A colleague said a remarkable thing to me the other day as we both were sitting through another long high school track meet together. Her daughter, a high school senior already admitted to a top liberal arts college on the east coast, is really stressed out with homework. My colleague, also a psychologist, said that her bright, thoughtful, athletic, and cheery daughter is now pretty “broken” from stress. She says that the pressure of high stakes high school academics, AP everything classes, and so forth has “destroyed her ability to cope with stress.” Too many late nights and tears have taken their toll on this now fragile and broken 17-year-old.
Just the other night at my son’s high school senior fashion show event one dad that I know pretty well jokingly said that his son was about to "crack under the pressure of school." Again, like my colleague at the track meet, this dad referred to "crazy amounts" of homework, stress, and unreasonable expectations. I have to admit that my wife and I both thought that his son looked like a zombie during show.
Yikes! Is this what we are doing to many of our youth in America? I live in the Silicon Valley bubble but I believe that these experiences are not just a Silicon Valley thing.
In fact, these stories don't seem that unusual. You may have heard about the study reported in the press (i.e., New York Times, CNN) just a few days ago about another colleague’s work (Dr. Denise Pope at Stanford University, see nytimes.com/homeworks-emotional-toll-on-students-and-families) regarding our stressed out kids. Her empirical research (among other quality studies) supports the view that many of our youth are experiencing way too much pressure in school at very young ages. Is this really necessary?
We push hard when it comes to academics, sports, and so forth. Curiously, quality research over a number of years informs us that kids should get no more than 10 minutes of homework per grade level. While 10 minutes per grade level is associated with academic progress, more than that is not. Thus, a 3rd grade student should have no more than 30 minutes of homework per evening while a high school senior should have no more than 2 hours per day. More than that has no quality research support to back it up. So why do we ignore the data?
In America everything we do is done on steroids! We seem to be a nation of extreme behavior. We do everything to the max (e.g., if a cup of coffeee is good, then a 20oz Venti at Starbucks is better). And it takes a toll on all of us but perhaps most especially on our youth. There are no simple answers of course and many factors must come together in order to change cultural norms but at least we can be aware of the potential damage that is being done and try our very best to push back the tide as much as we can. We can also use the best research available in the education and psychology fields, for example, to create policies and procedures for homework that are in the best interest of our kids.
But in the meantime, we have too many kids stressed out, burned out, and perhaps heading off to college broken with stress. Additionally, their ability to self regulate (e.g., sleeping patterns) is a mess. As a college professor I have seen too many students tired and burned out by the time they are fall term freshmen! We can (and must) do better for our youth, don't you think?
So, what say you?
Copyright 2014 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP