Why Kids Shouldn’t Sit Still in Class

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Third- and fourth-graders at Breakthrough Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., participating in a BrainErgizer movement break during the school day. CreditBrainErgizer

Sit still. It’s the mantra of every classroom.

But that is changing as evidence builds that taking brief activity breaks during the day helps children learn and be more attentive in class, and a growing number of programs designed to promote movement are being adopted in schools.

“We need to recognize that children are movement-based,” said Brian Gatens, the superintendent of schools in Emerson, N.J. “In schools, we sometimes are pushing against human nature in asking them to sit still and be quiet all the time.”

“We fall into this trap that if kids are at their desks with their heads down and are silent and writing, we think they are learning,” Mr. Gatens added. “But what we have found is that the active time used to energize your brain makes all those still moments better,” or more productive.

A 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine concluded that children who are more active “show greater attention, have faster cognitive processing speed and perform better on standardized academic tests than children who are less active.” And a study released in January by Lund University in Sweden shows that students, especially boys, who had daily physical education, did better in school.

“Daily physical activity is an opportunity for the average school to become a high-performing school,” said Jesper Fritz, a doctoral student at Lund University and physician at the Skane University Hospital in Malmo who was the study’s lead author.

“Activity helps the brain in so many ways,” said James F. Sallis, a professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California, San Diego, who has done research on the association between activity breaks and classroom behavior. “Activity stimulates more blood vessels in the brain to support more brain cells. And there is evidence that active kids do better on standardized tests and pay attention more in school.”

John Ratey, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” said: “Movement activates all the brain cells kids are using to learn, it wakes up the brain.”

“Plus,” he added, “it makes kids want to come to school more — it’s fun to do these activities.”

But not all districts are embracing the trend of movement breaks.

“The bottom line is that with only six and a half hours during the day, our priority is academics,” said Tom Hernandez, the director of community relations for the Plainfield School District in Illinois, about 40 miles southwest of Chicago. He said that under state law, the schools provide daily physical education classes and that teachers in the district find ways to give students time during the day to refresh and recharge.

“Kids aren’t meant to sit still all day and take in information,” said Steve Boyle, one of the co-founders of the National Association of Physical Literacy, which aims to bring movement into schools. “Adults aren’t wired that way either.”

Mr. Boyle’s association has introduced a series of three- to five-minute videos called “BrainErgizers” that are being used in schools and Boys and Girls Clubs in 15 states and in Canada, Mexico, Ireland and Australia, he said. A version of the program is available to schools at no charge.

The program is designed so that three to five times a day, teachers can set aside a few minutes for their students to watch a video and follow the cues given by the instructors. In one typical video, the instructors are college students of all shapes and sizes at the University of Connecticut who do a quick warm-up and then lead kids through a mini workout involving movements from several sports: baseball, basketball and a triathlon. That’s followed by a cool-down.

“At the end of the week, kids have gotten an hour or more worth of movement, and it’s all done in the classroom with no special equipment,” Mr. Boyle said. “We’re not looking to replace gym classes, we’re aiming to give kids more minutes of movement per week. And by introducing sports into the videos, giving kids a chance to try sports they may not have ever tried before.”

Julie Goldstein, principal of the Breakthrough Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., said her school has been using BrainErgizers since the spring of 2015.

It’s easy for the teachers to implement, and “easy for the students to follow,” Mrs. Goldstein said. She said the program has “helped them focus and bring up their energy level in the classroom.”

Scott McQuigg, chief executive and a co-founder of GoNoodle, a classroom movement program used in more than 60,000 elementary schools in the United States credits Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative with helping to bring movement and the health of children into the public consciousness.

“We call this the Movement movement,” Mr. McQuigg said. “If we invest three to five minutes for our kids to move in the classroom, we are actually going to optimize the next 45 minutes for learning. That small investment in time has such a big yield for teachers.”

GoNoodle, which offers free and paid videos, aims to entertain kids while they are moving, Mr. McQuigg said. GoNoodle and other “brain break” videos can be found on the website for “Let’s Move! Active Schools,” part of Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative.

“We have purposely not gone after this as an exercise program,” Mr. McQuigg said. “This is a digital generation that expects to be entertained, and we think we can do more good around getting them to move if they are entertained.”

