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Schools should hand out diplomas, not disorders

By: Alan Shusterman

The school year is here. This fall, nearly 55 million kids report to elementary or secondary school, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
But the journey from kindergarten to commencement is inflicting collateral damage on kids. More than eight in ten students report experiencing moderate to extreme stress. Teen suicide rates are three times what they were 50 years ago.
Schools must cultivate not just their students’ intellect but their physical and mental well-being. They can do so by taking a page from the medical profession — and first “do no harm.” Then they must devote more energy to teaching kids the social and emotional skills they need to become healthy, successful adults.
Students’ mental health takes a hit the moment they wake up. Most secondary schools start at 8 a.m. or earlier. Yet studies have shown that’s too early for adolescent brains and bodies.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, teens on average need nine hours of sleep nightly. Only 59 percent of middle school students and 87 percent of high school students are getting enough sleep.
Sleep-deprived kids exhibit diminished attention spans and concentration — and have higher rates of depression, suicidal ideation, and obesity.
The pediatricians propose a radical solution to this problem — start school later.
Even an extra half-hour would do a world of good. The Academy of Pediatrics study sampled 9,000 students from schools that started at 8:30 a.m. or later. It found that late starts improved students’ standardized test scores and reduced car accidents involving students by as much as 70 percent.
Schools can also reduce harm by assigning less homework. Seriously.
A recent Stanford study found that high school students had, on average, more than three hours of homework a night.
Yet research shows that excessive amounts of homework have little or limited learning value.
This is not surprising. After all, students generally must complete their homework in distracting locations — their homes — away from the people best able to answer their questions, their teachers. And they must do so after expending all their energy to get through the long school day.
Homework has been linked to stress and academic disengagement among both young children and teens. In many households, it’s the major cause of kids’ stress — and stress between kids and parents.
All of this exacerbates teenage anxiety and depression, both of which are reaching epidemic levels.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 8 percent of teens have an anxiety disorder. Nine percent succumb to a major depressive episode each year.
In sum, the American educational status quo is taking in ever-more students — but breaking their psyches in the process.
There are better, less destructive ways to educate kids.
Paramount among them is social-emotional learning. This approach blends traditional academic curricula with integrated methods for understanding and honing self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, relationship-building, and effective decision-making.
According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Leaning, students who follow a social-emotional learning track display a greater desire and capacity to learn — and reduced levels of anxiety and stress — than those who don’t. They also score better on academic achievement tests.
Our nation’s schools must do more than just turn out a new crop of graduates each year. They must prepare children to lead happy, productive, healthy lives long after they’ve moved on.
Alan Shusterman is the Founder and Head of School for Tomorrow (