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The Academic Pressure Cooker

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

It’s been a while since I posted a blog. Sorry about that. For the few that do follow and read, thank you for your patience. I’d like to promise you more consistent posts but that is a promise that I cannot guarantee to keep. However, I do promise you this, I’m always looking for something to post about.

The following comments will probably come out a little preachy. This is something that have become increasingly passionate about. What has been presenting itself in life as well as in therapy and therefore is on my mind, is the current state of our academic system, or what I like to refer to as the academic pressure cooker. This is the “win at all costs” or “succeed at all costs” or “go to college at all costs” mentality affecting all children and teens today. The idea that college prep begins in elementary school and the only way to be successful is to go to college. In the end, this does more harm than good.

Let me start by saying I do not blame any one person. I value and respect our academic professionals and know that they truly care for our children. I believe that all academic professionals choose the field because somewhere on some level they want to help others and work with kids. In fact, I tend to have a lot of empathy for what they are asked to do with kids today. Teaching small groups/classes of elementary and middle school aged kids on the benefits of anger management for an hour and a half is more than I can handle in the role of a teacher. The individual people are not being judged. The individual schools and districts are not being judged. It’s the system administrators, teachers, parents, and students are asked to function in that I take exception to.

This naturally is not true of everyone. Some children, some families manage it perfectly fine, or even excel. For them, wonderful. For the kids and families that cannot, the long-term effects are detrimental to emotional growth and development. There are some quantifying stats (see the Psychology Today articles), but in general there are no predictive factors that assist teachers, or administrators with identifying who will struggle. We just do not know who will or will not.

Let me provide some detail/context with where I am going. I’m an 80s baby, a 90s child. I’m of the pre-smartphone generation. I remember the days when I was the remote control AND the bunny ears. Therefore, I do not fully know what it is like for kids today, we have lived in two very different worlds. When I was in kindergarten it was a half day of school. It was play based, arts and crafts based, and don’t eat the paste (there were very few issues with the first two). There were no expectations for any one child to be able to read. If they could, great. If they didn’t, it was fine. Kindergarten was much more an introduction to school. There was little to no pressure. Going to college was an option, not a requirement. Today’s kindergartners are under the expectation to do academic tasks and achieve academically at levels that I/we 80s babies were never asked to do. Today’s kindergartners are doing what we were doing in 1st and 2nd grade. I’ve seen third graders doing what I learned in 7th grade. This accelerated learning style continues into high school where some students are taking college courses before they graduate. Are these kids cognitively capable? More times than not, yes. However, they’re not emotionally ready, socially ready, or in general, they’re just not ready. They’re kids. This early academic pressure results in kids with lower self-esteem, issues with anxiety, depression, and anger just to name a few. Am I saying we’re better than they are because we had it better, no, but I do believe that what today’s youth experience is detrimental to their overall development. This pressure and any other associated concerns, whether they may be diagnosable or not, contribute to imposture syndrome (belief that one is not worthy of the success that they have achieved because others are better) as well as failure syndrome (the belief that you will fail no matter what, so why try). Additionally, it’s linked to more behavioral problems, school avoidance, and conflict at home.

I do not have all the statistics. I do not know everything (though some may sarcastically tell you that I think I do). I am not directly working in the academic setting on a consistent basis. I have however read articles and blogs documenting these issues. I have seen this struggle both as a parent and as a professional. Many of the children and teens I see, and their parents, tell me the same thing. There is just too much pressure and they cannot emotionally handle it. This is not just me in my little footprint. This is a systemic issue as can be seen in the links to the Psychology Today articles that I have included. This is not just a Joe problem, or a Troy problem. It’s a public health issue.

I want to take teachers and administrators off the hook here. They are under the same pressure. They are under pressure from the system, from “the top”, to provide this academic pressure to the students. Most, if not all, tend to be aware that kids need more play, need less direct academic instruction. However, they feel helpless to create change. This appears to contribute to more burnout among teachers and school administrators and therefore higher rates of attrition (see the Psychology Today articles). It is a problem across the board, effecting administrators, teachers, parents, and students. All of which want success for themselves and others.

My goal as a therapist has become to help everyone set realistic expectations for themselves and others. For starters, does every child need to go to college? Does elementary school need to be about preparing them for college? Is every student the valedictorian? It is imperative to know every child’s needs and abilities, to develop a strengths-based plan for each student, free to choose, succeed, and fail. We must take the pressure off to assist children in meeting their needs and strengthening their abilities.

Without change to the entire system, these are the circumstance we work with. We can’t just buck the system because we don’t agree with it. However, we must help parents, teachers, and students succeed under these circumstances. We must redefine success. Is success college, or is success being prepared for a career? What if our children do not want to go to college? What if they are not what I call an “academic”, and would prefer to utilize their skills and talents outside the classroom in a skilled trade? These are things that we must investigate. The pressure builds when there is only one path to success, and you have no choice but follow it, and it starts in kindergarten.

Maybe we need to do more on the legislative level. Maybe we need to be more vocal with our representatives. Ultimately, we must be more able to allow kids to be kids, and individuals to be individuals. We must work with the kids that we have, not the kids that we want. We cannot make them something they are not. No matter how much pressure is applied. Give them the opportunity to learn, play, explore, and grow in a world that allows for choice and mistake, and in the end, they are going to surprise us.

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