For example, GoNoodle videos have kids running alongside their desks through a virtual obstacle course or following along with dance moves.

Joseph E. Donnelly, professor of medicine and director of the Center for Physical Activity and Weight Management at the University of Kansas Medical Center, said one of the good things about kids being more physically active in classrooms is that everyone is moving at the same time.

“In physical education classes, there is a lot of standing around, a lot of minutes of kids waiting to do an activity, and sometimes kids are only moving for about 15 minutes during a 50-minute class,” said Dr. Donnelly, who co-authored a statement on the effects of physical activity and academic achievement in children that was published last year by the American College of Sports Medicine. “If you do movement in class a few times a day, that can add up to at least an extra 60 minutes more of movement per week.”

Lindsay DiStefano, an associate professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut, said the country is due for a major shift toward appreciating the benefits of physical activity in the classroom.

“In 1961, President Kennedy said school kids needed physical activity to thrive, but in the past 20 years, the pendulum has totally shifted the opposite way because schools are feeling the pressure to have students do well on standardized tests,” Ms. DiStefano said. “We are not thinking about the child as an entire person, how physical activity helps them cope with the stresses of school and actually benefits them in the classroom.”

A Brooklyn Charter School Looks Past ‘No Excuses’

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Dhara Patel teaches math at Brooklyn Ascend Charter School in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Ascend is retraining teachers to focus on social and emotional development.CreditDemetrius Freeman for The New York Times

Four years ago, while reporting on the difficulties of life in Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York, I met a school administrator named Marsha Gadsden who worked for the Ascend Public Charter Schools network. Ms. Gadsden had grown up not far away, attended prep school on a scholarship and later went to Georgetown and Harvard, and she told me she worried about the unforgiving disciplinary codes used by her employer and so many urban charter schools around the country.

Despite a culture that emphasized aspiration — pennants from Stanford, Vanderbilt and Louisiana State lined the walls at Ascend — opportunities for failure abounded. The schools held to a “no excuses” philosophy, the notion that poor children are best taught in highly regulated environments. A child could accrue demerits and suspensions for a wide range of infractions; there were strict protocols for speaking and walking in the hallways. What if you were so excited by a discussion of “Animal Farm” in your English class that you wanted to continue talking about it on your way to science? You couldn’t, because certain transition periods demanded silence.

A 6-year-old could be dinged for failing to wear a part of her school uniform or arriving late, mishaps that are nearly always the fault of a harried parent who has misplaced the keys or forgotten about the laundry. White, privileged children are, for the most part, groomed for self-expression, and Ms. Gadsden feared that a generation of poor black children would be shaped for something different: a reflexive compliance that would leave them unable to question authority.

In 2015, two separate studies were released that put the problems of “no excuses” education in high relief. One, from the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, tallied the disproportionate severity of school suspension and expulsion on black students in 13 Southern states. In 132 districts, black children were suspended at a rate at least five times as high as that for others in the student population. A second study by Joanne Golann, a sociologist, argued that “no excuses” schools produced “worker-learners,” children who might do well on tests but who were constantly self monitoring, held back their opinions and had, in effect, little chance of becoming the next Steve Jobs.

By this time, Ascend’s founder and chairman, Steven Wilson, inspired by the Black Lives Matter phenomenon and the national conversation around mass incarceration, was also questioning the network’s approach and had begun to make changes. Some other charter networks were starting to move in this direction as well, but Ascend, according to James Merriman, head of the New York City Charter School Center, remains the only one in New York City to have formalized an entirely new and progressive system of managing behavior.

Borrowing from the practices of a program called the Responsive Classroom, Ascend began to retrain teachers to focus on social and emotional development. This provided the framework for creative problem solving to help prevent conflicts between students, or between teachers and students, from escalating.

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Students leaving Hannah Young’s math class at Brooklyn Ascend Charter School in Brownsville.CreditDemetrius Freeman for The New York Times

A few weeks ago, for instance, two high schoolers got into an argument in the cafeteria and threw food at each other. Under the older disciplinary model they would have been hauled straight off to detention. But under the new approach they were encouraged to burrow down and explore the root causes of the fight. Melissa Jarvis-Cedeño, the network’s high school director, said that instead of asking students in a situation like that, “What did you do?” the closest adult will ask, “What happened?” These nuanced shifts in language are crucial to keeping children from becoming more angry or defensive. The two boys talked things out, apologized to each other and on their own came up with an appropriate penalty: They volunteered to clean up the lunchroom for several days.

