Stresssssss

. During the lunch period, Skylar Relova, 15, left, and Bailey Smith, 14, both San Ramon Valley High students from Danville, visit with Max, a Shih Tzu mix therapy dog, in the school quad in Danville, Calif., on Monday, March 14, 2015. San Ramon Valley High\'s PTSA is hosting a \"Low Stress Week\" March 14-18 with therapy dogs and a hot breakfast served to students. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Bay Area News Group)
Skylar Relova, 15, left, and Bailey Smith, 14, meet Max, a therapy dog, in the San Ramon Valley High quad during the lunch period. Photo: Susan Tripp Pollard, Bay Area News Group

Student stress is worrying educators at top-performing Silicon Valley schools, reports Sharon Noguchi in the San Jose Mercury News. “They’re pushing back school start times, re-examining homework loads, coordinating tests and warning parents about buying into college myths.”

Two suicide clusters in Palo Alto have raised fears. Around the Bay Area, there are more reports of panic attacks and eating disorders, students cutting themselves, suicide attempts and other mental-health issues.

In a recent two-week period at Irvington High in Fremont, mental health authorities or parents were summoned because nine students were suffering so much distress they needed to be involuntarily confined for protection, assistant principal Jay Jackson said.

A (St. Louis University) survey last spring found 54 percent of Irvington students suffering from depression and 80 percent showing moderate to severe anxiety levels.

Students think their life is over if they don’t get into a “great college,” say counselors.

“The better you are, the better the college you get into, and the better your life will be,” said Ella Milliken, a sophomore at Los Altos High.

Palo Alto schools have “added counselors and trained staff to spot troubled students,” reports Noguchi.

Dr. Grace Liu, a psychiatry resident, plays the part of an embarrassed teen with Dr. Rona Hu, psychiatry, playing the role of Liu's mother, during a skit at Jane Lathrop Middle School in Palo Alto. Photo: Jim Gensheimer, Bay Area News Group

Psychiatrists Grace Liu and Rona Hu play a teen and her mother in a skit at a parenting forum at a Palo Alto middle school. Photo: Jim Gensheimer, Bay Area News Group

San Ramon Valley High “staged a low-stress week” with hot breakfasts of quiche and oatmeal, supplied by parent volunteers, and therapy dogs at lunchtime. “Relaxing music wafted over the quad, where students did yoga” and “email was banned for a day.”

Four of the last nine Palo Alto teens to kill themselves were Asian and Asian youths have killed themselves in San Jose, Fremont and Contra Costa County in recent years. Palo Alto school and community leaders have started conversations on “parenting, expectations and a traditionally taboo topic — mental illness,” with Asian parents, Noguchi writes.

However, plans to ease pressure are controversial. Saratoga High considered limiting AP classes, but students and parents rejected the idea.

. . . a proposal to push back Saratoga High’s start time by nearly an hour, to 8:40 a.m., ran into furious opposition, especially from Asian parents. The idea was to coordinate times with the district’s other school, Los Gatos High, and to give students a chance to get more sleep — a benefit that some researchers tout as the single most effective tool to improve student health.

The plan, the product of monthslong research by a 28-member committee, was enthusiastically backed by many teachers and counselors, alarmed at rising stress disorders they see among students.

But the proposals were never publicly debated. And the committee itself, while intended to be broad-based, lacked Asian-American parents — even though Saratoga High is about three-fifths Asian. Criticism spread by social media saw the plan as an attack on academic rigor, in part by shaving five minutes from each class period.

Test scores are higher at Saratoga than Los Gatos, said parent Becky Wu. “Why ask Saratoga to match Los Gatos’ and not the other way around?”

Saratoga will compromise on a 8:15 a.m. start time.

The all-powerful U.S. News rankings reward colleges for selectivity, writes Alia Wong in The Atlantic. Mid-level colleges recruit students — including those they have no intention of admitting — to push up their rejection stats.

Is social media fueling teen suicide?


Credit: Victor Kerlow

Parents blame stress for the suicides of two 17-year-old girls in Plano, Texas. Two boys at New York City’s Fordham Prep jumped in front of trains a few weeks apart. The youth suicide rate has been rising since 2007, reports the Centers for Disease Control.

