From standardized tests and heavy homework loads to after-school sports and tutors, elementary-aged children are taking on more responsibilities than ever before. Despite the popular notion that kids today are coddled, many experts believe they are actually under more stress than previous generations.
In a 2011 article in the American Journal of Play, researcher Peter Gray found that kids have to spend much more time on school- and adult-directed activities than their parents or grandparents did. And today’s kids face higher expectations. A 2016 study from the US Department of Education found that teachers in 2010 were 33 percent more likely to expect kindergartners to enter school knowing the alphabet and how to hold a pencil than they were in 1998. And, in 2010, 80 percent expected kindergartners to learn to read by the end of the year compared with 31 percent in 1998.
School stress Rachael Martin says that her son Alexander’s school stress started in kindergarten. “I think it started with some expectations that his teacher had,” says Martin. “She treated the kindergartners like they were little adults.”
Alexander was diagnosed with ADHD around the time he started kindergarten. He’s frequently distracted by things he sees around him and feels anxious when he has to sit still for too long. But even with his diagnosis, his kindergarten teacher expected him to be able to concentrate on one task at a time, plan the appropriate amount of time necessary to complete an assignment and organize his work. Martin says that just wasn’t possible for Alexander, and his inability to meet his teacher’s expectations caused him a great deal of stress. By the summer, he was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
“I think that over the last 20 years we’ve had a ratcheting up of what we want to call ‘rigor,’” says Ari Yares, a psychologist, parent coach and former principal. “For example, we’ve introduced algebraic instruction earlier. I don’t think I saw anything related to ‘finding for X’ until fourth grade, whereas today I see that in first-grade homework.”
The responsibilities continue once the kids get home from school. A 2015 study in the American Journal of Family Therapy found that elementary-aged children are receiving three times as much homework as the amount recommended by education experts. And as the homework load increases, so do stress levels for parents and students.
All of this stress is having a profound effect on kids’ physical and mental health. In Gray’s research, he found that children’s anxiety and depression scores on various psychological assessment scales have increased dramatically in the past 50 years. These scales ask participants to respond to statements such as “I often worry that something bad will happen,” or “Most of the time I feel pleasant.” Approximately five to eight times as many young people today have scores that are high enough to warrant a diagnosis when compared to their counterparts of five decades ago.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that more time spent on schoolwork and less time spent on play is causing the increase in mental health problems, but Gray says that there is strong evidence that the two are related.
Other experts agree. “When I talk with parents about anxiety, I explain there are two components: biological and environmental,” says Kelsey Torgerson, a child anxiety expert at Compassionate Counseling St. Louis. “The outside stressors of school expectations, homework and tests significantly impact any anxiety that is already there on a neurological level.”
Alexander is now in third grade, and his anxiety has grown. It gets particularly bad when he has to take a standardized test. Martin says that her son’s school makes it clear that these tests have high stakes. “They shut down the hallways when they have a test going on.” But when Alexander knows he can’t get up and move around, he feels the pressures of performing. He loses sleep the night before. Once the test starts, he often shuts down. He will get so stressed out that he squeezes his pencil until his knuckles turn white, or presses down hard enough to tear through the paper. “His teacher has described it to me,” says Martin. “He’ll slump in his chair, he gets this faraway look, like ‘I’m not here, I don’t want to be here’ and he just stops.”
Overscheduling kids Not all stress is bad for kids. According to Donna M. Volpitta, founder of The Center for Resilient Leadership and co-author of The Resilience Formula, stress can push us to learn new skills. We want our children to have the capacity to handle stressful situations because it is necessary for success—not only in school, but in careers, relationships, and nearly everything else. Stress only becomes a problem when it is too frequent, too heavy, or when a person lacks resiliency. For elementary-aged children, Volpitta says this can sometimes happen when they’re overscheduled.
Until recently, Sherita Williams’ oldest daughter, Serayah enjoyed school and her after-school activities, like dance, basketball and karate. But suddenly, when she skipped from second to third grade, her homework load shot up.
Even though the National Education Association recommends about 30 minutes of homework per night for third graders, Serayah routinely brings home at least an hour of work.
Because their evenings became so rushed, Williams decided to cut dance back from three days a week to one day a week. Now Serayah has Monday and Friday to devote to homework, but each Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday is a hectic melee of rushing home, fighting through homework, and rushing back out to an activity. This schedule is leaving Serayah and her mom very stressed out.
“When Serayah comes home, she’s tired from being in a classroom all day,” says Williams. “She just wants to mentally check out. Then I tell her it’s time for homework and she just starts screaming.”
Homework almost always comes with a temper tantrum. Serayah also complains of stomach aches and other physical ailments that only seem to crop up at homework time. And even though her parents have tried to communicate that they are not concerned with her grades, Serayah hides school papers from them if she earns anything less than an A.
According to Volpitta, it’s not just the overscheduling itself that leads to stress but the fact that kids are missing out on opportunities that would teach them how to cope. She explains that when we are born, our brains are like a jungle. Each new experience that we have clears pathways through that jungle, etching that new skill or memory into the landscape of the brain. It is during unstructured time that we develop higher-level thinking skills, or what psychologists call “executive functions.”
“Our executive functions are things like planning ahead, impulse control, organization, communication, working together with people,” says Volpitta. “Kids develop those skills through problem solving. That doesn’t happen nearly as readily in a piano lesson as it does on the playground.” The brain needs unstructured time to develop these pathways, which help to develop a healthy brain.
Without these critical executive functioning skills, kids are poorly equipped to deal with stress. Research has shown that a brain with good executive control can more easily focus on one thing at a time and ignore potentially threatening, extraneous information. But a person with anxiety will fixate on the threatening information, causing stress, worry, and attention problems.
The problem is, kids are getting less of that unstructured play time they need to develop these skills that protect them against anxiety. A 2007 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that children have less free play time than in generations past. For example, in 1989, 96 percent of schools had at least one recess period, but a decade later, only 70 percent of schools could say the same. Since then, many school districts have cut back recess time even more in order to increase instruction time in reading and math.
Volpitta also explained that children need opportunities to try, fail and try again in order to build resilience to stress and worry. This is best accomplished through free play rather than adult-directed activities, because it gives children the opportunity to develop solutions on their own. Take, for example, a group of children trying to create a new game. They may disagree on the rules or try strategies that fail. But once the game finally comes together and they’re able to play, the children get a huge burst of dopamine, the feel-good neurochemical, and serotonin, the confidence hormone. The next time they encounter a difficult situation, their brains will remember how good it felt to persevere, so they will be less likely to give in to nagging worries.
What parents can do Elaine Taylor-Klaus, founder of ImpactADHD and Sanity School for Parents, says parents need to advocate for down time to set kids up for success. Here are steps you can take to help your children succeed without causing undue stress.