Childhood should be a time of awe and wonder; an opportunity to play, explore, create and to learn in a fashion that promotes healthy living and optimism. Then why do so many children suffer from anxiety and depression, and why do the numbers only increase as they grow into teens? In the recent National Survey of College Counselors, 94% of university counselors reported that they were seeing rising numbers of students with severe psychological problems. Why? For many students, schooling is a leading cause of anxiety and depression.
Our society is robbing our children of their childhood by placing undue pressure on them to “succeed” in schools that are increasingly disconnected from their lives. Students across the nation attend schools for seven hours per day, often engaged in work that is uninspiring or even necessary in today’s world. They are caught in a testing culture, and a high-stakes college acceptance game, that is irrational and damaging. On top of that, many are over-programmed with extracurricular activities when they are not in school.
I read, almost weekly, articles about the damage, both physically and psychologically, that we are causing our children – damage that can have lifelong effects. The articles are readily accessible for parents to read, backed up by research that tends to consistently report the same findings.
What underlying fear or anxiety is causing caring and loving adults to create such a pressure factory for our children? What is this belief that unless children get into highly selective colleges, or choose the “right” career, their future is doomed, or at the very least limited? And if this wasn’t damaging enough, we have created a generation of young people afraid to make mistakes or fail. This may be most damaging of all. Fear impacts the ability to think critically or creatively. As a result, more and more college professors report that incoming freshman are not ready for college, and employers increasingly report that graduates are lacking the necessary skills to be successful in the workplace. This should be a wakeup call that the way schools teach is not working.
Even if we believe the education system worked for us, and prepared us for our lives, the world has changed dramatically, and the system no longer serves the needs of our children. If we do not begin to change our mindset, and open our eyes to the world our children live in and will inherit, we are doing them all a terrible injustice!
In communities like ours, this can be especially challenging. It is daunting for highly successful and educated parents to grasp that what might have worked for them is not right for their children.
We are beyond debate. Numerous studies by professionals and national institutions in the areas of education, psychology, and in the business world, too, all come to the same conclusion. We are harming our children emotionally by teaching to the test, and too many schools are failing to engage our children and prepare them appropriately.
We cannot let outdated conventional wisdom, or worse, fear, stand in the way of needed change. Especially since there is so much we know today about what kids do need in order to flourish. We need schools that put children first – schools that understand that no two brains are alike, and that children need a variety of learning approaches. Children need teachers who truly care and know each child, who will nurture each child’s curiosity and emotional growth, and will encourage risks and failure in order to grow and gain confidence. The simplest way to kill a love for learning is to instill, knowingly or unknowingly, a fear of failing.
Children require safe environments that foster perseverance and grit, flexibility and adaptability. Children need learning environments that place equal importance on the so-called soft skills of empathy, and social and emotional competencies.
Children need learning environments where critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration are skills that are deemed just as essential as “traditional’ skills in arithmetic and punctuation.
And, in today’s world, children need to be in schools where they have a say in their own learning. If we are to inspire a passion and love for learning, their curiosity must be ignited, and children must be able to pursue their passions, explore their interests, and utilize many aspects of their body, beyond the brain, in constructing knowledge and understanding.
When we create schools like this, I am certain that the number of depressed and anxious children (and parents!) will decrease for the betterment of all.
Thankfully, at Hillel we have supportive parents, a Board and professional staff that share this vision, and a supportive community that is enabling us to be on this very journey for the sake of our children!