Social media may be fueling teen suicide by encouraging young people to become “disconnected from the reality of their own existences,” writes Dr. Keith Ablow.

Facebook, Twitter, Tinder and the like have made them think of themselves as mini-reality-TV versions of themselves. Too many of them see their lives as a series of flickering photos or quick videos. They need constant doses of admiration and constant confirmation of their tenuous existence, which come in the form of Facebook “likes” and Twitter “retweets.”

Heroin use is spreading, writes Ablow. “Heroin is just the powdered equivalent of text messaging, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the technology drugs Americans— especially American teen— are mainlining every single day.”

Young people are “increasingly fascinated with dramas about vampires and zombies,” he adds. “They know something about the walking dead.”

CDC to study teen suicide ‘epidemic’

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will conduct an  epidemiological study of teen suicides in affluent Palo Alto, reports Sharon Noguchi in the San Jose Mercury News.  Four high school students took their own lives in 2014 and 2015 and six killed themselves in 2009 and 2010. Most stepped in front of a train.

Hanna Rosin write about the “Silicon Valley suicides” in the December Atlantic.

Suicide prevention signs are posted by Palo Alto train tracks. Photo: Dai Sugano, San Jose Mercury News

Suicide prevention signs are posted by Palo Alto train tracks. Photo: Dai Sugano, San Jose Mercury News

In response to the suicides and concern about student stress, Palo Alto “schools are starting later so that students can get more sleep,” writes Noguchi. “Gunn High School students created a student support group. New fencing rims the Caltrain tracks. The school district and city have offered sessions on parenting and mental health issues. And counseling services have been expanded.”

The CDC conducted an “Epi-Aid” assessment last year in Fairfax County, Virginia, where “85 youths and young adults ages 10 through 24 killed themselves from September 2010 through October 2014,” she reports.

The CDC’s Fairfax study listed a variety of risk factors, including “parents’ pressure for success, parental denial of children’s mental health issues, high counselor-to-student ratios at school, the occasional cruelty of social media and the stigma of mental illness,” writes Noguchi. Media coverage of suicides may have encouraged suicidal behavior.

Untimed tests: ‘not such a crazy idea’

Untimed tests — aren’t such a crazy idea, opines Robert Pondiscio in the New York Daily News. In response to the opt-out movement — 20 percent of students skipped New York’s state exams — this spring’s test takers will be allowed as much time as they want.

Dropping time limits won’t invalidate the results, writes Pondiscio. Research shows extra time helps students with learning disabilities, but has no significant effect for students without disabilities.

Most state math and reading tests are “power” tests rather than “speed” tests, according to University of Pennsylvania psychometrician Andrew Porter. Power tests “are designed so that nearly all students will be able to complete all items within the allotted time.”

“Education officials seem to think that allowing unlimited time will give parents one less reason to complain about test pressure,” writes Pondiscio. He doubts it will work. “The real source of test pressure is not the clock, it’s adults pressuring kids to perform.”

Any leveling or reduction in the number of parents refusing to let kids sit for state tests this year will likely be a function of New York’s moratorium on linking test scores to teacher evaluations. School administrators and teachers are less likely to transfer their anxieties to students, wittingly or unwittingly.

The moratorium ends in 2020.

I’ve worked under deadline for most of my life. I do the best I can in the time and space I’ve got. Then I stop. I find unlimited time very stressful.

Asians: Stress is OK, focus on academics

A high-achieving New Jersey school district needs to ease pressure on students and focus more on “social-emotional development,” West Windsor-Plainsboro Superintendent David Aderhold argued in a letter to parents.

“The perpetual achievement machine continues to demand higher scores and greater success each passing year,” he wrote. “The grade has become the end point, not the learning.”

The changes have revealed a divide between white parents, who welcome the changes, and Asian parents, who think achievement should come first, reports the New York Times.

Educated immigrants from China, India and Korea have flooded into the district, which is near Princeton: 65 percent of students are Asian-American, compared with 44 percent in 2007.

