Lessons in How to Chill Out
Inside the San Marino Unified School District boardroom, a special class is in session. Eight students fit neatly into two rows of chairs. Pauline Chen looks at the floor.
Speaking in her native Mandarin, the 44-year-old housewife shyly describes how she drove her daughters Julie and Maggie to achieve so they could earn admission to University of California campuses. For her 14-year-old son Steven, she has set her sights on Stanford.
But the resulting academic pressure has made for a tense home life. Her son avoids telling her about school. They fight over how much homework he does--she does not think five hours a day is enough.
Steven recently told her he’d earned an A on a math test, when in fact he got a B-minus. “My expectations were really high,” she says. “When they brought home a B, I would yell at them.”
Frustrated by the fights with Steven, she enrolled in this class. She wants “to go with the flow,” she says, “to have a more accepting heart.”
Persuading parents not to push their children too hard is precisely the point of this six-week course. In fact, the class--attended by six mothers and two fathers of San Marino students--is part of a wave of such initiatives that target high-achievers and their parents nationwide.
In California, for example, the Arcadia school district sponsors a course like the one Chen attends. School districts in Ventura and San Diego counties have passed new guidelines to cut down on homework. Seven public schools in San Francisco have added yoga to the curriculum, in part as a stress reliever. The Palos Verdes district has used state funding to provide counselors who keep a close eye on bright troubled students. San Gabriel High has launched a “Resiliency Week” during which students take workshops on physical and emotional health. And the private school powerhouse Harvard-Westlake has started a committee to examine the workload (although its first chairman, a teacher, had to beg off--he had too much work).
“We have meetings with parents all the time to try and notch it down,” says Jack Rose, the San Marino superintendent. “We talk about . . . having children succeed at their own particular pace.”
Nationally, the New England Assn. of Schools and Colleges, in accreditation visits to some top U.S. boarding schools, has begun asking those campuses to reduce the frenzied pace on campus. As a result, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., has launched a study with the aim of simplifying its schedule. In New Jersey, suburban communities have established “Ready, Set, Relax!” nights, when no homework is assigned and extracurricular commitments are canceled. In a suburb of Minneapolis, a new group called Family Life First has taken to bestowing “seals of approval” on schools and programs that take measures to “balance priorities” and reduce stresses on young people.
For most high school students, research suggests, pressure is not a problem. A recent survey by Public Agenda, a New York-based nonprofit that does public opinion research, found that most students reported they were not pushed hard enough. But in the narrow realm of bright students who apply to the nation’s most selective colleges, educators, parents and psychologists perceive an ever-mounting set of stresses.
The most selective universities are becoming even more so. Admission rates to Ivy League colleges and top University of California campuses have declined. UC Berkeley, for example, admitted 29% of applicants in 2000, down from 39.9% five years earlier. Hoping to stand out, high-achieving students have swelled the enrollments of advanced classes, summer schools, and college programs that are open to high schoolers.
“To go to school and do well enough to get into a top college--it’s become like a job,” says Anne Foster-Keddie, the student body president at El Segundo High. “Except the hours are longer than most jobs.”
In California, the state’s soaring immigrant population is sometimes identified as a source of further anxiety, as upwardly mobile parents push their children to take advantage of the state’s educational bounty. Says Alhambra High Principal Russell Lee-Sung: “There’s an incredibly high expectation with some immigrant families: You are going to the very best college. End of discussion.”
Fears are surfacing of fragile and burned out high achievers. Bright college freshmen arrive on campus as either “teacups”--sophisticated but overprotected; or “crispies”--superstars who cannot sustain their high school pace any longer, says Wendy Mogel, author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” which is among the best-selling of a wave of new books about pressure.
“The teacups break because they literally don’t know when to eat, and what to eat and when to sleep,” says Mogel, a Los Angeles psychologist. “The crispies are so burned out that they’ve lost their intrinsic pleasure in learning.”
At Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, Jane Laughlin hands out business cards and fliers to students every day. “When you aim for perfection, you discover it’s a moving target,” reads one missive. “Moral for today and days to come: I’ll ease up on myself!!!!!”
In tiny print, her cards list the names and numbers of 15 South Bay counseling services.
Laughlin is Peninsula’s safe schools coordinator. In the state’s strongest academic districts, these coordinators often are not security guards but credentialed counselors who devote considerable time to reducing pressures on gifted students. Peninsula has plenty of those: It produced 43 National Merit semifinalists this year. Seventy-six percent of graduates go directly to four-year colleges. On one side of the Panther statue near the school’s entrance are the words: “Academic Superiority.”
