“A central concern for schools should be finding approaches that bring empathy and balance to students’ lives,” said David L Gleason, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and author of At What Cost?: Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools (2017). Serving as plenary speaker to an audience of more than 100 education professionals, Gleason picked up on a core theme of the second annual independent school health and wellness summit, “Strengthening Our Commitment to the Whole Student and the Whole Community.” The summit, which took place at Phillips Academy Andover on April 7, 2017, focused on the three pillars from Andover’s Strategic Plan: Equity & Inclusion, Creativity & Innovation, and Empathy & Balance.
Sheryl Petty, EdD, consultant on equity, systems change, and personal transformation, had opened the day with a keynote about how to embed equity and compassion into education, in order to help young people and adults rise to challenges in today’s society.
“Be brave,” she said, in speaking about how to approach issues of equity and the inner work that should be encouraged. “Be more intelligent in our relationships with each other … deep connection and compassion require not being numb.”
The inspiration for the summit, which first took place in 2016, emerged from Phillips Academy’s desire to collaborate within and across schools to manage the complexities of adolescent health and to help students optimize their health. In 2015, PA had established the Sykes Wellness Center, to integrate and upgrade Andover’s health services under one roof.
“While best practices and guiding principles exist in health and education separately, there is little guidance on how best to approach these topics within the independent secondary school setting,” said Amy Patel, MD, medical director and co-director of wellness education at Phillips Academy. “This summit brings together individuals who care deeply about student health and wellness. Knowing that today’s challenges may be different than tomorrow’s, we are committed to an annual conference to continue our work.”
What’s Wrong with Overscheduling?
According to Gleason, eating disorders, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation are all on the rise among students at competitive high schools. Kids are currently in reactive modes of operating.
“Mainstream approaches,” said Gleason, “ask the kids to change–to get help, get tutoring, take medication, put in more study time, and give up sleep. But we rarely ask ourselves [as educators and administrators] to change.”
Trying to do many things at once is most often not the right approach for teenagers. Overscheduling is overwhelming adolescent students, according to Gleason, who said the effects of stress on development are significant and explained that the the Yerkes-Dodson Law is useful to keep in mind. We need some pressure, otherwise performance can be mediocre. But too much pressure can cause anxiety, panic, anger, and violence.
Schools often say they are deeply committed to educating students in balanced ways and mean it; yet the reality is often different.
“There is this worry about losing excellence and becoming a vanilla school,” said Gleason. “There is an instinct to protect the brand and please parents … But brand is the language of marketing and not the language of education.”
This desire for the academic program to be seen as rigorous, therefore, too often takes precedence over health and wellness. As a result, students end up receiving far too much homework and over-focusing on the college process.
Lessons from Neuroscience
From the onset of puberty through the next three to four years of life, children enter a developmentally “sensitive period,” a time when they are maximally vulnerable to environmental influences. When their environment is too pressured, adolescents are simply not ready to manage pressures effectively, so they experience an increase in illnesses like anxiety and depression, said Gleason, citing a study from McLean Hospital.
Another study, conducted by researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) involved brain scans of 52 children during a 15-year period. The results of this longitudinal study showed that the brain region most responsible for planning, prioritizing, inhibiting, and organizing–the prefrontal cortex–is the last region of the brain to mature, often not until the late 20’s or even early 30’s. Ironically, these “executive functioning” skills are in very high demand for early adolescents as they begin the high school years, but since the brain region most responsible for these functions is still developing, many students exhibit significant struggles.
“We expect students to act and think like adults before they have actually developed those skillsets … before they are adults,” said Gleason.
So What to Do Next?
“We are responsible for the cultures we create,” said Gleason, citing the words of one of his colleagues, Daniel Garvey, PhD, president of Prescott College.
“We need to be better advocates for a healthier, more developmentally appropriate culture in our schools,” said Gleason.
What kinds of changes would it take to create a culture that works better for adolescent students? Gleason offered the following ideas:
- Allow more time for sleep: Change the time for when classes begin to no earlier than 8:30 a.m.
- Give less homework: Assign less and, what is assigned, should be targeted and important.
- Provide flexibility: Allow plenty of flexibility in an adolescent’s daily schedule.
During the summit, there were a number of other opportunities for participants, including three morning breakout sessions that picked up again in the afternoon. Session leaders included Rosetta Lee, an outreach specialist and diversity speaker and trainer at Seattle Girls’ School. Lee encouraged participants to identify ways that equity and inclusion show up in school programs and support systems. Describing a more accurate conceptualization of the ‘whole student,’ she noted that schools often approach equity and inclusion work in an intellectual way through curriculum, when there are also health and psychological realities to consider. Karen Craddock, a scholar in relational-cultural theory and social action, led a session on how to embed health, wellness, and social-emotional skills into schools.
Carrie Barron, MD, director of the Creativity for Resilience Program at Dell Medical School, worked with a group on the role of Creativity & Innovation in the lives of teenagers. Building resiliency in kids, she said, is a core part of helping them to cope with every-day stress.
“But …” Barron asked the group, “what does creativity even have to do with resilience?”
The group responded with insights into how they weave creative moments into their days and how important those moments are for reflecting and recharging. One participant noted that her best ideas often happen when she’s driving or knitting and her brain has time to wander freely.
“Creativity makes life worth living, right?” said Barron. “The mind needs rest in order to integrate information.”
Einstein, for instance, supposedly thought of the theory of relativity in the shower. Citing a famous quote by Immanuel Kant, “The hand is the window onto the mind,” Barron explained that the Maker movement, the idea of making and doing for yourself, is important for kids.
“When you use the hands, you are stimulating your brain,” she said.
The Last Word: Social Media
The final speaker of the day was Nancy Jo Sales, a journalist and the author of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers (2017), who spoke about the power of social media and how it is changing teenage behavior and childhood at a very rapid pace. Suicides among teen girls and young gay men are particularly on the rise, along with cyberbullying. Statistics, she said, tell us that 90% of kids report that they have witnessed cyberbullying.
Also on the rise is what Sales refers to as “revenge porn”–a form of social media bullying that happens when a couple breaks up and when one member, often the male, passes around nude photos, often of the female, that the other had sent in confidence.
“Kids are trying to navigate this world of social media with very few guidelines and very few boundaries,” said Sales. “They are being confronted constantly with ethical questions. What do I do? Do I join in? Speak up?”
A big part of the problem is that smartphones are not an ideal form of communication, and yet teens on average can spend about nine to 11 hours on their phone per day.
“From behind a screen we are less empathetic,” said Sales. “We say things we wouldn’t normally say … Cruelty, judgment, and lack of empathy become normalized.”
She offered general strategies to deal with these issues, such as limiting phone time and setting boundaries on social media. But her role, she explained to the education professionals in the room, is simply to make them aware.
“I know you all have to deal with this. I know it’s one of the biggest problems in the world of kids’ health,” said Sales. “So knowing all of this: figure it all out! I’m looking forward to your solutions.”
For more information…
To view the complete program of the summit’s activities, you may download it. Videos of some the speakers and sessions are available online: