Kayla Muchnick, a 7th grade student from Woodmere, N.Y., shares her interpretation of student bullying, which she submitted to Education Week Commentary:
I drew this because it felt like an interesting topic that everyone can relate to. Who hasn’t been bullied or seen it happen at some point in their life? If people see this drawing and think more about the destructive feelings bullying can cause, then maybe more people will stand up against it.
Small rocks from the beaches of eastern Massachusetts began appearing at Lexington High School last fall. They were painted in pastels and inscribed with pithy advice: Be happy.… Mistakes are O.K.… Don’t worry, it will be over soon. They had appeared almost by magic, boosting spirits and spreading calm at a public high school known for its sleep-deprived student body.
Crying jags over test scores are common here. Students say getting B’s can be deeply dispiriting, dashing college dreams and profoundly disappointing parents.
The rocks, it turns out, were the work of a small group of students worried about rising anxiety and depression among their peers. They had transformed a storage area into a relaxation center with comfy chairs, an orange/peach lava lamp and a coffee table brimming with donated art supplies and lots and lots of rocks — to be painted and given to favorite teachers and friends. They called it the Rock Room.
“At first it was just us,” said Gili Grunfeld, a senior who helped with the effort. “Then everyone was coming in.”
So many rocks were piling up, they had to be stored in a display case near one of the cafeterias. The maxims seemed to call out to students as they headed to their classes in conceptual physics, computer programming, astronomy and Advanced Placement Music Theory.
And they became a visual reminder of a larger, communitywide initiative: to tackle the joy-killing, suicide-inducing performance anxiety so prevalent in turbocharged suburbs like Lexington. In recent years, the problem has spiked to tragic proportions in Colorado Springs, Palo Alto, Calif., and nearby Newton, Mass., where stress has been blamed for the loss of multiple young lives. In January, a senior at Lexington High School, who had just transferred from a local private school, took her own life.
Residents in this tight-knit hamlet, with its high level of civic engagement, are hoping to stem the tide. Mary Czajkowski, the district superintendent, was hired in 2015 with the mandate of “tackling the issue head on.”
Elementary school students now learn breathing exercises and study how the brain works and how tension affects it. New rules in the high school limit homework. To decrease competition, there are no class rankings and no valedictorians and salutatorians. In town, there are regular workshops on teen anxiety and college forums designed to convince parents that their children can succeed without the Ivy Leagues. Last October, more than 300 people crammed into the town hall for a screening of “Beyond Measure,” a sequel to Vicki Abeles’s documentary on youth angst, “Race to Nowhere.”
“We want to be a model,” said Jessie Steigerwald, a longtime school board member.
But it has not been easy.
Claire Sheth, a mother of four who had invited Ms. Abeles to town, describes Lexington students as “tired to the core.” Students say depression is so prevalent that it affects friendships, turning teenagers into crisis counselors. “A lot of kids are trying to manage adult anxiety,” said the principal, Laura Lasa.
The problem is not anecdotal. In a 2015 national health survey, 95 percent of Lexington High School students reported being heavily stressed over their classes and 15 percent said they had considered killing themselves in the last year. Thinking about it most often were Asian and Asian-American students — 17 percent of them, as is the case nationally.
The town’s growing Asian community has not been timid acknowledging the problem. Through college forums and chat rooms, a group of parents and leaders of the local Chinese-American and Indian-American associations have been working to lower the competitive bar and realign parental thinking. Others are pushing back. They don’t want the workload reduced — they moved here for the high-rigor schools. At association meetings, where the tension is most pronounced, discussions about academic competition in the district have brought some to tears.
Indeed, reversing the culture is complicated in a town that prides itself on sending dozens of students to the Ivy Leagues: 10 went to Harvard last year and seven to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Young people are lauded at school board meetings and online for having published academic papers or performed at Lincoln Center. Last year, the varsity team placed second in the 2016 History Bowl nationals and fourth in the National Science Bowl. The robotics team has qualified for the FIRST Championship, an international technology and engineering competition, for five of the last six years.
