Parents should rethink student stress

Warwick Beacon ·

A survey was recently published by the Rhode Island Department of Education, which asked more than 113,000 teachers, parents and students from grades 3-12 from across each district in the state questions pertaining to school pride, school anxiety and general questions regarding their perception of how Rhode Island schools are performing and operating.

The survey revealed some less than surprising results. Did you know that students report feeling significantly less excited about going to school, and engage less in school, when they age out of their starry-eyed elementary years and begin their journeys as angst-ridden teenagers? Shocking, for sure.

However one particular area of the survey’s comprehensive data shows a troubling trend, regardless of which district your child attends, and with no sarcasm attached. The vast majority of students, starting as young as those in third grade, are stressing over school.

Those stats balloon in the junior high and high school age group. In total, 93 percent of students in Rhode Island from grades 6-12 felt at least slightly stressed just by going to school. Much of this stress seems to come from concern over grades.

There is only so much public schools, with their limited budgets, can do to address these issues. Warwick, in particular, has demonstrated an effort to modernize its instruction efforts with more individualized learning and is shifting focus away from relying solely on the traditional, “teacher at the front of the room lecturing students for an hour and a half” model, which many of those reading this are most familiar with. This is commendable.

However, school time is not the only developmentally important time in a student’s life. Just as school districts must face and react to a changing reality, so must the parents of these children reporting such high levels of stress. It is no longer a matter of opinion that students feel particularly more stressed and anxious about going to school in the modern era.

Scientific research studies and anecdotal conversations with child psychologists reveal there is a serious problem with increasing anxiety in kids today. But why is this the case?

One of the primary reasons doesn’t require a doctorate in child psychology to understand, and it’s the same reason that 1:1 Chromebook programs and Promethean Boards are being integrated into Warwick Public Schools.

Technology has invaded all aspects of life, and it has completely changed the very notion of what a “school” and a “childhood” means for young people today, even just compared to one short decade ago.

A decade ago, students who grew up on Nickelodeon and bleached hair boy bands were already far along in their social emotional development and in high school as Facebook mania started to take over. It wouldn’t reach its current Orwellian status until this generation was already in college, and the stakes were much less high once they went from small to big ponds of people, most of who engaged in comparably questionable activities to one another.

But the younger kids, the ones just reaching that preteen age where you really start to care about what everybody else thinks about you, were entering the perfect storm of hyper image consciousness, of unprecedented high stakes and visibility and a completely unprepared generation of parents who, understandably so, had no idea just how powerful the social media monster was gearing up to be.

Being a public school student today means everyone has a high definition camera, waiting for you to do something embarrassing so they can share the video with everyone else for a good laugh at your expense. In the past, embarrassing events faded from memory after a while. In today’s world the Internet catalogs them forever, and then your Timehop app will remind you of them for all years to come.

Being a student today means not just feeling badly about not getting an invite to the cool kid’s house for a party, but being bombarded by reminders that you’re one of the only kids not there, as your classmates post picture after picture on Facebook and Instagram, solidifying your self-deemed position as a “loser.”

The fact that everything around them reinforces the normal teenage misconception that “everything is such a big deal,” only multiplies the traditional factors of stress that students have faced since public schools came into existence: “Will I get good grades? What if I don’t? Will I ruin my future forever? My parents are going to kill me!”

In short, no, it is not surprising to see such high numbers of self-reported stress and concern by Rhode Island students. However, it should be a sign to parents that maybe, for once, you really don’t understand – or can even comprehend – what your child is going through. It should perhaps be a sign that you should rethink your role as an authoritarian over grades, starting from the time they learn their multiplication tables in elementary school.

There is no “permanent record” for getting a bad grade in elementary school, and a C- in 6th grade science is not going to prevent your child from getting into a good college. Setting standards and goals is beneficial to a child’s development, but making them afraid to fall below high expectations, even once, is going too far, and is proving to result in real mental harm.

This survey should, hopefully, also be a sign that parents and educators need to stop pushing aside the issue of student stress and student anxiety as just the status quo, and look at it as a serious mental health concern on par with any other mental health issue in the country.