School stress is not inevitable

Whenever I watch a movie, if something surprising happens I literally jump out of my seat. Heavy-handed foreshadowing has no effect on my startle response. Telling myself it’s just a movie or any other form of head talk doesn’t help. I jolt, I jerk, and sometimes I involuntarily shriek.

Friends and family think it’s cute, but the source is anything but. My increased startle response is a neurobiological consequence of stresses suffered during childhood. This came home to me a few years ago, when I learned about the CDC-sponsored ACE Study.

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These days, I hear more and more news reports featuring doctors, psychologists, researchers and others sounding the alarm. Childhood stress and trauma have far reaching consequences. I’m glad awareness is growing, but I also lament that it’s not nearly enough. Based on the findings of the ACE study, we’re talking about a major public health crisis.

What’s missing from many of these discussions is school. If research shows that stress is literally toxic to the human body, and for so many kids school creates stress, why aren’t we talking about that? I’m not equating school with child abuse (although in some school situations that equation unfortunately applies). I am saying that as long as we’re segregating our children into buildings every day, dictating their every move, evaluating their intelligence and abilities based on their performance of tasks we assign, and throwing them into spaces where they too often face name calling, humiliation, sexual harassment and sometimes sexual or physical assault, we ought to also think about the consequences.

School has become such an integral part of our society that it’s hard to tease out what its effects might be, although for some families, they’re all too clear and painful. Children who don’t mesh with the essentially one size fits all approach of school suffer. They might get headaches or stomachaches, become irritable or sad, have trouble sleeping, develop physical tics, or zone out in front of the computer or television as a way to release tension. In short, they will exhibit what are pretty standard signs of stress, depression, or anxiety. Supportive parents and teachers can help kids develop tools to deal with stress, and that’s good, but wouldn’t it be better to create an environment that didn’t cause so much stress in the first place?

Some say kids need to face adversity to develop toughness. I think it’s just the opposite. Strength comes when children feel safe and secure. In the absence of stressors, kids are more free to explore, learn, and develop. Of course, human beings are resilient creatures and even those of us with residual effects from childhood adversity can lead joyful, fulfilling lives. That doesn’t mean the stressors were good, and it doesn’t take away their long term physical and emotional consequences.

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High school in particular has become more and more intense, depriving adolescents of much-needed sleep, placing pressures on them to excel, and forcing them to deal with the ravages of peer pressure. Some studies have made the disturbing finding that teen suicide rates go down in summer and go back up when the school year resumes.  In her 2015 essay Abolish High School, the brilliant Rebecca Solnit points out the obvious: “Eight percent of high school students have attempted to kill themselves, and 16 percent have considered trying. That’s a lot of people crying out for something to change.”

Solnit throws out ideas for that change, but mostly she wants us to question whether high school is necessary. She says, “Talk of abolishing high school is just my way of wondering whether so many teenagers have to suffer so much. How much of that suffering is built into a system that is, however ubiquitous, not inevitable?”

It’s not inevitable, and one way to avoid it is to simply opt out. Homeschooling kids and teens can escape many of the stresses connected with going to school, and I’m ever grateful I was able to offer that to my kids. Over the years I’ve met countless children who were suffering terribly in school, and whose parents were able to relieve that suffering by pulling them out. The immensity of relief, gratitude, and joy that comes when kids begin to relax, feel comfortable again in their own skin, enjoy life, and blossom is a wonderful thing.

Childhood adversity exacts a heavy toll on individuals and society. Maybe we need a study like the ACE study to assess the long term emotional and physical effects of school stressors to determine whether they constitute a public health crisis, but in the meantime we should do what we can, when and where we can, to help young people. For me, that means continuing to point out that school is not inevitable, and providing support to help people who choose to exit the system and homeschool.


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