For the past two years, I have been intrigued by what I have come to appreciate as a profoundly effective methodology for professional development for adults in schools, as well as in many other organizations, such as in businesses and healthcare institutions.
Two years ago, I witnessed the undeniable value of Critical Friends Groups ® in action during a visit the ACS Athens. Critical Friends Groups ® is a structured and highly engaging approach to faculty professional development in schools, and it is currently utilized in many independent and international schools throughout the US and around the world.
I was struck immediately by how collaborative and trusting this group of 12 faculty members was with each other. Each group member contributed, like a peer-consultant, to help another member generate possible solutions to the particularly challenging classroom dilemma she had presented to the group.
In a follow-up conversation with that group’s leader – a member of the ACS Athens faculty – I learned that more than 80% of the teachers in this K-12 international school had been participating in these “collaborative learning communities” (so named by the school) as their primary approach to professional development for three-to-five years by then, and that their collective sense of cohesiveness and teamwork as a full faculty were very well-established.
These collaborative learning communities had been meeting monthly for two hours, on school-sanctioned time, allocated explicitly for faculty professional development.
I watched this diverse group of educators (representing 13-grade levels and all academic disciplines) as they brainstormed, asked probing and clarifying questions that fed off one another, conveyed understanding and validation to the presenter, and ultimately, generated numerous possible solutions for this one teacher’s dilemma.
I was struck by how effective this approach was — and is — in contrast to the most common and, in my opinion, least effective approach to real professional development for adults in schools.
Typical professional development consists of teachers and administrators leaving their schools to attend conferences, where they listen to content-specific presentations, often in large lecture halls among total strangers. They then return to their schools, only to resume “business – or teaching – as usual.” While the insights and curricular lessons gleaned in these conferences can be valuable, they rarely – if ever – lead to the full faculty’s actual growth and development.
While observing these professional learning groups, in and of itself, was incredibly heartening, its major impact on me was the unexpected realization that these collaborative learning groups could play a vital, if not pivotal, role in advancing my mission: to promote “developmentally empathic” practices and policies in schools everywhere.
This is what motivated me recently to participate in an “Open Training” at National School Reform Faculty (NSRF) in Bloomington, Indiana, in an effort to become certified as a Critical Friends Groups ® coach In my “open training” week, I realized that while my original observations of Critical Friends Groups ® portrayed individual faculty members presenting their own unique dilemmas to their fellow group members, these protocol structures are also adaptable and applicable to larger-group quandaries and challenges, such as an entire faculty’s desire to become a more developmentally empathic school. As I describe in my book, At What Cost? – anxiety, depression, and their dangerous manifestations, including substance abuse, eating disorders, self-injury and suicide – are increasing student conditions at many competitive high schools throughout the U.S. and all around the world. Paradoxically, most of these schools promote themselves as being committed to their students’ holistic development in academics, athletics, and the arts, and in their personal, social, and emotional growth. Unfortunately, these dedicated educators all around the world fully admit to overscheduling, overworking and, at times, overwhelming their students.
This conflict – adults wanting to educate students in healthy, safe, and balanced way but, at the same time (and against their best intentions), overscheduling, overworking, and overwhelming them – reflects a true bind for these well-meaning adults.
Fortunately, and to their tremendous credit, after admitting to this bind, they ask, “What do we do now? How can we begin to reclaim our primary commitments to the healthy and balanced education for our students?” For the past two years – since the publication of At What Cost? – I have been presenting at schools and conferences around the world with the primary mission of trying to expose the conflicting dynamics of the adults’ bind, and then to recruit these adults – educators and parents alike – to try to begin making changes that help them to (1) validate and reclaim their original and primary missions of wanting to educate and parent their students in healthy, safe, and balanced ways, and (2) recognize and respect their students’ still-developing status as children and adolescents who are simply not ready to manage the amount of pressure and stress that is imposed on them by the adults in their lives and by the ultra-competitive culture at large.
Helping Well-Intentioned Adults to Make Changes Necessary to Benefit Adolescents
One of the main lessons I have learned throughout these various presentations is that these well-meaning educators already feel so pressed for time in their busy, often hectic, lives and jobs, that even though they truly want to begin making developmentally empathic changes, they are just not sure of how to actually start what feels to them to be a somewhat overwhelming – if not daunting – change process.
