The Perils of Pushing Kids Too Hard (from NPR)

The Perils of Pushing Kids Too Hard (from NPR)

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

In fact, as generational writer, Jean Twenge, states in her recent book, iGen:  Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us,”the children born between 1995 and 2012 are now at the forefront of one of the most dangerous mental health crises in decades.”

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.

THESE are the conditions of which I have written in detail in At What Cost? Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools. Please listen and share with your networks. Thank you.

Young Adults’ Well-being Suffers As College Days are Far from Care-free

Young Adults’ Well-being Suffers As College Days are Far from Care-free

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

To be sure, this “crazy rat race” to which Professor Santos refers starts years before students ever even apply to college. Ironically, former Yale Professor William Deresiewicz, in his recent book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, chronicles how this “crazy rat race” evolved and became so prominent over the past 150 years.

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.

College Decision Day: The Fallout of “The Great Brutal Culling”

College Decision Day: The Fallout of “The Great Brutal Culling”

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

A Shocked man holding some documents in the livingroomJacob 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

As I have detailed in my book, At What Cost? Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools, many educational professionals have termed what we’re doing to our kids as subjecting them to an “educational arms race,” one in which the competition among the students is fierce and constant.

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.

Again I ask: What are we doing to our kids?

The Costs of High Expectations – Podcast Interview

The Costs of High Expectations – Podcast Interview

Modern Learners Podcast Episode #38

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 Schools in 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.

Kids Development Varies, Including Executive Function Skills

Kids Development Varies, Including Executive Function Skills

Following up on last month’s post about psychological overuse injuries in adolescents, I bring readers an interview with Michael Delman,founder and CEO of Beyond BookSmart, a company that teaches executive function skills to children, adolescents, and to young-adult college students.

What is Executive Functioning?

In his forthcoming book, “Your Kid’s Gonna Be Okay: The Executive Function Skills Your Child Needs in the Age of Attention,” Michael Delman refers to executive functioning capacities as “the self-management skills that allow us to get things done.” As Delman notes, this is similar to ADHD expert Russell Barkley’s description of executive functioning as “the ability to use self-directed actions (self-regulation) to choose goals and to select, enact, and sustain actions across time towards those goals.” Among the many executive functions we – educators, parents, teachers — assume our adolescents to have mastered are:

  • taking initiative and having consistent, self -disciplined study habits;
  • being able to organize and manage their materials, time and their physical spaces,
  • particularly in the face of relentless and competing demands they experience every day;
  • being able to identify, understand, regulate and cope effectively with their own emotions;
  • controlling and/or inhibiting their impulses;
  • directing and sustaining their attention effectively;
  • thinking flexibly, particularly with regard to problem-solving from different perspectives;
  • setting and follow through on priorities; assessing and monitoring progress, and changing tactics or making “course corrections” as needed.

Variations in Executive Function Skills Development are Poorly Understood

Throughout his book, Delman correctly points out that in the same way that physical development varies normally among children and adolescents, so does the development of executive functioning skills.

As Delman points out, “Unfortunately, unlike someone’s physical growth, executive function weaknesses are poorly understood, so these kids often get labeled as ‘lazy’ or ‘oppositional’ instead of overtaxed, under-supported and discouraged.”

Like Physical Development, Kids Develop Executive Functioning Abilities Differently

I share an example from my own early adolescence to help make this case. When I was in the ninth grade, I was about 5’2” and weighed about 100 pounds. My friend George was about 5’8” and weighed about 165 pounds. Additionally, he could grow a full beard and played fullback for our school’s varsity football team. Although I was older than George by few months, he was physically much more developed than I was. I don’t think there is a physical education teacher or an athletic coach in any school, anywhere, who have would pitted George against me in an athletic contest for a grade … as I would have failed every single time. However, middle and high school teachers almost everywhere compare, evaluate, and grade their students with respect to their still-developing – or in many cases, their not-yet- developed – executive functioning capacities.

Too frequently, students whose executive skills are still developing get marginalized, if not pathologized, for not yet having learned to effectively inhibit, plan, organize, prioritize, initiate and otherwise self–regulate their thoughts, feelings and actions … through no fault of their own!