After school recently at the public library, which was packed with students poring over textbooks, calculus work sheets, lab reports and term papers, a sophomore looked up from her world history textbook and said, “You see all these people? They want the same thing — that’s really overwhelming.” What they want: Entry into a top colleges when acceptance rates are at an all-time low.
Lexington looks and feels like a lot of other affluent suburbs: serene, stately, with a whiff of muted money. Minivans and aging Volvos are packed with violins and well-worn soccer gear. There are meticulously restored Colonials and Tudor revivals. Walk along the red brick sidewalks of Massachusetts Avenue, which cuts through the center of town, and Lexington’s Brahmin past is evident: a statue on the Battle Green of a musket-toting Captain John Parker, who led the fight against the British in 1775.
In evidence as well are signs of the burgeoning biotech industry, and the changing face of America’s elite.
Since 2000, the Asian population has ballooned from 11 percent to an estimated 22 percent of Lexington’s 32,000 or so residents, surpassing Newton (at about 13 percent) and Cambridge (15 percent). Today, more than a third of Lexington’s students are Asian or Asian-American. The demographic mirrors the migration of Asian families to suburbs across the country.
In the Crafty Yankee or the Asian bakery across the street, you are likely to bump into electrical engineers from Seoul, physicists from Beijing and biochemists from Boston. They teach at Harvard (10 miles away) and run labs at M.I.T. (11 miles). They hold top positions in the pharmaceutical companies that dot the Boston-area tech corridor. More than half of the adults in Lexington have graduate degrees. And many want their children to achieve the same.
In many ways, students in Lexington are the byproduct of the self-segregation that Enrico Moretti writes about in his book “The New Geography of Jobs,” which addresses the way well-educated, tech-minded adults cluster in brain hubs. For their children, that means ending up in schools in which everyone is super bright and hypercompetitive. It’s hard to feel special.
Best-selling authors and child psychologists have long urged parents to divest themselves from their child’s every accomplishment, thereby sending the message that mental health matters more than awards. In Lexington, the attack is more comprehensive, involving schools, neighborhoods, churches and synagogues. It is riffing off research that shows that resilience and happiness, reinforced by the entire community, can be just as contagious as stress and depression.
“You need to bring along everybody,” said Ms. Abeles, whose campaign has taken her to towns with similar communitywide efforts, including Elkins Park, Penn., San Ramon and Burbank, Calif., and New Rochelle, N.Y.
Peter Levine, associate dean for research at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts, says that communities that bond to promote pro-social behavior can be powerful inoculators for young people.
“Family problems are often community problems,” he said. “They need community solutions.”
No one is more aware of this than Ms. Lasa, who grew up here, earned degrees from nearby Springfield College and Lesley University, and then returned to the district — watching all the while as the population morphed from relatively laid back to Type A. She often wakes to emotional emails from parents delivered to her inbox after midnight. Most, she says, are about their children’s academic standing, and the tone is often disappointment.
Last fall, as 557 bright-eyed freshmen gathered in cushioned folding chairs in the auditorium for orientation, she gave a speech that over the last few years has come to focus more and more on stress reduction. She begged the students to make mistakes. “Do not believe that you must acquire straight A’s to be a successful student,” she said. “If you and/or your parents are caught up in society’s picture of success, let us help you change the focus.”
Students are now required to meet with counselors when choosing courses to talk about their academic loads. The practice is largely seen as a way of keeping students from overscheduling to beef up their college transcripts.
“We are trying to change a culture that is deeply rooted here,” Ms. Lasa told me in a sunny Boston accent as she barreled through the school. She was showing off the 45-minute free period she instituted this year, allowing — or in some cases, forcing — students to take time to unwind. Some were playing basketball in the gym. Others were talking with teachers. A few hung out in classrooms, chatting with friends. An awful lot, though, were getting a head start on homework.
