More than 100 teachers, parents and doctors came out to the Morristown Medical Center on Thursday, May 10 to discuss the growing pressures that adolescents are facing in school and with extracurricular activities, and the impact it is having with children and teens across the country.
Doctor Thomas Zaubler, the chairperson of the Department of Psychiatry at Morristown Medical Center led a panel discussion with two other doctors and the head of a prestigious private school with the concerned audience members, all looking to help children and teens combat the problem of being over-worked in this highly driven society. The hour-long discussion followed a screening of the documentary "Race to Nowhere."
"I think we need to encourage kids to slow down, and lead a less frenetic life," said David Flocco, the head of the upper school at Montclair Kimberley Academy, and one of the four panelists. "And we have a responsibility as parents and educators to help them do that."
The film, released in September 2010 and directed and produced by Vicki Abeles, focuses on stresses that the education system is placing on kids, and is a wake-up call for families, educators, and policy makers to challenge the system.
"Race to Nowhere" features students from elementary through high school, who tell their stories of being over-worked with homework, stressed out over tests, and constantly working in both academics and sports to build their resumes for college. They are continuously working to get to the next step, but don't necessarily know what the final step is going to be, which makes it a "Race to Nowhere."
At the same time, teachers are dependent on state-wide test results, and parents are putting pressure on their kids. Because of all this, students are becoming sleep deprived, suffering from severe stress, which can lead to anxiety and depression, and turning to stimulants such as adderall and energy drinks.
This "silent epidemic," as Abeles describes it, isn't just in the academic world. Sports are becoming more competitive, as well as other extracurricular activities.
"We are seeing repetitive injuries, as kids push themselves athletically," Zaubler said in his introduction to the movie. "We see it in drama classes, music classes, where kids are really pushing themselves to be quasi-professionals, little adults, at a remarkably early age."
The film tries to convey that not every student needs to get straight A's in order to be successful, and that they need to step back and relax and enjoy their childhood for both their health and their personal growth. One 13-year-old girl's story ends tragically, as she commits suicide a week after she received a poor grade, and another girl becomes anorexic and an insomniac from all the stress from her work.
Members in the Morristown community have recognized this problem locally, and have seen the impact it is having on their kids, students, and patients. Residents in the crowd on Thursday night were touched by the film, brought up important topics and asked questions to the panel members.
The problem with homework
A key issue mentioned in both the film and discussion afterwards is the amount of homework students are getting, especially at such young ages.
In Zaubler's introduction to the movie, he said that homework has significantly increased in all school levels. Polls have shown that on average, elementary school students have about 78 minutes of homework per night, middle-schoolers have about 99 minutes, and high-schoolers have about 3 to 5 hours. He said that many experts advise a much lower amount of homework, as it is taking away play and family time.
Some schools have eliminated homework completely, after seeing research that shows the ineffectiveness of homework.
"There is very little, if any correlation between achievement and homework in elementary school, a very modest correlation in middle school, and we know that the excessive amount of homework our kids in high school are doing is really antithetical to learning in many ways," Zaubler said.
One parent in the audience, who identified herself as Jennifer, said that she has noticed the toll that excessive homework has taken on her three kids, and she went to her school board about the issue. She said one time her son in third grade came home crying and threw up because he was so stressed out. She noticed each year since her son was in kindergarten that he played less after school and had less family time. After she went to the school board they agreed to evaluate the policy, and was able to have him opt out of homework. She said he is much happier now.
"What I learned is that the system exists that can steal a childhood from our kids, that can suck the life out of them, can suck the joy of living, and play and creativity out of them, and as parents we really need to stand up," Jennifer said.
Abeles, who was part of the panel discussion afterwards via Skype, responded to the issue of homework. She said that parents need to form alliances and approach school administrators to eliminate or reduce homework. One school in Menlo Park, she said, completely got rid of homework in their elementary school.
Flocco said that he doesn't believe homework should be eliminated because it's not natural for school districts to do that, but he does think that there should be changes made, and teachers should give quality homework rather than focusing on the quantity.
"We're a results driven organization, and if we want kids in the seats as a private school, we have to have results on the other end," Flocco said. "What differs is how we get those results. I believe we have to strike a balance in schools, and there has to be a reason for a child to do every single homework assignment that they do, and that reason has to be about learning, it has to be about being prepared for the next class, or practicing some things."
School administrators at Montclair Kimberley Academy have made some scheduling changes recently to lower the stress on kids for homework. Flocco said that they lengthened class periods, and have certain classes every other day instead of everyday, so the students only have to do homework in 2-3 classes per night. They also give the kids in the school more free time, or unstructured time, to do whatever they want, whether it is getting together with classmates, or talking to a teacher.
Overworked on the field
A local pediatrician in the audience, Doctor Maureen Baxley brought up the issue of how sports are taking over family and vacation time.
Doctor Walter Rosenfeld, the chairperson at the Department of Pediatrics at Goryeb Children's Hospital, and another panel member, said that more kids are specializing in a single sports year-round, and that doctors are seeing an epidemic of overuse injuries in children.
"Children are being injured because they're focusing on a single sport which is not a normal physiologic challenge to a young person's body," Doctor Rosenfeld said.
Doctor Baxley said that she has seen four concussions this week alone.
Doctor Guiliano said that it is better for kids to experiment with more sports, rather than focusing on a single sport in their early development.
"I think depending on the age of the kid they should be experimenting with as many sports as they can before they decide to specialize once they get to high school," Doctor Guiliano said. "I think they should wait until they get to high school to do that."
He also said that the lack of vacation time is driven by the need to be the best, and encourages parents to go to districts to ask for a type of family week where their kids can be free.
Finding the strength in each child
Another important point brought up by the panel members and in the movie is the different types of intelligence.
"We've gotten very stuck into this IQ, there's so many other types of intelligence that are critical to developing," Rosenfeld said. "There's social intelligence, artistic ability, there are so many things. I think the key for us as parents, as caregivers, and as teachers, is to find the spark, the strength in the child."
Flocco said that Montclair Kimberly Academy has tremendous academic diversity, and he believes it is important for schools to have an academic support system to help the students discover the type of learner they are.
"If you discover the type of learner that you are and you find a passion, something that you love to do, then you can be very successful in a school environment or an alternative environment," Flocco said.
Doctor Guiliano said that it is important for kids to realize there are many ways to reach their goals, instead of thinking that a perfect resume and admission to Harvard is the only way to success. He said that he knows doctors and lawyers, among other professions, that started off with an Associate's Degree from County College of Morris, and then went on to a competitive four-year school.
Making a difference
In the midst of all of these problems children are facing, parents and educators are standing up to these issues. Some parents, like some of the audience members, are going to the school board for help.
Flocco said that it's important for parents to go to their districts if they want to see a change, just how Jennifer did. He also advises parents to talk to their community.
"You have to act locally in order to make a stand globally," he said.
While going to the school board is one way to make a difference, the panel members suggest that parents should make changes in their own homes.
"Parents have a very important role, probably the most important role, because they're the ones that are in control and have a great influence on their children," Rosenfeld said.
Rosenfeld said that when the children are young, parents have to set the stage of what will happen during their adolescence by doing two things: making sure the parents are sending the right messages to them about how to behave as an adult and parent, and to convey what their moral values and goals are.
Once kids are older, Rosenfeld said, parents need to be good monitors, and to have a sense of where they're children are and where they're going.
"Race to Nowhere" has started a national discussion by reaching communities one at a time. It has been shown to more than one million people in over 4,000 screenings in communities like Morristown.
For more information about the film, visit www.racetonowhere.com.