Over the past twelve years, Michael Delman’s work and mission has been to coach these executive skills to empower children and adolescents with these essential tools – specific skills they can be taught and can practice – gradually and over time, in the same way that a piano teacher would teach children and adolescents to practice and play. No one learns to play the piano in just a few lessons: it takes years of study and practice to master that musical instrument or to learn any analogous skill. Similarly, no one learns to “inhibit, plan, organize, prioritize, initiate and otherwise self–regulate their thoughts, feelings and actions” quickly, especially if teachers and parents make the faulty assumption that students know these skills intuitively, and therefore, don’t teach or coach these still-developing students how to “execute” these skills in the first place! I had the opportunity to interview Michael Delman about his new book and his work with Beyond BookSmart. What follows are excerpts and summaries of our conversation. Q: Why are executive functioning skills in such high demand, and how is Beyond BookSmart working to meet that demand? A: Delman described three basic trends that he has observed over the past several years, trends that combine on a regular basis and interfere with students’ abilities to both develop and reinforce effective executive functioning skills:

  1. We expect more of younger children. “We are absolutely and indisputably expecting more of kids at younger and younger ages. In many schools, this isn’t just an ‘executive functions’ issue, this is also a curriculum issue. For example, Algebra I used to be a 9th grade math class, but now it is considered an 8th — or even 7th — grade class and in some schools, algebra is a 6th grade class. This is just one example of the increased academic curricular demands that we’ve seen over time in our work with kids.
  2. Tension between teacher beliefs and teacher wishes. “Teachers feel trapped trying to serve two masters: on one hand, wellness and the best health interest of their students and, on the other hand, wanting their students to be able to keep up academically. What we see is that teachers tend to assign a lot of work, but they don’t always teach students how to actually do it. In situations like this, we frequently see a mismatch between students’ developmental readiness, and the executive functioning expectations they face every day.”
  3. Increasing, omnipresent distractions in daily life. “Students are caught in a world of distractions that are omnipresent … distractions that encourage multitasking, which further impedes their executive function development. It’s not just more distractions; it’s better distractions. For example, at the end of a Netflix show, the TV typically shows a countdown before the next episode is about to start. This clever technological ‘distraction’ makes it much harder for child and adolescent viewers to turn the TV off and NOT watch the next episode.”

Teachers Need Training in Executive Function Coaching

Q: In light of these trends, what does this mean for effective executive skill development and coaching for our students? In the absence of effective teaching and coaching of executive function skills, how are students expected to learn them? A: “Teachers need to either lower their expectations about students’ executive functioning or make their expectations more realistic. Teachers also need their own training to be more effective instructors … or coaches … on how students can meet these increased curricular and executive expectations. From our many years of experience, one- or two-day executive function training programs for teachers are totally inadequate. Just as students need to learn and practice these skills … gradually and over time … so, too, do teachers need to learn and practice integrating the instruction of these skills into their own academic subjects. For this to happen, they need ongoing executive function training themselves in order to learn how to integrate these ‘how to’ instructions with how they already teach math, history, English, or science.”

Executive Function Development Varies Just as Physical Development Varies

With this in mind, we return to the developmental readiness issue, which I’ve written about before, as THAT is still primary. Schools and educators – including those such as Delman’s Beyond BookSmart – must realize that students’ actual development and mastery of these skills will naturally vary.

There is normal development variation in EVERY aspect of a child or adolescent: height, weight, physical coordination, academic motivation, and learning. So, of course, there is variation in their learning and eventually mastering of essential executive function skills, skills that neuroscience reveals do not fully develop until the late 20s or early 30s.

To be sure, all schools – and coaching agencies – need to recognize students’ natural, biologically-determined developmental trajectories. They must support and nurture their students’ developing capabilities without overwhelming them (as we, as well-intentioned adults, have been doing for years). Finally, we must instruct and coach these specific skills (as a piano teacher would teach students how to play that instrument). Keep in mind, though, that ALL piano teachers, ballet instructors, athletic coaches, as well as math, English, and history teachers know that even with their most effective teaching, instructing, and coaching, ALL students develop – and sometimes master these skills at DIFFERENT times, at DIFFERENT rate,s and in very DIFFERENT ways — in ways that, most likely, are in sync with each student’s unique neurodevelopmental trajectories!

