k-12_education_the_need_for_play_and_recess.html?cmp=eml-enl-eu-news2-rm&M=58566331&U=1419457

 

Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Heart Talks: Parenting Courageously!

On Balance Parenting and Artisan Clinical Associates  present a new parenting series:

Heart Talks: Parenting Courageously!

We invite parents & caregivers to join us in monthly conversations about how to nurture and launch competent & resilient kids who live whole-hearted lives. 

Join us for our next conversation on Tuesday, October 16, 7:00-8:30 PM where we’ll be talking about SUCCESS-what it is and isn’t at the ALIVE Center (500 W. 5th Ave., Naperville, Il)

All are welcome! Participation is free!

If it is your first time joining us for Heart Talks, please register for a free ticket.

Questions? Please email dagmar@onbalanceparenting.org

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Heart Talks: Parenting Courageously is a year-long conversation series that takes place on every 3rd Tuesday/month: Nov 20th, Jan. 15, Feb. 19, Mar 19, April 16, May 21.

Photo Credit: Alex Block on Unsplash

Unsupervised Play & Autonomy Reduce Kids' Anxiety

NPR ED: Empowering Kids in an Anxious World

Most kids no longer engage in unsupervised play without screens or parents watching over them at all times. It prevents kids from developing important life skills: resolving disputes, planning time, managing games. Engagement in manageable risks promotes autonomy, which "feeds self-esteem and mental health."  

Excellent points on the benefits of unsupervised play and providing kids' with autonomy in this review of two new books by Katherine Reynolds Lewis, The Good News About Bad Behavior and William Stixrud, The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Child More Control over Their Lives.

Bottom line: Unsupervised play, taking manageable risks and providing kids with control over their lives promote the development of life skills and mental health. 

Read entire NPR ED review here.

 

 

The Vital Role of Social Connection in our Lives

Work and the Loneliness Epidemic

The above article, written by former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in the Harvard Business Review, focuses on loneliness, the lack of social connection, as a "growing health epidemic."

Dr. Murthy reports that over 40 percent of Americans report feeling lonely, with research indicating that the real numbers may be even higher. People from all socioeconomic groups and ages suffer from loneliness, CEOs and students alike.

Research shows that loneliness is as toxic to our health and reduces lifespan as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. "[Loneliness] is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety." Dr. Murthy calls the human and economic cost of loneliness "profound."

We can be all part of strengthening social connections. Grab a cup of coffee with a friend. Stop by a coworker's cubicle and ask them about their weekend. Pick up the phone and call a friend or relative to simply say "hi."

Leave the cell phone behind. Listen attentively. Feel joy and the feeling of connection rise inside of you.

https://hbr.org/cover-story/2017/09/work-and-the-loneliness-epidemic

Photo by Bewakoof.com Official on Unsplash

Letting our Kids Practice Planning, Decision-making

Allowing our kids to practice planning, decision-making and problem-solving sounds much easier than it is. For sure! It requires us parents to let go of our well-meaning intentions to help our kids and provide space for our kids to do the task themselves. It is hard to let go especially in the busy lives we lead. It can be maddening to watch and wait while our child ties her shoelaces or realize that our freshman left his soccer cleats at home, again.

In other words, "being intentionally lazy," as the author of this Washington Post article recommends is not lazy at all. Sitting back and allowing space and time for our kids to sort things out for themselves, requires lots of energy and patience on the part of us parents and caregivers. And my goodness, does it ever require deep breathing! By doing so though, we provide our kids with the opportunity to practice their executive functioning: goal-setting and follow-though, decision-making, regulation of emotions and problem-solving. We help them acquire the skills they need to be successful in life.

The Compelling Case for Being an "Intentionally Lazy' Parent

 

Reviving Vocational Education Programs

For a long time now, many students have been told by their parents and high school counselors that in order to get a 'good job,'  they must attend college. Such pressure often results in anxiety or depression. Technical and vocational career options are rarely discussed and seem to be reserved for students who are "below average."

Let's expand the career options for our students and talk about vocational and technical education programs. Many occupations do not require college. 

David McGrath is emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage and makes a compelling argument for the benefit of vocational education programs not only for our students but our economy, which is in need of filling vocational jobs.

Let's quit brainwashing kids that it is a college degree or nothing

https://chicago.suntimes.com/news/lets-quit-brainwashing-kids-that-its-a-college-degree-or-nothing/

 

Strive for Perfection is Making Our Kids Sick. Time for Reform.

Is the Drive for Success Making our Children Sick?

This is an excellent article by Vicki Abeles, filmmaker and author of  Beyond Measure.