On the day I visited the Ascend high school in Brownsville, a number of 10th graders were grieving for a former student, 15-year-old Rohan Levy, who had been shot to death on a street in East Flatbush not long before. A 10th-grade advisory group, which meets every morning under the direction of a young science teacher, Dan Sonrouille, was seated in a circle and talking. Some of the students were going to Rohan’s funeral that evening, and Mr. Sonrouille told them that everyone processes their grief differently and cautioned them, as he put it, not to “judge the journey.”

In many ways, the most visible change at Ascend is the presence of a school culture that has become intensely therapeutic; teachers are instructed to be warm and present rather than distant and controlling. The chair circle is a regular feature. Often, Mr. Sonrouille said, students will pull him aside when they are on the verge of an ugly dispute and ask him to lead one. Just before Christmas a group of girls who were arguing over boys and accusations that had been made on social media asked him to convene a circle. He told them, as he often does, to “attack the situation rather than one another.” When it’s over, he has the students pose for a circle selfie.

So how has this all panned out? Across the network, suspension rates dropped to 4.2 percent of the student population during the 2015-16 school year, from 9.5 percent in 2012-13. That figure is in line with the statewide suspension rate, though the state has a much lower percentage of children from struggling communities. Of course, suspensions can be reduced simply by refusing to dole them out, but certain transgressions, like physical fights, are still likely to get you suspended at Ascend. The goal, which the network appears to be meeting, is to reduce heated conflict over all. Ascend has also tried to move toward in-school suspensions, to remove children from their peers, but not, counterproductively, away from the process of learning.

For the most part, the students I spoke with felt energized by a new system they perceived as loving and self-directed.

Prianca Pal, a 10th grader, talked about how demoralizing it had been to get detention for missing a homework assignment.

Around the same time that Ascend was transforming its culture, it put in place a new curriculum, more closely aligned with progressive schools, that focuses on intellectual inquiry rather than received knowledge. At Ascend’s lower and middle schools in Brownsville, passing grades on the annual state English test increased to 39 percent in 2016, from 22 percent in 2014, while the rate on the math test increased to 37 percent, from 29 percent. It’s hard to isolate the cause for the improvement, but it is likely to be a combination of both the academic and cultural changes, which makes Ascend a bold testing ground for the theory that children from low-income homes can be educated the same way as children from affluent families.

“Our big purpose here is to create agency,” Mr. Wilson told me. “Our view is not about grit. Our students have a lot of grit, look at their lives. But if all you have experienced is unrelenting structure how do you emerge with autonomy?”

Technology and Teen Sleep Deprivation

Independent School Management

Vol. 16 No. 2 1/24/17

PSN eletter vol15 no2 slee

For the past few years, there has been notable research on how technology (e.g., digital devices, laptops, television) disrupts student sleep patterns—and student success (or not) in school. A recent meta-analysis of 20 studies, Association Between Portable Screen-Based Media Device Access or Use and Sleep Outcomes, published by JAMA Pediatrics, sheds more light on this “major public-health concern” for students. Attention-stealing devices like televisions, computers, MP3 players, and cell phones are largely to blame.

The study, covering more than 125,000 children, determined there was a “strong and consistent association between bedtime media-device use and inadequate sleep quantity, poor sleep quality, and excessive daytime sleepiness.” Almost 90% of teens have at least one device in their bedrooms, and most use those devices in the hour before going to bed. Such children are twice as likely to not sleep enough and 40% report poor sleep quality, compared to children who have no access to those devices at bedtime. Students who had access or used media devices before bedtime were also more than twice as likely to experience excessive sleepiness in school.

According to another study from the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), 95% of those surveyed reported using electronic devices just before sleep. People under the age of 30 are the worst offenders—especially teenagers aged 13 to 18. Texting an hour before sleeping is prevalent, for example. While Baby Boomers on average read, send, or receive five texts in the hour before sleep, Gen-Zers typically text 56 times in that hour. Many students feel a sense of attachment to their phones and other digital devices, and view technology as a lifeline that they can’t live without. Unfortunately, when using such devices disrupts their sleep, this leads to anxiety, depression, and other maladies.