High School Students’ Executive Function Skills in Face of Parkland Tragedy

In light of the recent school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, I would feel remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that small group of frustrated, infuriated, but very inspired adolescents actually ARE exhibiting tremendous executive functioning skills in the wake of the tragedy.

  • They have mobilized hundreds of other teens to rally in Tallahassee in demand of safer schools;
  • They have directly and outspokenly confronted government officials – including at the White House – to challenge the NRA;
  • They have inspired and organized a “March For Our Lives” in Washington and other cities, which as of now, is expected to be attended by over 500,000 participants.

In just a few weeks after the massacre at their own high school, this dynamic group of teenagers has rallied thousands of other teenagers and scores of adults, uniting others from around the country and around the world, in their mutual demand for reformed gun laws and safer schools.

In very striking ways, these “kids” have promoted more political activism and have ignited more political advocacy than many of the politicians who represent them. Without a doubt, this seems like another clear example of Margaret Mead’s famous quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that even has.”

How do we understand this? To be sure, words like “mobilizing,” “confronting,” “inspiring” and “organizing” seem to indicate that these kids have developed tremendous executive functioning abilities. Could this movement reflect a massive, collective “limbic system reaction” of these united adolescents … such that when they are emotionally charged and motivated enough, they are more capable of “executing” in these powerful ways? We have to ask: Why are these kids so “executively competent” when neuroscience suggests that they haven’t actually developed these skills? What can we adults learn from these kids? In a recent Slate article, Dahlia Lithwick details several aspects of these students’ educational experiences to date that seem to have prepared them for this very purpose. I will be thinking more about these compelling observations and sharing my thoughts in future blog posts. I invite your thoughts and opinions about why you think this small group of adolescents from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is demonstrating such extraordinary executive functioning competence? Please share your thoughts in comments below.

Psychological Overuse Injuries: Expecting Adolescents to Think and Act Like Adults Before Their Brains Have Developed the Skills

Psychological Overuse Injuries: Expecting Adolescents to Think and Act Like Adults Before Their Brains Have Developed the Skills

This is the first of two posts devoted to executive skills in adolescents. In this first post, I focus on the role of executive functions and associated brain development – particularly as these functions/skills pertain to early adolescents enrolled in highly competitive schools – and the dangerous assumptions many educators and parents make about adolescents’ actual executive capacities in these ultra-competitive environments.

In my TEDx Talk, “Are We Overwhelming Our Students??”, I detailed ways in which high school students are over-scheduled, over-pressured, and over-worked. One of the pressures I highlighted was what I consider a “psychological overuse injury” that adults unintentionally inflict on adolescents. Or, as a senior administrator at a prominent independent school articulated this unrealistic and all-too-common expectation, “We expect our students to think like adults and to act like adults before they have actually developed those skill sets.”

In this blog post, I want to explore what ‘adultness’ we are asking of adolescents.

In my experience as an educator and psychologist, the most common adult-like functioning that we’re asking of most adolescents is based on the faulty assumption that their executive function capacities have fully developed. Brain science tells us otherwise.

In my book, At What Cost? Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools, I detail five recent neurobiological discoveries that provide clear and indisputable information about normal developmental variation in children’s and adolescents’ brains.

Most Teens’ Brains Haven’t Developed Executive Function Abilities

One of the most important discoveries for educators and parents to understand and respect is that the human cortex develops from back to front, meaning that skills and abilities found in the frontal cortex – like executive function – develop later in life.

This discovery was first observed in a series of postmortem analyses carried out by pediatric neurologist, Dr. Peter Huttenlocher at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine the 1970s and 1980s. From his research, Dr. Huttenlocher “demonstrated that the frontal cortex is the latest brain region to develop in the human brain. [He] collected numerous postmortem brains from children, adolescents and adults, and found that the frontal cortex was remarkably different in the brains of pre-pubescent children and post-pubescent adolescents.”