At follow-up meetings, Aderhold talked about two clusters of suicides in the last six years in high-achieving Palo Alto (California) schools. Many blame stress. (Most of the suicides were Chinese-American or had one Asian parent.)

Helen Yin, the mother of an eighth grader and a kindergartner in the district, told a crowd at the board meeting that reforms by Dr. Aderhold were holding her children back. Credit Mark Makela for The New York Times

Helen Yin, the mother of an eighth grader and a kindergartner, spoke against the district’s new approach. Credit: Mark Makela/New York Times

Catherine Foley, a former president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at her daughter’s middle school, backs the changes. “My son was in fourth grade and told me, ‘I’m not going to amount to anything because I have nothing to put on my résumé,’ ” she said.

Another parent, Mike Jia, condemned “dumbing down” his children’s education. “What is happening here reflects a national anti-intellectual trend that will not prepare our children for the future,” he said.

The changes include “no-homework nights, an end to high school midterms and finals, and a ‘right to squeak’ initiative that made it easier to participate in the music program,” reports the Times.

 Asian-American parents are enthusiastic supporters of the competitive instrumental music program. They have been huge supporters of the district’s advanced mathematics program, which once began in the fourth grade but will now start in the sixth. The change to the program, in which 90 percent of the participating students are Asian-American, is one of Dr. Aderhold’s reforms.

Asian-American students have been avid participants in a state program that permits them to take summer classes off campus for high school credit, allowing them to maximize the number of honors and Advanced Placement classes they can take, another practice that Dr. Aderhold is limiting this school year.

 At a meeting, white parents sat on one side, while Asian parents sat on the other.

This has been an issue where I live, in Silicon Valley, for years. Asian immigrant parents put heavy pressure on their kids to earn high grades. (It’s not the schools. It’s the parents.) Some white parents worry their kids can’t compete — or will go nuts trying. The pressure to get into an elite college means all the A students feel they’re in competition with each other.

My daughter, a Palo Alto High graduate, was talking about the suicides, which were after her time, with a classmate. “Paly taught me that I didn’t always have to be the best,” she said.

“But we were the best,” he replied.

Teen suicide in Silicon Valley: Why?

I raised my daughter in Palo Alto. The public schools educated the children of high-tech engineers, entrepreneurs and Stanford professors. It was competitive — but also fun to put out the newspaper or compete in Mock Trial with so many smart kids.

In The Suicide Clusters at Palo Alto High Schools, Hanna Rosin tries to understand a series of suicides in 2009-10 and again in 2014-15.

Most of the kids who killed themselves stepped in front of a train.

For the most part, these students were doing well in school, had plenty of friends, seemed to be normal teens with normal parents. One girl had just gotten into the college of her dreams. A boy had just tried out for varsity basketball.

Adolescent dysfunction has a U-shaped curve, writes Rosin. Wealthy teens are doing as badly as poor teens, researchers say.

The rich middle- and high-school kids (Suniya) Luthar and her collaborators have studied show higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse on average than poor kids, and much higher rates than the national norm. They report clinically significant depression or anxiety or delinquent behaviors at a rate two to three times the national average.

Successful parents set high expectations for their children. High school students believe there’s one path to success — get into a “good” college — and little room for mistakes.

Many of the Palo Alto suicides were Chinese-American or had some Asian ancestry, writes Rosin. Was it Tiger Moms and Dads?

In addition to pressure to excel, “affluent kids felt remarkably isolated from their parents,” Luthar found. They got lots of parental attention — all that helicoptering — but didn’t feel close.

In the end, nothing really seems to explain why these adolescents ended their lives, concludes Rosin.

Nationwide, the adolescent suicide rate has “dropped dramatically since the 1990s,” perhaps because of better anti-depressants and suicide-prevention campaigns, she writes. But, in the past few years, teen suicide is on the rise again.

It’s not school prayer, it’s meditation

Fourth graders at Public School 212 in Queens practice mindful exercises in the classroom. Credit: Lindsay Morris,  New York Times

Meditation and mindfulness exercises start the day at some New York City schools, reports the New York Times. Advocates say it reduces stress, though “evidence is thin.”