Another problem reported by researches is that exposure late at night to the “blue light” created by computer and other screens causes sleep-phase delay. The lit screens impact (via the retina) the portion of the brain that controls the body’s circadian cycle, sending the message that it’s not time for sleep yet. A study in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggested that performing “exciting” computer activities, like a playing a video game, may suppress melatonin production, the so-called “sleep hormone.”

The NSF recommends that teens get 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep every night of the week. However, the average teen gets about 7.5 hours of sleep each night; 62% of 9th–12th graders report inadequate amounts of sleep.

Sleep deprivation is of particular concern to schools. As mentioned above, research shows that a lack of sleep leads to:

  • poorer school performance (lower grades),
  • inattention,
  • negative moods,
  • health risk behaviors (e.g., substance abuse, thoughts of suicide), and
  • increased incidents of adolescent-related car accidents.

Academic leaders must be aware of these problems and educate parents about the impact of sleep deprivation on their children.

The NSF and other sleep experts make the following recommendations for parents.

  • Take technology out of the bedroom. For example, mandate that all cell phones in the house are recharged at night in a room other than the bedroom. Don’t allow a TV, laptop, or other device in a teenager’s bedroom after a certain hour.
  • Reserve the last hour before bed for nighttime rituals like brushing teeth, showering, etc. Pleasure reading is also a wonderful way to unwind as well.
  • Make your child understand that the lack of sleep can cause them to be less creative, forgetful, do poorly on assignments, and fall asleep in the classroom. Sleep deprivation has also shown to cause acne, weight gain, and other health problems.
  • Establish a consistent sleep schedule, every day of the week. Don’t let teenagers stay up late nights or “sleep in” on the weekends.
  • Make sure your child gets enough exercise. An hour of playing tennis, for example, is far better than an hour in bed playing video games.
  • Monitor your child’s schedule. Is he or she overwhelmed with school responsibilities, sports, clubs, perhaps a part-time job at the expense of sleep? Perhaps lessening the number of these activities can rectify the situation.

The dynamics around sleep, student performance, student well-being, and the student’s evening time are complex. Talk with parents to ensure that your students receive an adequate amount of quality sleep—and a better experience at your school.

Teacher empathy reduces student suspensions, Stanford research shows

APRIL 26, 2016

Teacher empathy reduces student suspensions, Stanford research shows

Stanford News

When teachers think empathically, and not punitively, about misbehaving students, they cultivate better relationships and help reduce discipline problems, Stanford research shows.

Being suspended from school is typically harmful to students – it denies them opportunities to learn, damages relationships and sets them on a risky path.

Child and teacher

Teachers who carry an empathic mindset toward students are shown in a Stanford study to deal better with youngsters who misbehave. (Image credit: DGLimages / Shutterstock)

In new Stanford research, an exercise that encouraged middle school teachers to take an “empathic mindset” to student discipline reduced by half the percentage of students who got suspended over the school year – from 9.6 percent to 4.8 percent.

The researchers included Stanford psychology post-doctoral fellowJason Okonofua, lead author on the paper, psychology researcher David Paunesku, and Gregory Walton, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford. The study was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

As Okonofua and Walton wrote, a central tenet of the teaching profession is to build positive relationships with students, especially struggling students. But some teachers are exposed to a “default punitive mindset” in school settings due to zero-tolerance policies on student misbehavior.

“It is heartbreaking,” Walton said. “Teachers are caught between two models, a punitive model that says you have to punish kids to get them to behave and an older model that goes to the heart of the profession, which says that teaching is all about building strong relationships with children, especially when they struggle.”

He noted that no one enters the teaching profession in order to send kids to the principal’s office for minor misbehavior. “But punitive policies can lead teachers astray,” Walton said. “That makes kids feel disrespected and ultimately contributes to worse behavior.”

Okonofua added, “All kids need supportive, trusting relationships to help them grow and improve. Our intervention helped teachers reconnect with those values, who they really want to be as a teacher and how they want to relate to their students.”