Subsequently, psychiatrist Dr. Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health, using time lapsed photography of MRI scans of the brains of 52 developing children, produced a short video that showed the “ebb and flow of gray matter from ages five to twenty years.”

Remarkably, these MRI scans demonstrated and reinforced what Dr. Huttenlocher had observed many years earlier in his postmortem analyses. Giedd’s research more definitively claimed that brain regions most responsible for “more advanced functions — integrating information from the senses, reasoning, and other ‘executive’ functions (prefrontal cortex) — mature last.”

Giedd’s subsequent research established definitively that the prefrontal cortex — the region of the brain most involved with the development of executive skills — doesn’t fully develop until the late 20s or early 30s.

Isn’t it ironic that those executive skills we think all early adolescent students need first to be successful in school are the very ones that develop last?! We might – and should – ask ourselves: why aren’t all secondary schools teaching and/or coaching these essential skills to all their students?

Unrealistic Expectations and Pressures Can Have Dangerous Impact on Teens

You may be asking, “Why is teaching executive functions to early adolescents so important?” The answer lies in the neurobiological reality that when adolescents are expected to function as if they had developed these skills, then these students are being set up for failure. As a result, many of these teenagers experience crippling anxiety and depression, which often manifest in dangerous emotional conditions: substance abuse, eating disorders, sleep deprivation, cutting and other forms of self-injury, and too often, suicide.

As my friend and colleague, Professor Robert Kegan, has described, since adolescents develop physically in ways that resemble grown adults, and since adolescents also begin to speak and move with the sophistication we associate more with adults than with children, it is all too common for adults to be misled by adolescents’ adult-like appearance and composure, and to then treat those adolescents as if they were adults.

However, Kegan warns in The Evolving Self, “If adults mistake [adolescents’] physiology and/or [their] verbal ability for [their] psychological age, and then expect those adolescents to function as if they’re actually young adults, then it’s the adults who create a situation which is dangerous for both themselves and for the developmentally delayed teenager.” As Kegan asserts, “The cost to a person of being unseen, of being seen as the person-one-might-become rather than the person-one-is, is a bewildering experience of being unfairly demanded of.”

Competitive Schools Can Be Environments for Psychological Overuse Injuries

Increasingly, in highly competitive schools, too many students are “being unseen” for who they actually are, and instead, are being seen as “persons-they-might-become.” Indeed, adolescents being “expected to think [and] act like adults before they have actually developed those skill sets” creates that “bewildering experience of being unfairly demanded of.” This is when students feel helpless, become anxious and depressed, and too frequently, suffer serious mental health crises.

To reinforce this psychological “set up” from a physical and medical perspective, consider the frequency with which highly competitive young athletes experience injuries to their bones’ growth plates because of too much training and not enough rest. The American Academy of Pediatrics has found that up to half of injuries seen in pediatric sports medicine are related to overuse.

Pediatric orthopedic surgeon Dr. Elizabeth Szalay explains“As adults, we can work ourselves to a higher level of performance – add miles or add pounds lifted. But in children, there is a finite point, which can’t be exceeded without damaging the growth plate, and there’s no way to get around that… Kids’ growing bones simply can’t endure the stress that adult bones can. This is when it becomes important for parents to keep their perspective”

Let’s Talk About the Impact of Psychological Overuse Injuries

What does this understanding of physical overuse injuries mean for how we think about adolescent mental and emotional health?

Just as the pediatric muscular skeletal system can’t train in the same way as an adult body, a child’s or adolescent’s neurological system can’t think and act in the same way as adult’s.

In all of my work, I promote what I have termed “developmental empathy,” an approach to teaching, coaching, advising, and parenting children and adolescents in ways that are more carefully aligned with their developmental integrity, in ways that are utterly respectful of children’s and adolescents’ still-developing brains.

From this perspective of developmental empathy, it is simply irresponsible – if not negligent – for educators and parents to do anything else but to commit to educating and parenting children and adolescents accordingly.

In my next post, I’ll explore these themes further and share insights from my recent interview with Michael Delman, Founder, and CEO of Beyond BookSmart, a company that teaches and provides coaching in executive function skills to children, adolescents, and even to young-adult college students.