New Partnership with National School Reform Faculty
To address this issue, and to provide schools with a practical and realistic option for beginning this change process, my consulting group, Developmental Empathy LLC, has recently partnered with National School Reform Faculty (NSRF), to design a straightforward “next step” intervention for schools to employ to review their current maladaptive practices and to begin generating achievable goals and concrete plans for changing them in the developmentally empathic direction. Specifically, Developmental Empathy LLC and National School Reform Faculty have designed a two-day professional development workshop to facilitate the start of this challenging change process. At the end of this two-day workshop, participants (administrators, teachers, and/or parents from the same schools), will have generated real and actionable “next steps” in the process of making long-term adaptive changes. As Michele Mattoon, Director of NSRF, has succinctly stated, “At What Cost? clearly provides the why for schools to change: NSRF can help provide the how.” I couldn’t agree more.
On yesterday’s “Morning Edition,”, as part of National Public Radio’s (NPR) series, “How to Raise a Human,” Allison Aubrey featured Savannah Eason of Wilton, Connecticut, who – as a high school student in 2012 – was strongly considering suicide when her father wrestled a pair of scissors from her hands.
“I needed somebody to do something,” she says, and recalls that the pressure she felt “to succeed and aim high had left her feelings anxious and depressed.”
As Savannah told NPR, “The thoughts that went through my head were, ‘this would be so much easier if I wasn’t alive, and I just didn’t have to do anything anymore.’ ” This six and-a-half-minute audio story, “The Perils of Pushing Kids Too Hard, And How Parents Can Learn to Back Off,” is well worth a listen. Listeners will not be surprised to learn that the ultra-pressured conditions that afflicted high school students in 2012 have only intensified in 2018.
Young Adults Today are at Forefront of Dangerous Mental Health Crisis
I urge you to click on the audio link and listen to NPR’s brief story. When I heard it, I felt compelled to share it as a way – once again – of reinforcing the crisis conditions in which so many younger and older adolescents (middle and high school students) are constantly embedded.
Earlier this year, I joined a diverse group of about 20 other professionals from education, media, business, law, and healthcare, who came together for a single purpose: our shared concerns about the increasingly troubled descriptions that currently characterize “young adult well-being.”
Specifically, too many of today’s college students are entering their undergraduate years already feeling spent – exhausted, anxious, and depressed.
While each participant had a slightly different perspective on the status of “young adult well-being,” each of us acknowledged that too many college students are suffering in significant social, emotional, and behavioral ways. That reality often has alarming origins in these students’ earlier life and school experiences and disturbing implications for their increasingly precarious post-college futures. I should note that while our discussions addressed the problems of those whose afflictions have had serious consequences (e.g., attempted suicide), we focused primarily on the larger group of students: those whose overall well-being seems so tenuous.
“I feel like I’m doing something wrong if I’m not doing anything.”
While I’ve had direct clinical experience with the mental health challenges faced by adolescents and young adults, several recent articles have given me some new perspectives on the situation. In a recent Washington Post story, “Why are young adults the loneliest generation America?,” Rachel Simmons interviewed college students across the country and reported that many students “fear that if they are not constantly busy studying or attending meetings, something must be wrong with them, with the schedule or with their work ethic.”
Simmons found that many college students are accustomed to being highly scheduled and always busy, often to their detriment: “These new norms of stress culture translate to fewer opportunities to let [the students’] conversations and minds wander.” One of her students admitted, “I can’t have downtime … I feel like I’m doing something wrong if I’m not doing anything.”
These comments are similar to those I detail in At What Cost? Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools. According to Simmons, “To be overwhelmed and constantly busy are the new baselines, and anything less, for many young adults, feels lazy.” Perhaps most poignantly, as Simmons notes, “Constant busyness takes a toll not only on the [students’] quality of relationships, but also on the skills young adults use [or don’t know how to use] to forge them.” Simmons appropriately asserts, “Skills are like muscles: they need to be flexed repeatedly. Friend-making skills atrophy [or never develop] from underuse.”
Teaching College Students How to Live “the Good Life”
Then, like a breath of “young adult well-being” fresh air, in another recent article, Less cramming. More Frisbee. At Yale, students learn how to live the good life, Susan Svrluga highlighted a wildly popular course at Yale University. In an action intended to be a provocation of sorts, the 1,200 students taking Professor Laurie Santos’s class, “Psychology and the Good Life” (the largest class ever offered at Yale in its 317-year history) were given the unexpected gift of a canceled class … with one caveat: “they couldn’t use the hour and a quarter of unexpected free time to study – they had to just enjoy it.” For the next 75 minutes, the students – roughly 25% of the entire undergraduate student body – played frisbee, made music, took naps, ate lunch, went to a museum, and/or generally relaxed.
