The Hurried, Stressed Out Child: Are Educators Part of the Problem?

By Jim Grant

Children today are living in a fast-paced, performance-driven culture and, as a result, are experiencing unprecedented stress and pressure. They are over-scheduled with activities, exposed to adult themes, sitting in front of screens too long, and deprived of play time. And there is growing concern this stress is taking a serious toll on their health and well-being.

There’s not any one factor contributing to the “hurried child” syndrome. Certainly, society and families are changing in ways that are not healthy for children. But schools play a role, as well.

In this article, we’ll examine some of the most common root causes of school-induced childhood stress and what teachers can do to be part of the solution.

How schools stress children

The rigid, lock-step American school structure places undue stress on students. We’ve adopted a time-bound mentality that forces us into believing that schools can educate all students all of the time in a school year of 180 six-hour days. But nothing could be further from the truth.

By squeezing learning into the time allotted, we’re asking the impossible of students. All students cannot learn the same in the same period. We are treating children of poverty, English Language Learners, and other students unequally when we don’t give them the time they need to learn. And we shouldn’t be surprised when their achievement falls short.

Using age as the sole criteria for determining when a child is ready to enter school and be promoted to the next grade is also damaging. It’s not a scientific or research-based approach. A baby is born when it’s ready, and crawls, walks, and talks when it’s ready. But a child is deemed “ready for school” when it’s five. Observe any kindergarten or first grade classroom and it will be clear some children simply are not ready for that environment.

Requiring too much curriculum be covered can also stress out children. In our standards-based world, escalating the curriculum is considered the pathway to rigor. This can make some developmentally young children feel and appear to look “learning disabled.” The truth is, some standards may be too ambitious for some students. We need curriculum and instructional practices that are age-, grade-, and individually appropriate for each child.

Lastly, there is the issue of large class size—a growing problem as schools deal with increasing student populations and fewer resources. Class size matters in many tangible ways. Smaller classes benefit all students, especially minority students. In small classes, there are fewer grade level retentions and less need for remediation and special education. Behavior improves and achievement increases. Everyone benefits.

What educators can do

Wygotsky views interaction with peers as an effective way of developing skills and strategies. In Singapore, students primarily work in groups, not as individuals. These are the same students who have repeatedly ranked at or near the top on international math exams since the mid-1990s. Instead of a teacher showing students how to solve a math problem, students work together to solve it on their own. In groups, students pool knowledge and experiences. They share diverse perspectives. They challenge assumptions, give and receive feedback, and develop their own voices. As they discuss, debate, compare, and think, they learn.

Teach less, learn more

This is another Singapore concept andClearly, educators are not in a position to change every school policy, practice, or program that stresses young children. They can, however, determine which are within their control. Then they can take action to lessen the impact of the negative effect of the situation or improve the unintended consequences. The first step is simply being aware of the many pressures being placed on children.

In the final analysis, we must recognize and value childhood as an important stage of life that kids are entitled to—and shouldn’t be hurried through. at the heart of anchor tasks. It doesn’t mean teachers are supposed to do less. Rather, they are encouraged to teach better—to encourage active and engaged learning, rely less on drill and practice, guide and facilitate rather than tell and talk, and nurture students’ curiosity and passion for learning. This may be difficult for teachers who “teach to the test” and feel compelled to jump in with the “right” answer. But something magical starts to happen when teachers get out of the way and stop telling students exactly what to do and how to do it. Students think, problem-solve, question—and learn more.

For a deeper look at schools, families, society, and other factors contributing to the “hurried child” syndrome, check out SDE’s webinar Understanding the Plight of the Harried, Hurried Child (Grades PreK–3) by educator and author Jim Grant.

About Staff Development for Educators (SDE)

SDE is America’s leading provider of professional development for PreK through Grades 12 educators. We believe educators have the most important job in the world. That’s why we’re dedicated to empowering educators with sustained training that is not only research-based, innovative and rigorous, but also practical motivating, and fun! For more information on Singapore Math or SDE’s award-winning professional development, call 1-877-388-2054 or visit Together, let’s create extraordinary classrooms!

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