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Not so great expectations abound: students and school-life balance

We want to let children be children, yet their increasing academic responsibilities and the pressure cooker culture to excel at any cost is getting in the way. Too many children are overstressed with concerning sleep debt, and grade anxiety is becoming a huge problem.

Simone sporting a Brandeis shirt during Admitted Students Day 2011

Parents come to us with questions about preschool admissions, the importance of summer prep programs, and whether to simply tell their kids to go to bed or push them to finish their assignments--even if it means burning the candle at both ends. The growing competitiveness of education is anxiety-producing for both students and parents. We want children to excel to get a great education and be successful as adults and at the same time, forget what really matters. We oversize our goals for them forgetting that they are little growing.

We all get stuck in the minutia. I remember when in high school, I sported over 100% averages in some of my classes because I did well and took advantage of extra credit opportunities. I wanted to be the best and because I knew that affording college would be tough, I felt it was up to me to stand out so I could get a scholarship. In hindsight, my biggest regret was never going to a high school football game. I was so busy being creative, volunteering, and doing scientific research that I never got to play or go to a dance with a boy. I was so singularly focused on not missing out on educational opportunities that I missed out on being a teenager.

Now that my sister is in high school, my parents and I are trying very hard to make sure that doesn't happen. But, how can we? Simone was very young when she said, "I want to go there," as we drove past Northwestern University. Ever since that happened, I've had to answer questions like "if I do bad on my chemistry test, can I still get in?", "I didn't do as well as I wanted, is it over?", "if I do cheerleading with my friend, will it look like I am not serious?" When we get kids so wrapped up in expectations and long-term goals, it is so easy to lose track of the process, the journey. I have to stop and remind her, "you didn't do as well as you wanted, but you did better than last time and that's what counts." Learning is all about reveling in the journey, the process. It is about taking pleasure in having done the work to expand your own limits, and feeling empowered as a result.

However, many students struggle with overwhelming amount of homework and engagements. They are stretched so thin that they want to just "get it over with" and go to bed famished for sleep. They want to learn the "fastest" way of solving a problem, and not necessarily the most "creative". They get wrapped up in following rubrics to get the grade, instead of thinking critically, idiosyncratically, outside the box. They no longer feel the need to push boundaries, transgress, and pave their own path, because the cookie cutter path to getting the A is so much more defined.

Lowering expectations might actually yield better results. Instead of focusing on big ticket goals with big consequences like "getting in" or "making the grade", we might focus on "growth," "improvement," and "overcoming personal challenges." These more nuanced, complex goals are subjective and focus on comparison to prior performance rather than comparison to the performance of others. It might reduce anxiety for some students and get them to approach assignments with less arousal, ultimately leading to better performance. At the same time, reduced preoccupation with grades can allow more time for better school-life balance. Baking with the family, nature walks, camping with friends, sleep overs, day spa with mom or fishing with dad can help kids restore, refocus, and one day, remember the good old times when life was (a bit) easier as a kid.

Key Take-a-ways:

  • Swap "getting an A" with "improving as a writer" or "getting better in the science lab"

  • Don't sweat the minutia

  • Elevate school-life balance as a top priority

Tips for a Better School-Life Balance:

  • Schedule nature walks/hikes

  • Plan a monthly bonding activity with peers: sleepovers, camping trips, backyard fireside chats with smores

  • Pencil in time with the family to make memories

  • Quick once a week after school outing for bubble tea or ice cream or smoothie

  • 7 hours of sleep as mandatory homework



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