Punishment or understanding?

The researchers conducted three experiments. The first tested whether 39 teachers could be encouraged to adopt an empathic rather than punitive mindset about discipline. Teachers wrote briefly about how “good teacher-student relationships are critical for students to learn self-control” (empathic mindset) or how “punishment is critical for teachers to take control of the classroom” (punitive mindset).

The findings showed that giving teachers an opportunity to express their empathic values – to understand students’ perspectives and to sustain positive relationships with students when they misbehave – improved student-teacher relationships and discipline outcomes.

In fact, teachers given the punitive prime said they would punish a hypothetical misbehaving student more harshly. They were more likely to send the student to the principal’s office. But those given the empathic prime were more likely to say they would talk with the student about his behavior, and less likely to label him a troublemaker.

“A focus on relationships helps humanize students.” Okonofua said. “Then you see them as not just a label but as growing people who can change, who can learn to behave more appropriately, with help.”

In the second experiment, 302 college students imagined themselves as middle school students who had disrupted class. They imagined being disciplined in either of the ways the teachers in the first experiment described, punitive or empathic.

The results showed that participants responded far more favorably when the teacher took an empathic response. They said they would respect the teacher much more, and would be more motivated to behave well in class in the future.

Improving relationships

The researchers also examined whether an empathic mindset created better relationships between teachers and students and reduced student suspensions over an academic year. This experiment involved 31 math teachers and 1,682 students at five ethnically diverse middle schools in three California school districts.

Teachers reviewed articles and stories that described how negative feelings can lead students to misbehave in school and emphasized the importance of understanding students and maintaining positive relationships with students even when they misbehave.

Then teachers described how they maintain positive relationships with students when they misbehave, in an effort to help future teachers better handle discipline problems.

The findings revealed that students whose teachers completed the empathic mindset exercise – as compared to those who completed a control exercise – were half as likely to get suspended over the school year, from 9.6 percent to 4.8 percent.

The reduction was just as large for students from groups at higher risk of suspension, including boys, African American and Latino students, and students with a history of suspension.

Moreover, the most at-risk students, those with a history of suspension, reported feeling more respected by their teachers several months after the intervention.

“This intervention, an online exercise, can be delivered at near-zero marginal cost to large samples of teachers and students. These findings could mark a paradigm shift in society’s understanding of the origins of and remedies for discipline problems,” the researchers wrote.

Walton noted how teachers responded when asked to write about how they work to sustain positive relationships with struggling children. One teacher wrote: “I never hold grudges. I try to remember that they are all the son or daughter of someone who loves them more than anything in the world. They are the light of someone’s life.”

Okonofua believes the research may spark a new frontier for psychological intervention in many different fields beyond teaching.

“There are cases in which one person’s mindset can have a disproportionate impact on others – like doctors with patients, supervisors with employees, and police with civilians,” he said.

Finland is really good at stopping bullying. Here’s how they’re doing it.

July 1, 2016

By James Gaines
Imagine you’re back in middle school or high school. The bell just rang, so you’re walking to your next class, minding your own business.

Then you walk around the corner and see this:

 

What would you do?

Unfortunately, this is a pretty common scene.

About a fourth to a third of all students report that they’ve been bullied in school.

And while a single bad encounter might be easy to brush off, bullying often doesn’t happen just once. For many kids, it’s a long, awful campaign of continual harassment, injury, and exhaustion.

Even the most resilient kids can have trouble dealing with that. And bullying can also cause depression, anxiety, health complaints, and even dropping out of school. It’s not great.

So back to that question: If you saw bullying, what would you do?

Finland has been asking folks this question for a while, and they found that the answer people give is really important.

 

Finland has one of the most successful education systems in the world, so it’s not surprising that they’ve used this question about bullying to pioneer a brand new and super effective bullying prevention program in schools.

Finland’s anti-bullying program is called KiVa, short for “kiusaamista vastaan,” which means “against bullying.”
KiVa includes many different resources, like tools for teachers and parents and in-classroom lessons. But one of the most interesting aspects is how the program focuses on teaching bystanders what to do if they see bullying. Teachers are not always around, so they can’t always help. But other students often are.