Ms. Lasa says she is trying to “balance all the messages” they are getting about success and happiness. The one she wants to most impart is: “Slow down.”
The paradox of Lexington High School is that while indicators of anxiety abound, so too does an obsession with happiness. A large banner from the town’s newly formed suicide prevention group, a chapter of the national organization Sources of Strength, greets students as they enter the sprawling red brick building, proclaiming: “Be a Part of Happiness.” There are close to 50 students in the group. Below the banner are remnants of their project to spread positivity. Students were asked to write down their sources of strength, which were then posted beneath the banner and on Facebook. Some named their pets or friends. One wrote: “My mom.” Another: “Trip to Israel!” A girl with green hair: “Chicken curry.”
One morning in February, students in “Positive Psychology: The Pursuit of Happiness,” a popular elective, were following up on a discussion about the psychologist Barbara Fredrickson’s “broaden and build” theory, which posits that negative emotions like anxiety and fear prompt survival-oriented behaviors, while positive emotions expand awareness, spurring new ideas, creativity and eventually building skills.
“Today, we are going to look at pretty simple ways to make it more likely that you experience positive emotions on a day-to-day basis,” Matthew Gardner told his “Happiness” students as they pulled out notebooks and pencil cases. The class discussed the benefits of exercise and eating foods that release feel-good hormones. The students also learned that smiling and being smiled at releases dopamine, which has an uplifting impact.
Mr. Gardner offered an alternative to smiling: “Our brains are not so perfect that, sometimes, if you hold a pen or pencil like this” — he held a pencil between his teeth — “you activate some of the same face muscles. You might get a little bit of a dopamine effect, too.”
Several students held pencils between their teeth to test the theory.
At one point, the class practiced laughter yoga, raising their arms slowly as they breathed in, then lowering them as they breathed out, and bursting into peels of laughter. Afterward, the students recorded changes in their pulse rate to demonstrate research from the HeartMath Institute that shows heart rates slow down and smooth out after bouts of good feeling.
“It’s not just that your heart rate goes down and you become very calm,” Mr. Gardner explained. “It’s that the shape of your heart rate is smooth and more controlled. Frustration is more jagged.”
Their homework assignment: Do laughter yoga or “smile at five people you wouldn’t normally smile at.”
The effects of smiling are also taught in the A.P. Psychology class that Gili Grunfeld is taking, and it has informed her thoughts on stress. On a winter afternoon, she and several classmates were uncoiling in the Rock Room, making friendship bracelets and sketching in fat coloring books. A Post-it that read “Unplug” was taped to the wall clock. The students were bemoaning how so many of their peers develop “tunnel vision,” in Gili’s words, about schoolwork and extracurricular activities, sacrificing sleep and time with friends.
“They isolate for academics,” she said glumly.
Soon the students had changed topics, and were discussing the ice that had caked the school parking lot that morning and how to balance on it. The subtext, once again, was well-being: How much can friends support each other if both feel overwhelmed?
“Are we more likely to fall or are we more steady if we hold onto each other?” asked Jocelyn Geller, a junior.
“I feel like if you have a friend with you, you feel safer,” said Millie Landis, a sophomore, pulling Jocelyn up and wobbling on the floor with her to demonstrate. “But you could pull each other down.”
The district has increased the number of counselors and social workers, including those working in the district’s elementary schools, and expanded the training they receive in identifying and supporting at-risk students.
Cynthia Tang, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan, has been a counselor at Lexington High for 12 years. Warm and well-liked, she organizes workshops addressing the pressure on Asian students to succeed, borrowing insights from the childhood discord she experienced with her own parents as well as research on biculturalism. Studies show that the less assimilated parents are to American culture, the more stressed the children.
Adding to the pressure, she says, are cultural differences in how parents, raised abroad, and their offspring, raised in the United States, are expected to process setbacks and strife: American educators routinely encourage students to share their feelings; not so in Asia.
