Are we fostering a generation of anxious learners?

    What is up with kids today?

    I recently attended back-to-back
conferences on learning and the brain, the first on “Attention and
Engagement in Learning” in Baltimore (see my story for more), the second the three-day Learning & the Brain conference in Washington, DC, also focused on the topic of attention
and motivation in education (look for the story, by writer Aalok Mehta,
later this week).

    At each conference, I heard from both the speakers and from teachers about an apparent tsunami of stress among students.

the last 10 years of my 40 years of practice, I have been so bowled
over by the amount of anxiety I'm seeing in children," said Martha Bridge Denckla,
a clinician and researcher at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and a
member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, during the Baltimore
conference. "We're bathing our schoolchildren in an anxious
environment," she said. She argued for stopping the push to teach
everyone algebra in eighth grade, and suggested we not teach
handwriting until a child actually has the motor skills to do
handwriting. She suggested that inattention (the topic of the
conference) might be secondary or a response to this "anomalous
emotional environment."

    Her remarks and those of others at
the Learning & the Brain drew a lot of response from attendees. The
teacher in my break-out group during the Baltimore session said kids,
without prompting, tell her how they worry all year long about the
mandatory end-of-year state exams.

    “Anxiety is a tremendous
stimulator of ADHD,” Denckla continued during her lecture at the
conference in DC. Children may show symptoms of the disorder, such as
failing to sit still or focus on a task, when their true trouble is
that their minds are diverted by excess worry, often caused by adults
asking them to perform activities they are not cognitively ready for,
she suggested. “We’re making pseudo-diagnoses of everyone because we’re
asking too much of them at an early age.”

    The next day, William Stixrud,
a clinical neuropsychologist who also sees children in his practice,
seconded Denckla’s observations. “Kids seem to be increasingly less
ready than years ago, and yet we’re asking them to do so much more.
From the developmental point of view, this is absurd.”

everything is easier to learn at a later age” during childhood, he
said. For example, for most children, learning to read at seven years
old is easier and makes better readers than learning at five. “You pay
a price if you rush,” including the chance that a child’s frustrations
at not meeting expectations lead to acting out.

    “The level of
stress in kids, Stixrud said, “is a similar crisis to global warming.”
He recommends movement and meditation to offset daily anxiety and
chronic sleep loss (he said children today sleep an hour less each
night than children in the 1970s did). “If we take care of the nervous
system, if we take care of development, we get better results.”

    Along with Stixrud and Denckla, other speakers, including Judy Willis,
a neurologist turned middle-school teacher, reinforced the idea that
children need to feel safe before they can be completely ready to
learn. “Safety first, then stimulate their curiosity,” she advised
during a teacher-skills lecture.

    I don’t remember feeling
stressed-out very often during my early grades, at least about school,
and I am the sort who does worry about things. I took standardized
tests in third, seventh, and eighth grades, and didn’t fret about them
for a moment; I don’t remember my teachers worrying about them.

idea that young children today do fret about such things, and that we
may be pushing them beyond what their bodies can perform worries me.
Nobody wants a generation of stressed-out adults with cramped-hand
handwriting and trouble paying attention. And if, as Stixrud suggests,
we don’t get good results from all this pushing, shouldn’t we stop?

    –Nicky Penttila

2 responses

  1. I agree with the overall sentiment of this post. But some things are easier to learn at young ages, such as language. Perhaps we could re-focus educational activities around what children are most capable of learning during different stages of cognitive development.

  2. Great point, Jill. I think my classmates and I would have benefited more from extra French lessons in third grade (I think we had a lesson once a week for half the year, then nothing ever again). It could have replaced those painful cursive handwriting lessons!

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