“Our findings are the first to show that the most tormented children — those facing bullying several times a week — can be helped by teaching bystanders to be more supportive,” UCLA professor Jaana Juvonen, said in a press release about a recent analysis of KiVa’s efficacy.

One of the most interesting ways KiVa teaches this bystander empathy is through computer games and simulations.

In one of the games, the kids take control of cartoon avatars that are put in a variety of bullying situations they might encounter in school.

“For instance, they might witness a bullying incident and they have to decide what to do; whether to defend the victim or do something else,” Johanna Alanen, KiVa’s International Project Manager, told Upworthy in an email.

“There are different options on how to defend the victim,” Alanen explained. “Their choices have consequences and lead to new situations.

Basically, the programs are kind of like choose-you-own-adventure stories for bullying, allowing the kids to see what consequences might come from certain actions, all in a virtual setting.

The students are also given advice and feedback about what to say to someone who has been bullied.

“In the game, students can practice how to be nice to someone and what kind of nice things you can say to someone who would like to be included in the group or is new in the school,” said Alanen.

By asking the kids what they would do in certain situations and giving feedback and advice about it, the program can help teach the students to be more empathetic and supportive of bullying victims.

And the data shows that the program works too.

Juvonen’s analysis found that KiVa reduced the odds of a given student being bullied by about one-third to one-half.

That’s huge. And not only that, but early data shows that the program might also help reduce depression and increase self-esteem for kids who have already been bullied.

Now that Finland has adopted KiVa as their national anti-bullying program, it’s being tested other countries too — Italy, the Netherlands, and the U.K. — and it’s being evaluated in the United States.

Bullying is a perennial, awful problem that’s tough to eliminate. And there’s probably never going to be a one-size-fits-all solution.

But programs like KiVa show that even at a young age, empathy is one of the best tools we have to make the world a better place.

Private-Independent School Leadership and Upper/Middle-Class Families

ISM

Columbia University researchers have published startling—and, for private-independent school leaders, profoundly disturbing—findings from a comprehensive project focused on characteristics of upper- and middle-class youth and their families.1 This is the population from which private-independent schools in the U.S. draw most heavily. The researchers’ overarching conclusion is that “youth in upwardly mobile, upper/middle-class community contexts … [are] statistically more likely than normative samples to show serious disturbance across several domains.” Many of these problems are associated with and/or leading to rampant substance abuse, barely manageable levels of stress, and persistent high anxiety.

The authors, citing their own research and decades of findings from other projects, acknowledge many of their findings to be counterintuitive, in the sense that the traditional problem-family focus in the U.S. has been in the opposite direction socioeconomically. Those on their way to prestigious universities and high-paying jobs may deserve at least as much corrective attention as those found elsewhere on the socioeconomic scale. Although not all affluent students are distressed, “an unusually large proportion shows serious levels of maladjustment, relative to parallel rates in national normative samples.”

For private-independent school leaders, the researchers’ most critical observations include the following. (The headings reflect ISM’s categorization of the research findings, not those of the researchers themselves.)

Maturation

  • Around the age of 13, affluent youth start to exhibit signs of emerging problems.
  • Seeking independence from their parents, early adolescents increasingly strive to be popular with their peers. These affluent peer groups typically endorse “counter-conventional behaviors.”
  • As students experience the hormonal changes of puberty, they also begin identity exploration: Who am I? What will I amount to? “The increasing salience of all these developmental issues across adolescence … accounts for escalating signs of trouble.”

Stress

  • In affluent communities, there is an inordinate emphasis on striving for high achievement throughout the school experience. The chief goal is to develop an impressive résumé.
  • Of major concern is “the sense of pressure, criticism, and overly high expectations from adults. … It is critical to note that pressures to succeed come not just from parents but … from outside the family.”

Home Life

  • Affluent students do not feel any closer to their parents than do low-income students.
  • “Laissez-faire monitoring is a particularly powerful predictor [associated with] high substance use, delinquency, and depressive/anxiety symptoms.”
  • Students show elevated symptoms when they believe their parents value their success more than their integrity. Perceived parent pride drives student self-worth, which then “rests largely—and perilously—on achieving and maintaining ‘star status.’”