“I really see a lot of this being bicultural conflict,” Ms. Tang said. “When you have one side of the family holding one set of values and the other embracing a new set of values, that inherently creates a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of tension.”
Ms. Tang says that the disconnect is compounded by a lack of knowledge about the various routes to success available in the United States. Last year, she was brought in by the vice president of the local Chinese-American Association, Hua Wang, to help plan the college forum, a three-hour event on Father’s Day. Dr. Wang, an engineering professor at Boston University, wanted to shift the focus away from a guide on applying to top colleges.
Despite resistance from the organizers, he and Ms. Tang prevailed. At the forum, she presented a slide show celebrating the academic trajectories of respected Chinese-Americans: the fashion designer Vera Wang went to Sarah Lawrence College; Andrew Cherng, the founder of the fast-food chain Panda Express, went to Baker University in Kansas; the best-selling author Amy Tan, San José State University. Parents were surprised. But, Ms. Tang said, “I think a lot of parents felt like: ‘What do I do with that information?’”
This year, organizers will delve deeper into the differences between the Chinese and American systems, and are planning to add another new element: a panel discussion on combating stress. Dr. Wang said they want to showcase families who have adopted a more “holistic view” of education. Selected parents of graduating seniors will be asked to talk about how they encouraged their children to get enough sleep, comforted them when they came home with B’s and discouraged them from skipping ahead in math to be eligible for higher level classes earlier.
This would not be the only time that Dr. Wang has engaged in this kind of dialogue. Using the Mandarin words “danding,” which means to keep calm and steady, and “ruizhi,” which means wise and farsighted, he has initiated conversations on WeChat, an online chat room popular among Chinese parents. Recently, he told them: “Calmness and wisdom from the parents are the Asian child’s greatest blessings.”
But the message was not well received by everyone. Among the posted responses: “If your child gets a C, how do you get to a point of calm? You think we should be satisfied because at least he didn’t get a D?” And: “But my heart still whispers: Am I not just letting my child lose at the starting line?”
One parent, Melanie Lin, found herself, too, in a heated conversation on WeChat after early-admissions decisions arrived last school year. She urged the other parents to stop bragging on the site about acceptance letters to top-tier schools: “If it’s only those students who are attending the big-name schools that are being congratulated, then the idea being passed on is that only those students are successful, and attending a big-name school is the only way to become the pride of your parents.”
Dr. Lin, who works at a pharmaceutical company, emigrated in the 1990s from Beijing to get a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Arizona State University. She says her rebuttal annoyed even close friends, whose online responses accused her of trying to deny parents and their children their moments in the spotlight.
Recounting the conversation with me brought Dr. Lin to tears. “There is just so much pressure,” she said. For her, the struggles are not theoretical. On the home front, she too can be just as obsessed as her peers, she says.
Her daughter, Emily, would agree. During junior year, she dreaded car rides and family dinners — any time, really, that she was alone with her parents — because conversations routinely veered back to college. Now a senior, Emily has eight A.P. and 13 honors classes under her belt. She is also a violinist, choral singer, competitive swimmer and class vice president.
For a chunk of her high school career, Emily was one of those who “isolated for academics,” working into the early morning hours on homework and waking up, sometimes before dawn, after only five or so hours of sleep. She skipped birthday parties and lunch to squeeze in more studying. “I was never doing anything for pure fun,” she said. “I put my head down and I was always running somewhere with some purpose.”
But as a member of a youth board for a teen counseling center in town, she realized that her study habits were unhealthy. To get support for herself and others, she helped launch the town’s Sources of Strength chapter. She has assisted in planning student outreach events and spoke up at a town meeting about “the dog-eat-dog” competition that still persists at the high school.
Homework remains heavy, students say, particularly in high-level classes. Class rankings may be gone but students have a pretty good sense of where they stand. And while there has been talk of a later start time to the day so students can get more sleep, the idea is on hold.
