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.