Résumé-Building and Anxiety

  • Many students see their success as primarily depending on luck, not effort—which leads to learned helplessness and despondency.
  • For children, mental health suffers when wealth provides more than a comfortable subsistence and the omnipresent desire to acquire yet more pervades. Presented with a multitude of choices (e.g., college-level courses, AP, sports), many students worry about how their decisions will impact their résumés and future job opportunities.
  • Students are “preoccupied with becoming … ‘commodities,’ pursuing activities chiefly if they will enhance their résumés. There is scant time or space to [investigate] ‘who they are’ as individuals, nurturing their unique interests, passions and life goals.”

Alternatives

  • What should we see among upper/middle-class youth? We should see evidence of “a balanced set of values, with behaviorally manifested commitment to intrinsic goals, integrity, and low rule-breaking.”
  • “Ratings [of students] by teachers are easier to obtain [than peer ratings by the students themselves], but can grossly underestimate adolescent problems; [the researchers] … have found consistent elevations on rule-breaking by [students’] self-reports, and almost none by teacher reports.”
  • Parents must be “especially vigilant about keeping their children firmly grounded in intrinsic values.”
  • Because prevention efforts are not succeeding with affluent students, address rampant substance abuse with more urgency.
  • “Our task … is to learn how we might achieve peer contagion of a balanced set of personal values—with authentic commitment to intrinsic aspirations … enlisting the help of teens who widely command respect among their age-mates.”
  • Put greater emphasis on training and supporting teachers as student mentors—“formalization of training and support for teachers in this area, to enhance these beneficial relationships with students in ways that are sustainable at both the individual and institutional levels.”
  • When working with distressed students, empathize not only with students but with their parents, “as their overt wrath and contentiousness often stem from intense underlying fearfulness, and even self-blame, for the child’s problems.”

Leadership in Private-Independent-Schools: Suggested Approaches

Following is an array of ISM-suggested corrective steps. Some of these are perspectives ISM has previously published (indeed, for several of them, for many years now). Others are new to this publication.

Consider the extent to which your school can approach these suggestions to counter the destructive trends highlighted by the Columbia University research team. The first list, “programmatic steps,” deals with organizationally complex approaches. The second list, “administrative steps,” deals with organizationally less complex—though not necessarily simpler or easier—approaches.

Programmatic Steps

    • Focus in lower-school parent education on the upcoming threats to children and their families as the children mature into pubescence and adolescence. The researchers note that lower-school parents must recognize:
      • “the long-term risks to their children of embarking on a path overly focused on achievements;”
      • “the critical importance … of shared leisure time, good communication and monitoring, and firm limit-setting, all starting from the earliest years. By middle and high school … it will be extremely difficult to change family patterns that have become well-entrenched.”
    • Enlist the support of middle- and upper-school youth who serve in leadership positions (e.g., student body officers or editorial staff of school newspapers) or those who are de facto leaders (e.g., those opinion-shapers who do not hold leadership office or title). Solicit their help in addressing the need to focus on:
      • intrinsic over extrinsic values and value-development, and
      • a heightened and strengthened sense of shared community values and mutual support and concern.

The research team notes that, for example, “Interactions with [high school newspaper editors and writers] … have been especially gratifying, as students … have initiated active dialogues about the nature of stresses in their high-achieving communities.”

  • Establish your advisory program as a difference-maker. Incorporate advisory-program excellence into the faculty evaluation system, so that a sustained high level of advisory focus and skill becomes a basic condition of employment for middle school and upper-school teachers. Commit adequate time and utilize some of the faculty professional development budget (ISM benchmark: two percent of the operating budget) to fund appropriate levels of faculty education and training.
  • Design student surveys to measure levels of middle school and upper-school attitudes and behaviors that tend to exacerbate the threats highlighted in the research outcomes. In addition, utilize or develop faculty surveys designed to estimate the faculty’s level of understanding of, and self-perceived capacity to deal with, the network of issues contributing to the threats.
  • Develop a system that integrates philosophically the personal counseling program and the college counseling program so that the two share a common perspective and can mutually reinforce the other’s efforts. Strive to ensure that both programs focus on what the researchers have termed “intrinsic” values and goals, and that the college counseling office therefore shines its spotlight as much toward undergraduate institutions whose missions include developing campus communities, as on high-prestige research universities whose missions may not.