In December, when early decisions came in, Emily found out she was deferred to the regular admissions pool by Yale, her top choice. Parents on WeChat were more sensitive this time around, but accepted seniors still bragged on Facebook.
Since then, Emily has been admitted to nine universities; rejected by three, including Yale; and waitllisted by Harvard and the University of Chicago. She is deciding between Columbia and Duke.
Through it all, she has wondered if it’s worth it.
“I lost out on a lot of high school,” she had told me as she waited for college decisions. What she hopes is that students who come after her find some balance before their time at Lexington is up.
Mindfulness is something I incorporate into each of my classes once a week, and it only takes four to seven minutes. After reviewing the benefits of mindfulness practices—like reduced stress, boosted working memory, and lowered emotional reactivity—it was no longer a nice-to-have, but rather a necessity.
Opening a Mindfulness Activity
At the beginning of each weekly session, I welcome everyone into a circle. We leave an empty chair for those who are unable to join us that day. We put our feet flat on the ground, close our eyes, and start with three deep breaths in and out. I guide students to follow where the air from their breath goes. While students are focusing on their breath, I invite them to reflect. Sometimes we reflect on the theme we’re going to discuss in class, but not always. I always spend a minute having everyone, including myself, focus on how we’re showing up to the space. Someone could show up happy from a great start to their day, angry because of an argument they just had, or stressed from an upcoming exam. We always make sure to validate how we are showing up without judgment toward ourselves.
Facilitating Mindfulness for the First Time
I have found the following steps useful in introducing and facilitating a mindfulness practice:
- Let the research and purpose speak for themselves. I often lead with: “It is not strictly meditation, but rather a practice in supporting your mind to take care of yourself.” I then list the benefits.
- Offer an out and get visible buy-in. Students will often be hesitant. “It’s weird!” they may say. And that’s OK. When I first introduced this to students, I told them that if they could find a research-based practice that achieved the same goals, I would be happy to help them create a proposal for the group. I then asked the group to give a thumbs up if they could at least try it.
- Share how developing a mindfulness practice has personally benefited you. After I get my students’ buy-in, I tell them how mindfulness has helped me, and I give one or two anecdotes. For example, the last time I had to have a very difficult conversation with a personal friend, I felt my mind racing. I got to the coffee shop a few minutes early, put my phone away, and got into position—feet flat and hands flat on my knees. I took a few deep breaths, calmed myself, and made myself aware of how I was showing up. I was able to recognize why I was showing up that way, and I asked myself how I wanted to show up. I tried to keep my focus on only that and my breathing. I then visualized how I wanted to show up, took a few breaths in, and returned to the present moment. The conversation with my friend was incredible and uplifting. None of my dialogue was colored by the anxiety, stress, or self-consciousness that cluttered my mind leading up to that conversation.
- Give a reason for every direction the first few times you go through the practice. For example, I’ll begin by saying, “We’re all going to close our eyes. I’ll keep mine open to make sure that no one is being watched because that could be awkward and feel unsafe, and my job is to ensure your physical and emotional safety.”
- Balance giving directions with silent time to practice the task. I will often say, “Together, we take a deep breath in [followed by a collective breath], and a deep breath out.” I then give us 40 seconds or so of just focusing. For that 40 seconds, I am silent. Before starting, I say, “Now we are going to hold that focus for a little while. We just focus on where our air is entering and exiting our body.” Then every time I have a new direction or narration, I include myself again. It must be a balance between targeted narration and silent time to practice the task.
- Only directly address behaviors that are unsafe. Otherwise, like when a student laughs or tries to make silly sounds, I will often gently reinforce the mindfulness practice by saying, “And we’re taking a deep, calm breath in.” I do this in a very direct but soft tone that sounds like a parent calming a child down rather than reprimanding them.