Laughlin sees her job as easing such high expectations. She holds large meetings for parents as often as four times a year, frequently counseling families on how to spot signs of stress in their children. One day a week, she is joined on campus by a licensed psychologist. Says Laughlin’s boss, Associate Principal Mitzi Cress: “We’re constantly saying, ‘Take a breath--let’s step back.’ ”
“I call this place the 10th Planet,” Laughlin says. “The expectations and pressure are so great. The kids receive so many messages about what they should be doing.”
Here and elsewhere, adult pleas to relax are often lost on students who are groomed from a young age to succeed.
“There’s a struggle where the adults are telling the kids, ‘Please let up a little,’ and the kids are resisting,” says Harvard-Westlake’s dean of the faculty, David Hinden. “These are competitive kids who want to be successful.”
Complicating matters, youngsters get mixed messages. SAT preparation courses have begun to claim that they “reduce pressure” in the same hard-sell ads in which they emphasize how vital the SAT is to getting into the right college.
Sylvan Learning Systems has even trademarked the term “stress free” to describe its own 30-hour SAT prep course. “We don’t do any magic stress-reducing things: You’re going to get confidence and reduce stress by being well-prepared for the test,” says Sylvan director of research Rick Bavaria.
Of the “stress-free” tag in advertisements, he says: “I think that’s something our marketing department came up with.”
The Alhambra City and High School Districts organize “Resiliency Weeks” and aggressively refer stressed-out students to counselors.
At the same time, they aggressively promote university study with a new “Kindergarten Through College” program. Elementary age children attend campus rallies where they wear T-shirts with their college choices and sing songs. One goes like this:
I can say my ABCs
Now I’m learning how to read
And a college grad I’ll be
In 2000 and eighteen.
“Sometimes,” says Tim Dong, the top-ranked student at Alhambra High School, “you hear people talking about how we need to be totally focused on college. And other times, people say you shouldn’t worry too much about it.”
This semester, Katharine W. Clemmer, an Advanced Placement calculus teacher at El Segundo High, decided to try an experiment in stress relief: She stopped assigning homework.
“The children have been pushed too hard,” she says.
Her decision has been greeted with as much trepidation as joy. Anne Foster-Keddie, who sits in a fourth-row seat, says that without homework, tests count more. At the same time, she and her classmates appreciate the lighter load.
Foster-Keddie, who turned 18 this month, takes two other AP classes, including a special economics class that requires her to show up at school by 7 a.m. She is a teacher’s aide in a biology class, is student body president, and plays on a top-club volleyball team that keeps her out on some school nights until nearly 11. To stay awake, she drinks heavily caffeinated soda.
Adding to her stress, she is apart from her parents, who moved away for business reasons three years ago. After going to Connecticut and Washington state with them, she moved back to El Segundo, where she was more comfortable with the school and her friends. Now she does the laundry and grocery shopping at the duplex she shares with her 24-year-old sister, Katharine.
As far as Foster-Keddie is concerned, the hard work has paid off. She has been accepted by Yale.
“Anne puts a ton of pressure on herself, in part to live up to her older siblings,” says Katharine Foster-Keddie, who attended Yale. ‘But Anne has also taken on more and accomplished more.”
“I got the first B of high school last semester, in literature, and I was really upset about it,” says Anne Foster-Keddie. “My mom said, ‘Who cares?’ but that’s my mom for you. She’s very laid-back.”
In calculus, Foster-Keddie and her fellow students seem almost unnerved by the more relaxed atmosphere. Instead of lectures and homework review, Clemmer’s class consists of problem-solving. The teacher hands out questions to teams of students that take turns posting solutions on the board.
“There’s a lot more energy, and if students have a problem, they don’t struggle alone,” says Clemmer. “But,” she says of her noncompetitive approach, “I could never have tried this without my track record of students who score well” on the AP test.
Without that, she says, “the parents would never have allowed it.”
In San Marino, the class for parents is gathered in the boardroom. Rosa Zee, a former school board member and teacher, began leading the course more than two years ago. She teaches in Mandarin on Thursday nights, in English on Saturdays. She covers a variety of subjects related to parenting, from cultural differences to showing children physical affection. But at the heart of the course is this message: Parents need to ease up.
Chen joined the class, hoping to improve her relationship with her youngest child, Steven. A freshman at San Marino High, he declared he would attend Stanford when he was 7. His mother smiles when Stanford comes up in conversation. Steven gets a Stanford calendar every year from a family friend.
When he spends too much time playing games on the computer instead of doing homework or gets a lackluster grade, his mother brings up Stanford. The school won’t accept a student who doesn’t study hard, she reminds him.
She “brags about” his sisters to her friends, Steven says, but she nags him.
They agree, however, that the fighting is happening less these days. Steven thinks it’s because of the class she’s been taking.
“When I go to that class I feel calm,” Pauline Chen says. “Now I go with the flow.”
For her son, Stanford is no longer the only option. USC or a University of California school, she says, would be good enough.
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