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.

Most teens aren’t challenged

The overstressed, overscheduled American student is a “myth,” argues Robert Pondiscio in U.S. News in response to Frank Bruni’s New York Times column on “exhausted superkids.” Or, at the very least, it’s a problem for a small percentage of teens.

Most U.S. high school students aren’t racing from one activity to another, Pondiscio argues. He cites a 2006 study based on a nationally representative longitudinal database of 5,000 families and their children.

The average teen spent five hours a week at sports games and practices, faith-based activities, doing volunteer work, and meeting the demands of afterschool programs and other obligations. Forty percent of teens spent no time at all in organized activities during the school week.

Only 6 percent of U.S. teens averaged 20+ hours of organized activities per week. The overactive do better “across a broad array of outcomes, from childhood to young adulthood, than youth who are uninvolved,” observes Joseph Mahoney, a co-author of the study and a professor of psychology at Elizabethtown College.

Bruni worries about students taking too many AP classes. Two-thirds of U.S. high school graduates take do not take a single AP class, writes Pondiscio.

 From 2011-2014, despite enormous growth in the program, fewer than 8 percent of high school students took more than five AP classes before graduation. Raise that to seven or more APs in high school, presumably the sweet spot of “exhausted superkid” status, and the number drops to less than 5 percent of the 3 million 2014 high school graduates.

Meanwhile the College Board estimates there are at least twice as many, some 300,000 academically prepared students, who either did not take an AP course in which they had potential, or attended a school that did not offer an AP course in that subject.

Pressure to achieve is a problem for the privileged few, Pondiscio concludes. (They happen to have parents who buy books.) “The far greater concern is almost certainly the undertaxed American child, who lacks access to rigorous academic coursework, the incentive and opportunities to participate in organized activities, or both.”

‘Superkids’ are stressed, tired

Today’s “superkids” are competing so hard to get into elite colleges they have no time to sleep, writes New York Times columnist Frank Bruni.

Overloaded and Underprepared, by a Stanford-affiliated group called Challenge Success, cites a Silicon Valley high school that brought in sleep consultants, trained students as “sleep ambassadors” and held a sleep slogan contest. The winner: “Life is lousy when you’re drowsy.”

“Childhood has been transformed — at least among an ambitious, privileged subset of Americans — into an insanely programmed, status-obsessed and sometimes spirit-sapping race,” writes Bruni.

How to Raise an Adult, by Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former Stanford dean, and The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey also deal with affluent parents’ zeal for perfect children — and the toll it takes.

“At some point, you have to say, ‘Whoa! This is too crazy,’ ” Denise Pope, a Stanford lecturer  and co-author of Overloaded, told Bruni. “I’ve got kids on a regular basis telling me that they’re getting five hours.”

. . . in communities where academic expectations run highest, the real culprit is panic: about acing the exam, burnishing the transcript, keeping up with high-achieving peers.

Teens need “the wiggle room to find genuine passions, the freedom to discover true independence, the space to screw up and bounce back,” concludes Bruni.

I keep thinking about the girl who won the sleep-slogan contest at Menlo-Atherton High. She’s going to put that on her college applications.

Social skills lead to success

“Socially competent” kindergarteners — kids who cooperate and play well with others — are more likely to complete college and work full-time by their mid-20s, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health. Their less socially skilled classmates were more likely to have a criminal record and to report binge drinking.

In 1991 teachers evaluated kindergarteners on a scale of 1 to 5 on how well they interacted with others, including measures like: “cooperates with peers without prompting”; “is helpful to others”; “is very good at understanding feelings”; “can give suggestions and opinions without being bossy”; and “resolves problems on own.”

Childhood aggression measures did not predict criminal activity, notes Education Week.

For every one-point increase on a five-point scale, children were twice as likely to earn a college degree; 54 percent more likely to earn a high school diploma, and 46 percent more likely to have a full-time job. On the down side, for every one-point decrease, a child was 67 percent more likely to have been arrested by adulthood, and 82 percent more likely to be in or on a waiting list for public housing.

Researchers believe young children can be taught social skills, possibly affecting their later success in life.

Wait-for-the-marshmallow children from low-income, black families experience less depression, substance abuse and aggression than their peers with less self-control, according to another new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  But disadvantaged blacks with high self-control age faster,

In earlier research, self-control was linked to high blood pressure, obesity and higher levels of stress hormones for blacks from low-income families, but not for middle-class blacks or for whites.

Performance-based parenting

The children of the meritocracy are bathed in conditional love, writes David Brooks in the New York Times.

 Parents unconsciously shape their smiles and frowns to steer their children toward behavior they think will lead to achievement.

. . . Children in such families come to feel that childhood is a performance — on the athletic field, in school and beyond. They come to feel that love is not something that they deserve because of who they intrinsically are but is something they have to earn.

. . . These parents unconsciously regard their children as an arts project and insist their children go to colleges and have jobs that will give the parents status and pleasure — that will validate their effectiveness as dads and moms.

Meritocratic parents “use love as a tool to exercise control.”

High expectations  are to blame for a wave of suicides at Palo Alto High School, suggests Motoko Rich, also in the New York Times. Paly is my daughter’s alma mater.

“Across the street to the west, Stanford University beckons as the platonic ideal,” she writes. “To the east, across a bike trail, are the railroad tracks where three boys from the school district have killed themselves this year.”

This is Palo Alto’s second suicide cluster. “Five students or recent graduates of the district’s other high school, Gunn High School, killed themselves beginning in 2009.”

Students at Palo Alto's Gunn High School  mourn a classmate. Photo: Jim Gensheimer, Mercury News

Students at Palo Alto’s Gunn High School mourn a classmate. Photo: Jim Gensheimer, Mercury News

There are now guards posted at the railroad tracks, but they can’t be everywhere.

Parents say, “All I care about is that you’re happy,” said Madeline Levine, a local psychologist. “The kid walks in the door and the first question is, ‘How did you do on the math test?’ ”

I want you to be happy — at Stanford, Yale or MIT.

In high-achieving communities, children believe “that only the best will do — in grades, test scores, sports, art, college,” said Denise Pope, an education expert at Stanford. “In everything.” It’s Stanford or flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

“It’s awfully hard to be the best here, given the curve” is the line that resonates the most with my daughter, she wrote on Facebook. “Yes, growing up in Palo Alto, I felt pressure to succeed. But I am also grateful that I learned, very early on, that it was ok not to be the best.”