You know what’s on traditional back-to-school lists: paper, notebooks, pens and pencils, etc. Here’s a post about what should be on those lists but isn’t, by Vicki Abeles, whose new book, “Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation,” spotlights solutions from communities around the country. It will be published Oct. 6. Abeles, a filmmaker, attorney and mother of three, is the co-director and producer of the education documentary “Race to Nowhere.”
By Vicki Abeles
This year’s back-to-school emails are stacked up in my inbox, shouting in all-caps and exclamation points that my child is already behind the curve to start a successful year. School has barely begun, but the excessive expectations on my teenage son and my family are already knocking.
The newest tutoring and test prep are essential to producing smiling, smart kids, the ads and solicitations seem to be saying. He’ll need mandatory study halls and morning practices along with soccer cleats, SAT prep to go with his notebooks. You must fill both your kids’ backpack and his calendar to start the year right.
Yet as I squinted and sifted through my inbox the other night, dreading the crazy school-year pace that was about to descend on my family, the truth hit me: All the items on our traditional back-to-school lists are wrong.
Forget binders, pencils, calculators, and the latest app to help kids manage their time. As a mother and filmmaker crisscrossing the country, I’ve discovered that what our kids really need us to give them this school year is something much deeper. In fact, it cannot be bought at all.
What our children need most urgently now is relief — a rescue from the achieve-at-all-costs educational culture that is driving so many of them to sickness and sadness. The increasingly competitive atmosphere surrounding our kids tells them they must constantly outperform each other in academics, sports, and activities in order to succeed. So they pack their days for maximum productivity — a frenetic pace that schools help to fuel by cycling students through six or seven subjects (each with its own assignments) a day. Schools also incessantly measure students against one-size-fits all standards, leaving them little room to explore, invent, take risks, or even adequately rest.
The sum total is a childhood spent racing to meet an impossible, impersonal ideal.
I already see the effects on my 16-year-old son, whose stress headaches and sleepless nights, so familiar last school year, are creeping back in. And in researching my new book, “Beyond Measure,” I found that the consequences for children’s physical and mental health are widespread and even worse than we imagine. Sleep deprivation is epidemic among children and teens, with studies showing piles of homework as a primary cause. Pediatricians report ulcers and migraines afflicting students in primary school. And by the time they reach college, rising numbers of them arrive on campus with depression, anxiety, and other severe psychological problems.
Let me be clear. I’m not suggesting a lowering of standards or a slacking off. In fact, the great paradox is that all the pressure doesn’t even help students achieve. College professors and employers widely lament that today’s grads are misguided and constrained by fear: great at following precise instructions but afraid to innovate and unprepared to manage themselves. Researchers note a disquieting drop in measures of children’s creativity—right when the global economy demands more original thinking than ever.
More than new supplies to help them run the childhood rat race even faster, our kids’ list of essentials actually includes adequate sleep, family time, play, opportunities for exploration and meaningful learning, and more.
These gifts cost nothing — except our collective commitment to look squarely at what’s hurting our kids and come together to make a change. And their benefits will run deeper and last longer than any new gizmo, or any tutoring course, could.
This fall, consider deleting the deluge of demanding emails, crossing off the usual, superficial goods and services on your back-to-school list, and replacing them with what really counts. It can be done; in my book research I found inspiring communities from coast to coast that are leading the way. Here’s a sampling of what all students need:
Time to rest, relax, and keep healthy habits. Time to connect with family, friends, and themselves. Time to discover who they are when they’re not trying to be all things to everyone else. Without that time, children cannot fully form into healthy, whole people. We, the parents, educators, and other adults in their lives, need to limit our demands on their days—restraining runaway homework, capping excessive practice and rehearsal hours, resisting the rush for outside tutoring for material that teachers don’t have time to reinforce in class. And we need to support kids in selecting fewer commitments, academically and outside of school, as well. School communities from Gaithersburg, Maryland, to Potomac, Montana, to Fremont, California, are showing that it’s possible to do this. Sometimes the most important learning happens when there is no assignment.
Brain science makes clear that sufficient sleep is critical for maintaining health, attention, and memory. Students can hardly be expected to learn well without those capacities. Yet our schools consistently drain kids’ sleep reserves by forcing them to wake up before dawn for early first bells, occupying them late into the evening with over-long practices, and then keeping them up still later with hours of homework and studying. We can help our students this year by campaigning for more humane school start times and homework limits that respect healthy bedtimes. Communities such as Ridgewood, New Jersey, and Boulder, Colorado, have already begun.
Structured activities such as soccer practices and dance rehearsals can be fun and beneficial for kids, but they should not be mistaken for play. True play, in which children design their own pastimes without adults’ direction, is growing ever more rare these days. Yet it is essential to healthy development. In fact, recent research shows that children who get fewer chances for unstructured playtime tend to lack critical self-management skills. By freeing some our children’s time from scripted activities—and freeing ourselves of the nagging feeling that we must fill their every moment—we can help them hone important skills. Who knows to what discoveries an unencumbered afternoon, spent reading or playing outside or building a fort or tinkering in the garage, might lead?
Support in pursuing genuine interests, not cramming their résumés with credentials.
The accelerating arms race for college admission convinces children and families that they must acquire an exhausting list of academic and extracurricular achievements, always aiming to do a little more than the next kid. Lost in this competition is the value of real learning, not merely getting the trophy or the grade. The race deprives individual children of chances to pursue the particular subjects and activities that truly stimulate their minds, and leave them little room to make mistakes and grow from them. This year, let’s give our students space to choose the pursuits they truly care about, and to risk trying something new no matter how well they might score. Schools such as High Tech High in San Diego, California, and the entire district of Trigg County, Kentucky, can be our guides.
Opportunities to learn deeply, exploring problems without prescribed answers.
The pressure of standardized tests keeps our education system hooked on narrow questions and right answers. In the rush to cover everything that might be tested, teachers and students miss chances to create and explore. Some of the best preparation we can give our kids this year might be an open-ended challenge—a research question of the student’s own choosing, a project to solve a community problem—and the support to tackle it. Schools in New York’s Performance Standards Consortium, for example, encourage this kind of inquiry.
A new definition of success
Almost from birth, our kids absorb society’s image of success. And it’s a narrow one: score the highest, run the fastest, get into the most prestigious college, and get on your way to a high-income career and a high-status life. Too many young people mortgage their childhoods to get there, fearing that anything less will be failure. They need relief. Starting now, our students need to hear from us that their health matters more than their alma mater. They need a new set of exemplars, model adults who didn’t go to Dartmouth but still found their way to satisfying work and financial stability—of whom there are many. And they need us to show them, in our words and deeds, that what counts most in life is integrity, wellness, purpose, interpersonal connection, and joy.