Obviously, an unexpected canceled class can’t even come close to being considered a remedy for what Professor Santos had observed: “Many students were stressed out and unhappy, grinding through long days that seemed far more crushing and joyless then [my] own college years.”
As Svrluga described, Professor Santos’s perception has been backed up by statistics, including a national survey that found “nearly half of college students reported overwhelming anxiety and feeling hopeless.” As Santos is quoted in this informative article, “Students feel they’re in this crazy rat race, they’re working so hard they can’t take a single hour off – that’s awful.”
Impressively, Professor Santos shared a pared-down version of her Yale course on the online education site, Coursera, and within two months of its launch, more than 91,000 people from 168 countries were taking the course.
Rat Race Starts Years before Students Enter College
For a variety of combined social and economic reasons, the typical college admissions process of the mid-to-late 1800s gradually shifted from an old “aristocracy model” – characterized by maintaining wealthy connections and perpetuating social capital – to the not-so-new “meritocracy model” of the late 1900s and early 2000s – characterized primarily by students needing to earn consistently high academic grades and exceptional standardized test scores.
The long-term effects of this now-excessive meritocracy model are that children, from as young as in their preschool and kindergarten years, are unwittingly enlisted in – and programmed for – this “crazy rat race” through their elementary, middle and high school years … not just to be “in it” but to “win it.”
Essentially, the pressures imposed on young children and adolescents to compete with each other interfere with, if not usurp, their otherwise natural tendencies to connect with each other.
It is these “competition vs. connection” conditions that frequently set students up, over time, for feelings of social isolation and “disconnection” from their peers, and then to feelings of anxiety and depression and to various harmful acting-out behaviors, including suicide, as “more teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from all medical illnesses combined.”
When my colleagues — the diverse group of educational, media, business, law, and healthcare professionals — and I convene again in the coming months, we will certainly have much to deliberate. The fact that “nearly half of college students report overwhelming anxiety and feelings of hopelessness;” and that many feel so entrenched in this “crazy rat race … working so hard they can’t take a single hour off” is both alarming and absurd.
Ultimately addressing the disheartening status of young adult well-being will necessarily involve making major systemic and adaptive changes – involving parents and educators associated with schools at all levels, including colleges.
As Professor Santos at Yale has demonstrated, sometimes improving young adult well-being can be as simple as canceling class and requiring that students to do anything but study…and relax. In next month’s blog, I’ll explore the neurological underpinnings of the phenomena that these two articles bring to light.
The 2018 college admissions season is winding down, at least officially. The most selective colleges have made their decisions about whom they’ve accepted, waitlisted, and rejected. Now the students have to make their choices based on whatever options are now available to them.
May 1, also known as National College Decision (or Signing) Day, is the deadline for students to make deposits to attend the college of their choice. One might think that for these students—the ones whose “choice” coincides with their preferences — the stress of the college process would seem to be over. However, whether you’re Michael Brown from Houston, Texas, who applied and was admitted to 20 selective colleges and was granted full scholarships to all of them, or you’re one of the many thousands of highly qualified students all around the world who were either waitlisted or rejected by many of their first and second choice colleges, this phase of the college process can still be daunting, if not wrenching.
Consider two students I have met in the past few weeks who have just experienced the process firsthand. Though the outcomes of their college quests were totally different, their reactions were strikingly similar.
Feeling “Empty” After Ivy League College Acceptance
Ariana was accepted to an Ivy League college, but that acceptance did not result in feelings of satisfaction or celebration. Instead, as she said to me, “I feel like I’ve been working and working and working for this acceptance for my entire school life … and now that I’ve got it, I don’t really care about it. I feel kind of empty. I’ve been thinking things
like…‘After all that dedication and hard work, after all the times I did what I was supposed to do instead of what I wanted to do … after years and years of all that, is there more to life than just an acceptance to a good college?’
“Quite honestly, if I were to die today, I guess you could say – at least on paper – that I’ve had a ‘successful life,’ but I definitely didn’t enjoyed it that much. I’m realizing how much of my childhood and adolescence I have missed.”
“Isn’t there more to life than just an acceptance to a good college?”
The other student, Jacob, applied to 12 colleges, many of which were highly selective, but a few Jacob had considered to be “safety schools” to which he thought he would likely be admitted. Jacob was accepted to one college (not even close to his first choice), waitlisted at two others, and rejected by all the rest.