We have a nationwide epidemic of school-related stress, anxiety and depression. Students' average days consist of 7 hours of school, plus sports, clubs, music activities followed by hours of homework. Weekends are filled with homework projects, test preparations, tournaments and other competitions. No down-time and not enough sleep. Kids in elementary school complain about migraine headaches and ulcers. "Many pediatricians see a clear connection to performance pressure."

There are schools all around the country that are making small but important structural changes to ease pressure and improve our children's health. Reforms include: start times, block schedules, homework limits, homework-free weekends & holidays, re-thinking assessments to show growth beyond conventional tests as well as re-thinking the number of clubs, sports, activities our students are involved in. 

Research shows that when students are less anxious and depressed their academic achievement goes up.  Let's choose the health of our children. The time for reform is now.

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/03/opinion/sunday/is-the-drive-for-success-making-our-children-sick.html

Lack of Sleep = Increase of Sadness, Hopelessness

"Make sure your kids eat well, exercise, and get enough sleep.

"This recipe seems like a no-brainer, but most teenagers are not taking care of themselves in these simple ways. Damour calls sleep the “silver bullet.” Adolescents are supposed to get nine hours of sleep a night. “Any amount under that,” she says, “and they’re going be more stressed, more reactive, and sadder.” Indeed, a new study shows that teenagers who lack adequate sleep are at greater risk of depression and suicide. The study found that “each hour of sleep lost was associated with a 38 percent increase in feelings of sadness and hopelessness among teens."

The Effects of Chronic Stress on the Brain

(This post was originally published on LinkedIN on February 15,2018.)

  "What happens when the brain is stressed — not for a few seconds, but year after year? Stress hormones end up swamping our bodies for days, weeks, months. Research shows that cortisol, specifically, chews up the brain if it loiters there long-term.  When lab rats in Israel, Germany, USA, China, and Italy were given daily injections of rat cortisol for several weeks, it killed brain cells in their hippocampus region, leaving them depressed, anxious, fearful, immature, needy, and unable to learn new behaviors (e.g. stuck in the same old “rat race).”

Parents and school leaders: We are making our kids sick. It is time for structural adaptive positive strategies. For the health and well-being of our kids and our communities. 

 #CrisisofConnection #MentalHealthCrisis  #AddictionCrisis   #NewHumanParadigm via @Khiree Smith

Naperville 'State of the Kids' Town Hall: Examine Our Environment, Achievement Culture

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(This post was originally published on LinkedIN on July 12, 2017.)

Naperville City Councilwoman Rebecca Boyd-Obarski’s call for a town-hall meeting to assess the “State of Kids” in our community is a timely one.

Alongside a review of student alcohol and drug use data, we need to take a look at the state of our youths’ mental health and examine how cultural messages and expectations impact our children’s well-being.

Our culture’s narrow focus on academic achievement–grades, test scores, rote learning–and ambitious resume-building has adversely affected many of our students’ health. Calendar slots for time spent with family, hanging out with friends or simply reading a book for pleasure, are rare to non-existent. To cope with their over-scheduled lives, students often resort to unhealthy coping strategies or even self-harm. Following a classmate’s recent death by suicide, Tessa Newman, a Naperville North High School student posted an online petition asking that the school’s pressure culture change. Tessa’s experience matches that of many of her peers living in affluent and high-achieving communities across the country.

Academic stress impacts kids’ lives nationwide:

  • "73 percent of [high school] students cite academic stress as their number one reason to take drugs, yet only 7 percent of parents think their teens might use drugs to deal with stress.“

  • "36 percent of 9-13-year-olds said that they were more stressed by academics than any other stressor—even bullying or family problems.”

  • “Youth were also 3 times more likely to agree than disagree with the statement: ‘My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.’”

In DuPage County, 17 percent of 10th grade and 27 percent of 12th grade students reported that they had “use[d] alcohol or drugs to relax, feel better about [themselves] or fit in.” (Illinois Youth Survey, 2014)

For 'State of the Kids' we need to get as many stakeholders involved as possible: students, parents, school administrators, educators, health, prevention and social service providers, the business community. Let’s talk about parenting strategies that best serve our youth to become joyful, resilient and caring people. Let’s think about ideas to promote engaged learning and tweak school schedules. Let’s hear from our business community's thoughts about what young people need to be successful in the workforce. And finally, and most importantly, let us please listen to our kids.

Perhaps we could start thinking about these issues by asking, What does it mean to be successful ?

Prevention starts with our conversation. Let’s be open and honest. Thoughtful and courageous.