Chancellor Carmen Fariña, visited a fourth-grade classroom in Queens where children sat cross-legged on the floor.

“Please let your eyes close,” said a small boy named Davinder, from his spot on the linoleum.

Davinder gently struck a shallow bronze bowl. Gong! “Take three mindful breaths,” he said, and the room fell silent.

At the Brooklyn Urban Garden Charter School in Windsor Terrace, 15 minutes are set aside at the beginning and end of every school day, when students must either meditate or sit quietly at their desks, reports the Times.MINDFULNESS-1-articleLarge

Public School 212 in Jackson Heights, Queens has “converted a large closet in a subbasement into a room devoted to mindfulness, complete with dim illumination and a string of rainbow Christmas-tree lights, allowing users to switch off the harsh fluorescent light overhead.”

The David Lynch Foundation, started by the director of “Blue Velvet,” funds transcendental meditation training at schools — and at banks, hedge funds and media companies.

“Remove the pesky “God” character, and you’re good to go,” writes Ann Althouse, who thinks the meditation exercises sound a lot like school prayer.

When poor parents get more money . . . 

Giving more money to low-income parents improves their children’s personalities and prospects, concludes a study in North Carolina.

Four years into the Great Smoky Mountains Study of Youth, the families of roughly a quarter of the children — all Cherokees — started getting an extra $4,000 a year per adult from a new casino. The money raised household incomes by almost 20 percent on average.

An income boost from a new casino helped low-income Cherokee parents and their children.  Photo: David Oppenheimer, Performance Impressions

An income boost from a new casino helped low-income Cherokee parents and their children. Photo: David Oppenheimer, Performance Impressions

With extra money coming in, parents reported less stress, less drinking and better parent-child relationships, according to a long-term follow-up. They were as likely to work, but spent more time supervising their children.

Children had fewer behavioral and emotional disorders, the study found. The money appeared to boost children’s conscientiousness and agreeableness, reports the Washington Post.

“There are very powerful correlations between conscientiousness and agreeableness and the ability to hold a job, to maintain a steady relationship,” said Emilia Simeonova, a Johns Hopkins professor and one of the paper’s co-authors. “The two allow for people to succeed socially and professionally.”

Children with the most personality problems improved the most.

What teachers want: bathroom breaks

Why Don’t Schools Give Teachers Enough Time to Use the Restroom? asks Alia Wong in The Atlantic.

Only 15 percent of teachers are enthusiastic about their profession, according to a survey by the American Federation of Teachers and the Badass Teachers Association. Yet 90 percent said they were enthusiastic when they started.

Three in four teachers surveyed said they “often” feel stressed on the job.

When teachers were asked about “everyday” stressors, “lack of opportunity to use restroom” came in third place behind time pressure and disciplinary issues, notes Wong.

Some teachers avoid drinking water so they won’t need to use the bathroom, she writes.

“Do not drink too much,” wrote the Reddit user schaud2013 about a year ago in the thread “How do teachers find time to use the bathroom in the school day?” The user continued: “I was lucky this year to have prep 2nd hour, then lunch 2 hours later and then 3 hours of classes until the end of the day. If I do have to go, I hold it by focusing on something else and walking around class. That seems to help me.”

This seems like an education problem with a simple solution, writes Wong. A teacher who’s dehydrated — or desperate — is not going to be at her best.

Too much homework? Or too little?

Kids have three times too much homework,” reported CNN, citing a study in Providence, Rhode Island. In kindergarten through third grade, children spend more than the recommended 10-minutes per grade level.

The story was misleading, responds Tom Loveless at Brookings.

First, the sample — parents visiting pediatrician’s offices — was not random, he writes. It appears to be skewed toward large, Spanish-speaking families.

Beyond that, the report ignores the apparent fact that fourth through 12th graders do too little homework, writes Loveless.

“High school students (grades 9-12) spend only about half the recommended time on homework,” according to the study, he points out. Twelfth graders, most of whom will go to college in a year, spend less an hour of homework per night. That could explain why so many never earn a college degree.