- Allow for reflection and feedback. The first few times, I had my students turn to a partner and discuss how it was for them, offered space to give me critical feedback, and also offered them space to make meaning of their experience. Often, it sounds like, “OK, now turn around to your partner, give them a high five or ask if they want a hug, and discuss how that exercise was for you. Was it annoying? Fun? Interesting? Did you find yourself thinking about things you wished you hadn’t? Whatever it is, be ready to share something that came in your conversation with the whole class at the end of 90 seconds!”
Ultimately, it takes a strong trust with your students and a set routine. At the end of the day, teaching is not about guaranteeing that students will use what we teach them. It’s about ensuring that they know how to use it, and giving them the space to practice it. Like one of my students told me, mindfulness “doesn’t help me know what to do, but it helps me recognize that I need something.”
Thirteen-year-old JoJo Siwa rolled up to school in a souped-up vintage car with a giant pink bow plastered on the grill. Inside the car, with her blond hair tightly pulled into a side ponytail and wrapped in a pastel yellow bow, she sang to her mother, “I don’t really care about what they say,” while a group of mean girls wearing not-so-pastel clothes snickered from a bench. (We know they’re mean girls because the words “mean girls” are displayed on the screen next to them.)
“Don’t let the haters get their way,” JoJo’s mother, also clad in yellow pastel, told her.
No worries. The new young teenage heroine of suburban America showed no fear. After winning a rowdy dance battle in her video “Boomerang,” which has gotten over 200 million views on YouTube, JoJo places a purple bow on the lead mean girl. Everyone becomes best friends.
Unlike the red, oversize scrunchie Heather Chandler wore in “Heathers,” which was a symbol of power and authoritarianism, the bow worn by JoJo is a symbol of confidence: believing in yourself and, more important, being nice to others.
Thirteen-year-old girls aren’t generally known for their oversize bows these days, but JoJo isn’t your typical teenager. She just signed a multiplatform deal with Nickelodeon, which includes consumer products, original programming, social media, live events and music.
Since June, JoJo’s Bows — made by H.E.R. Accessories, a licensee of JoJo’s — have been among the top sellers at Claire’s, the store popular among the middle-school set, according to Hind Palmer, Claire’s global brand marketing and public relations director.
“I can’t believe it’s a hair bow that’s doing this,” said Jennifer Roth Saad, the creative director of H.E.R. “I’ve never seen something like this.”
JoJo said in a phone interview that she had worn a side ponytail with a bow since she was 4, and she has worn it through most of her career, which includes stints on “Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition” and “Dance Moms.” But recently, she has become well known to her 2.7 million YouTube subscribers for wearing a bow and being goofy by showing videos of her sick in bed, getting ready in the morning and playing pranks on another YouTube star.
“I’m 13, and I like being 13,” said JoJo, who divides her time between Omaha and Los Angeles. “A lot of people my age try to act 16. But just be your age. There’s always time to grow older. You can never grow younger.”
In Britain, where JoJo’s bows are even more successful than they are in the United States, the head teacher of a school in Bury banned the bows because they were distracting, while another school, in Long Eaton, permitted the bows so long as they conformed to dress code colors.
Shauna Pomerantz, a sociology professor at Brock University in Ontario and an author of “Smart Girls: Success, School and the Myth of Post-Feminism,” said school administrators had historically policed girls for wearing skirts that were too short or having exposed bra straps, not for an accessory reminiscent of the 1950s. “JoJo stands for being nice,” she said. “And the bow is a representation of JoJo. Ultimately the goal of that video is to suggest that meanness isn’t cool, and niceness is cool.”
In a world where parents of children ages 8 to 14 have long been concerned about hypersexualized clothing, early puberty and overly sophisticated media messages, JoJo is part of a growing group of girls documenting routine, age-appropriate behaviors and activities such as being nice, doing their chores, divulging what’s in their backpacks, making dresses out of garbage bags and working to pay for their own clothes.