Administrative Steps

  • Review effects of Advanced Placement programs and IB programs on stress-and-health levels of students and their families.
  • Review and reassess the effect of the school schedule and calendar on stress and health levels of students and their families.
  • Assess current approaches to hiring and evaluation of teachers and coaches in “performance” areas, e.g., sports, music, and drama. Hire and reward those who hold, espouse, and model the same “intrinsic values” implied by the school’s Purpose and Outcome statements.
  • Assess the adequacy—in view of the research project cited here—of the current Parent Retention and Education Plan.
  • Encourage, in advisory, personal counseling, and college counseling settings, student consideration of middle school, upper school, post-high school, and post-college “leveling” experiences (experiences providing exposure to people from all socioeconomic strata).
  • Host a research intervention as described in the project cited by this article. “Parent groups, students, and teachers have all been invariably not just receptive … but eager to work with data that are: (a) scientifically rigorous; (b) presented with no judgments … and (c) with specific messages about areas that need attention.”

Private-independent school leaders’ contributions to the issues described by the Columbia University research team (and by many others, usually less comprehensively, over the years) have tended to be indirect. No educator wishes, via adversarial or accusatory messaging, inadvertently to contribute to the “serious disturbance across several domains” described in the research report. A blunt-instrument approach could jeopardize student and family retention.

The ISM-suggested programmatic and administrative steps are designed to assist school leaders in navigating these shoal waters with enough care so as not to antagonize the student-family population, and yet with enough force to make a difference. In combination with one another, this suggested array of corrective programmatic and administrative steps may—with leadership persistence, courage, and patience—allow the institutional ship to sail toward a safer, healthier, and more emotionally and psychologically balanced destination.


1 See “‘I can, therefore I must’: Fragility in the Upper-middle classes,” Development and Psychopathology, 25th Anniversary Special Issue, by Suniya S. Luthar, Samuel H. Barkin, and Elizabeth J. Crossman.

Researchers Draw Link Between Physical Activity, Academic Success

EdWeek

Beyond the fitness-related benefits, physical activity can also contribute to students’ academic success, suggests a consensus statement published online Monday in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

A group of 24 international experts gathered in Denmark back in April “to reach evidence-based consensus about physical activity and youth.” They wound up with a 21-point list divided into four themes: fitness and health; cognitive functioning; engagement, motivation, psychological well-being; and inclusion and physical activity implementation strategies.

When it comes to academics, the researchers concluded that “physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness are beneficial to brain structure, brain function, and cognition in children and youth.” Additionally, they suggested “a single session of moderate physical activity has an acute benefit to brain function, cognition, and scholastic performance in children and youth.”

There’s been plenty of research in recent years to back up these assertions. In September 2014, a study published in the journal PLOS ONE found physical activity during recess in 1st grade to be directly correlated to reading fluency in 1st and 2nd grades. A study published in the same journalthe previous September suggested higher levels of aerobic fitness could bolster a child’s ability to learn and remember information. In March 2014, a study found Kansas elementary and middle school students who met certain physical-fitness benchmarks to be considerably more likely to exceed reading and math performance standards.

Accordingly, the Copenhagen Consensus experts concluded that time taken away from academic lessons in favor of physical activity won’t “come at the cost of scholastic performance.” Research suggests there’s a tangible academic benefit to giving students a physical-activity break between hours of lessons, even if it comes at the expense of a few extra minutes of classroom time.

The Copenhagen researchers also found physical activity to have “the potential to positively influence psychological and social outcomes” for students, “such as self-esteem and relationships with peers, parents, and coaches.” They suggested “close relationships and peer group acceptance in physical activity are positively related to perceived competence, intrinsic motivation and participation behavior” in children. The experts particularly endorsed physical-activity programs with “an intentional curriculum and deliberate training,” as they are “effective at promoting life skills and core values” such as respect, social responsibility and self-regulation.

The consensus statement authors highlighted schools as a major asset when it comes to physical activity, as socioeconomic factors may limit some children’s activity opportunities outside of school hours. Having bike lanes, parks, and playgrounds at schools “are both effective strategies for providing equitable access to, and enhancing physical activity for, children and youth,” they concluded.