Think about it: Jacob received nine rejection letters from colleges for which – on paper – he seemed to fit. Like Ariana, Jacob had also been a very diligent student. He, too, had “worked and worked and worked” throughout his entire education to date, often depriving himself of sleep not only to complete his homework but to complete it in a high-quality, organized, and thoughtful way. Jacob earned high grades in school; is kind and very conscientious; is a captain of his school’s track and debating teams; volunteers at a local elementary school tutoring children in math, and earned a near-perfect score on his ACT.
With solid recommendations from teachers and from his college counselor, Jacob had applied early-decision – with hopeful optimism – to his top-choice school and was deferred, only to be rejected in the regular admissions decision round. His reaction? “Isn’t there more to life than just an acceptance to a good college?”
Admitted or Rejected: Students Feel Defeated After College Decisions
Jacob and Ariana are both incredibly dedicated and committed students; both are kind and considerate individuals; both earned mostly As in their secondary school years in very demanding courses, and each earned very high scores on their standardized tests. And yet sadly, both were similarly sunk in gloom, regardless of their diametrically opposed college acceptance outcomes.
What are we doing to our kids? Ariana gets admitted to an Ivy League college and feels empty and depressed. Jacob gets rejected by most of the colleges to which he applied, and he feels empty and depressed, too.
“Educational Arms Race” Damages Students’ Mental Health
In his book, former professor at Yale University, Professor William Deresiewicz, describes the entire college admissions process as “the fulcrum on which the system turns [as it] casts its shadow back over childhood and adolescence and forward over college and career, shaping the way that kids are raised and thus, the people they become.”
In a 2015 essay, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni echoed the sentiment: “For too many parents and their children, acceptance by an elite institution isn’t just another challenge, another goal. A ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ from [an elite college or university] is seen as the conclusive measure of a young person’s worth, an uncontestable harbinger of the accomplishments or disappointments to come. Winner or loser: this is when the judgment is made. This is the great, brutal culling.”
This year, as we have on previous May 1st college decision deadlines, we are watching the fallout of the “fulcrum’s” emotional impact. As still-developing adolescents, too many high school seniors have the false perception that the colleges to which they’ve either been accepted or rejected reflect — what Bruni called — “the conclusive measure of [their] worth,” and that these college decisions also reflect “uncontestable harbingers of [their] accomplishments or disappointments to come.”
While it is certainly true that some of these highly qualified students are happy with their college admission results, many thousands of qualified students are experiencing varying degrees of emptiness and depression-like Ariana and Jacob — and are working hard to integrate those feelings into their evolving sense of themselves.
To be sure, this “fulcrum” continues to have a pernicious impact on thousands of children and adolescents, as well as on their parents, who anxiously enroll their children in the educational arms race at very early ages, signing them up for years of academic, extracurricular, and social-emotional pressure with the hope that their kid will someday be a “winner” and gain acceptance to a top-tiered college. As Bruni stated, “winner or loser: [the college admission decision] is when the judgment is made.”
Victory in the Competitive College Admissions Process Can Be Elusive
The cruel irony that I have observed with students like Ariana and Jacob is that this “brutal culling” of the college admission process can negatively affect the so-called “winners” just as often as it does the “losers.” Victory in this college admissions process is an elusive thing.
Not surprisingly, the cumulative negative impact of this process is manifest in the increasingly strenuous efforts and resources that colleges and universities are devoting to their incoming first-year students – “winners” and “losers,” depending on the students’ choices – because so many of them arrive on campus already spent, anxious, and depressed.
I was recently in Johannesburg, South Africa speaking at the Future of Diverse Learning Conference at the American International School where I met Will Richardson. Will and I began talking in depth about the bind we are in as educators, as parents, and even as a society when it comes to committing to our students. I was asked to be on Will’s Podcast, Modern Learners. We talked about my book At What Cost: Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schoolsin length. Speaking at boarding schools, public schools, and international schools; I kept finding a common theme – anxiety and depression – both of which emanate from the intense competition students experience in schools. As a psychologist and also as a parent, I understand these not only as a researcher, but I have also lived these experiences in real life. Listen to my full interview below.
About Modern Learners
Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon unpack some challenges that educators around the world are facing on a daily basis. They are articulating a mission that is focused on helping their readers become not just modern learners but modern leaders as well, leaders who are better informed and make better decisions for the students in their charge. You can become a subscriber to Modern Learners and you will receive free whitepapers, e-books, webinars, and more. In the coming months, you’ll hear more about their plans to build a global community of educators who can articulate and advocate for a different type of education for kids, not one that’s just a little better than it used to be.