The 12-year-old competitive gymnast Annie LeBlanc, a.k.a. Acroanna, has had a YouTube channel since she was 3. On her channel, which as been viewed a combined 174 million times, Annie documents herself making slime blindfolded and investigates what’s in her purse. But mostly she appears on her family’s channel, Bratayley, where 3.9 million subscribers follow her, her parents, her 8-year-old sister, Hayley (who also has her own channel), as well as archival footage of her brother Caleb, who died two years ago at age 13 of a heart condition. There are Bratayley sponsorship deals, Bratayley merchandise and a more recent invitation for Annie to participate in Nike’s Young Athletes program, which, naturally, was documented on Bratayley.
Many popular videos made by girls in the pre- and early teenage years live on nine connected YouTube channels. Seven Super Girls, the most successful of these channels, has over six million subscribers and its videos have been viewed a combined 6.9 billion times. Each channel — others are called Seven Cool Tweens, Seven Awesome Kids and Seven Twinkling Tweens — is run with more efficiency than some professional media sites: Each girl is responsible for making a video on a specific day of the week. (Annie was on Seven Awesome Kids from 2010 to 2011.) They follow a set of guidelines that include weekly themes, and precludes them from giving their surnames and location.
The SAKs channels, as they are known, were started in 2008 by seven families in Britain who, in the early days of YouTube, wanted to make sure their children were making family-appropriate content. The only remaining parent of that original partnership is Ian Rylett, who is currently in charge of the SAKs operation.
Mr. Rylett, who lives in Leeds, said producing the channels was essentially his full-time job. He and a team of six others take care of copyright issues, create sponsorship deals, come up with weekly themes, monitor the channels and arrange meet and greets. The tickets for a 1,000-seat event that is coming up in Orlando, Fla., are selling for $30 each.
Mr. Rylett receives an income from the channels, as do some of the girls. The girls own their own content, he said, but they have not signed contracts.
Alexis, a 12-year-old from Southern California whose parents wanted her surname withheld for privacy reasons, has made close to 200 videos for Seven Cool Tweens and Seven Awesome Kids over the past three years. Alexis wears her reddish-brown hair in a braid, no makeup and braces. Her bedroom isn’t catalog perfect. Her most popular videos revolve around silly antics like pranking family members (which received 23.2 million views), making a mess of herself and her outfit before the school dance and getting grounded for life. The appeal? “Kids want to watch kids,” Alexis said in a phone interview.
Emily (a screen name), 12, of Seven Awesome Kids is home-schooled in Southern California. Some of her most popular videos — she writes and edits them herself over two days — include walking through a mysterious forest and finding an angel potion. “She’s a little Stanley Kubrick, controlling everything,” said her father, Tim Gould.
While Alexis has received money from the SAKs channel (though she has not been involved in sponsorship deals), Emily has not received money, their parents said.
“They’re free to leave whenever they want,” Mr. Rylett said. “They can take their content with them. When they do get older, it is quite common for them to look back and say, ‘Eww.’”
The parents seemed ambivalent about the arrangement — knowing that allowing their children to have an online identity comes with risks of harassment or worse — but they don’t want to stop their daughters from dreaming of becoming a director or an editor or a writer. Or a television star.
Yet this YouTube activity, even depicting wholesome activities, is disconcerting for Emily Long, the director of communications and development at the Lamp, a media-based literary group. “It’s troublesome to me when I see this being celebrated as the herald of what our young girls should aspire to,” Ms. Long said. “That you, too, can go from being a YouTube star to having your own deal on Nickelodeon.”
She would like to see girls being recognized for more thoughtful content, she said, such as that of Marley Dias, 12, who started the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign last year after recognizing a scarcity of black-girl protagonists.
“If I had a 13-year-old,” Ms. Long said, “I would push her toward someone like Marley Dias instead of JoJo. But Marley Dias doesn’t sell giant hair bows. Marley Dias sells social justice and social causes and writing and nerd culture. And there’s plenty to market there.”
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.”
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.
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?”