ST. LOUIS -- It's always been hard to be a teenager. But these days teens - even preteens - are under enormous pressure to succeed. They're overscheduled, overstressed and burnt out - before they even apply to college.
According to Stuart Slavin, M.D., M.Ed, associate dean for curriculum at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, the issue has reached epidemic proportions. In a culture where students face constant pressure to excel, he says it's no wonder that rates of depression, stress, insomnia - even teen suicide - are on the rise.
|Stuart Slavin, M.D., M.Ed.|
"I originally got interested in this watching my two children go through the education system. What started for me as an opinion that this just doesn't make sense, developed into something that is really evidence-based. I'm a pediatrician and have a master's degree in education. I dove into the literature and what I found are profoundly disturbing statistics on what this culture is doing to teenagers," Slavin said.
"It's reasonable to have a focus on performance, but we need to be aware of the costs that may occur when there's an excessive, almost exclusive, focus on performance."
This pressure to excel is the focus of a new documentary, Race to Nowhere. The documentary follows the stories of students, parents and educators around the country, and sheds light on the consequences of this culture including cheating, stress-related illness and depression. It challenges the assumptions of how best to prepare and educate teens.
On Wednesday, more than 300 local educators, parents and students attended a screening of the documentary, co-sponsored by Saint Louis University School of Medicine and department of educational studies. According to Slavin, who has been working to draw attention to this problem, the documentary is helping to start an important conversation about the consequences of focusing too much on performance and what needs to be done to change course in the educational system.
Understanding the Problem
Slavin says parents, educators and even students themselves have contributed to this complex problem.
The film highlights the growing competition in high schools, where students max out their schedules with rigorous Advanced Placements courses and extracurricular activities to try to stand out in the college admissions process. In the process, sleep, hobbies and family often take the back burner. Many students report feeling overwhelmed and depressed.
Parents also contribute to the problem. Slavin says while most parents want what's best for their children, too many focus solely on performance.
"They're focusing on academic success and not thinking more broadly. If you ask parents, they'll tell you they want children who have good mental health, who have good character - who are not cheating, who are curious and creative. But because they're so focused on performance, they lose sight of the bigger picture. As parents, our goal should be to raise healthy, happy and successful children," Slavin said.
Simultaneously, schools and educators are under intense pressure to improve standardized test scores. Teachers assign hours of homework in an attempt to cover more material and better prepare their students. Slavin believes eliminating homework is not the answer. However, he says there's evidence that too much homework doesn't improve academic performance, and can actually harm it. He advocates for reducing homework to more manageable levels.
"I think everybody needs to take this issue seriously. That's what I love about this film. It provokes conversation. We shouldn't bury our heads in the sand and think these things are not going on. We need to have an honest conversation about what's going on and what we can do to change it - whether that's decreasing homework, limiting AP courses students can take, or teaching students resiliency skills. Something has to change," Slavin said.
Join the Conversation
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Learn more about Race to Nowhere.