A Fresh Start: School Without Trauma

A new school year is about to begin. First, we need to get over the lingering regret about what we didn’t accomplish — the closets that remain unkempt, the books we meant to read, the friends we were certain we’d see more of and the excursions with our kids that we never got around to taking. It’s water under the bridge as they say. And besides, there’s always next year. But now we need to focus on the reality of our kids starting a new year, maybe a new school, and how we’d like to tweak this year to make it better than last year.

I used to think that there was something profoundly optimistic about the start of a new school year. The untouched white pages in notebooks, the laser sharp pencils, the clean sense of organization that comes with a backpack devoid of the assorted detritus of school children. Backpacks free from lint, wrappers, single socks and the unsettling waft of unwashed gym clothes and rotting bananas. We promise ourselves to be better parents. We hope that our children will be better students. A new year always brings the possibility of a new beginning, of a clean slate.

There is excitement and anxiety in equal measure for our children (and ourselves) as they set out, once again, to meet the challenges of the classroom, the lunchroom, the playground and the playing field. Great dramas play out in these arenas. Some children meet these challenges with confidence, others with fierce determination, and others with great trepidation. Understand that every child is different and that some kids face back to school with equilibrium, others with terror. Don’t underestimate the serious endeavor that school is, both socially and academically, for children. Don’t make it more difficult. There have been rivers of ink written on the dangers of overparenting, of too much pressure, of not enough sleep. If you haven’t already done so, read one of the many excellent books out there on sane parenting — Raising an Adult, Overloaded and Underprepared, The Blessing of a B Minus, Building Resilience in Children and Teens, Teach Your Children Well, or Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be — to name but a few.

Unfortunately, my optimism about the start of school has waned year by year for the past decade or so. I don’t even have to look at the calendar to know school is around the corner. My answering machine, filled with messages from anxious parents, reliably tells me the time of year.

As a psychologist for more years than I care to count, I can say with certainty and authority, that no parent has ever come to my office in the hopes of making their child miserable or sick. It goes without saying that parents who find themselves sitting opposite me are desperate to find ways to help their troubled children. Yes, they are hoping for some expertise, sometimes a “magic bullet” that will put their kid right. But mostly, they are looking for solutions that are common sense, research based and easily implemented. The first two items are easy. I’m practical by nature and by experience, and both my doctoral training and affiliation with Challenge Success ensures that my suggestions are generally research-based.

For example, telling a mother that her sleep deprived sixteen-year-old daughter needs more sleep easily fits the first two criteria. It’s the implementation that causes problems. No parent or student doubts the wisdom of a good night’s sleep. The question becomes whether or not it can be implemented given the competing demands of factors like AP classes, college applications, grades and SAT scores. Similarly, the four-year-old boy who is exhibiting symptoms of an anxiety disorder because of a schedule that includes multiple extra-curricular activities —piano, soccer, mandarin — is likely to be helped by a less demanding schedule, one that is more in line with what we know fosters healthy child development. Again, one hardly needs a PhD to intuit that young kids need more play time than structured time and the American Academy of Pediatrics is more than clear on this point. Yet the implementation strikes many parents as difficult. Won’t their children be disadvantaged when it comes to that coveted preschool or grade school slot?

In both of these unfortunately common scenarios there is a dangerous misconception about child development. The exhausted high schooler can sleep once her college acceptance comes in. The preschooler can play once he’s been admitted to the school that his parents covet. Development doesn’t work this way. Think of furthering your child’s development like building a house. Everything depends on a strong foundation. You can’t build a house capable of withstanding unforeseen forces of nature by skimping on the foundation and focusing on the decoration, “Oh, we’ll get to that later. Let’s hang curtains first.” Likewise, you can’t help your child craft a strong sense of self by skipping foundational elements like self-control, integrity, self-care, sleep and nutrition. Your child will undoubtedly face difficulty, perhaps trauma, but most certainly challenge over the course of his or her life. Decoration is nice. Foundation is essential. A sleep deprived child can’t learn well, has impaired decision-making ability, and is more likely to be depressed than a child who is getting adequate sleep. Can these deficits be made up after a night or two? Probably. After a high school career of sleep deprivation? Unlikely. Can a child learn the astounding amount of social and self data that comes with play somewhere down the line? Again, unlikely. The youngster who hasn’t learned the intricacies of social adjustment when young is unlikely to find willing playmates when he or she is older.

It is critical that we get our priorities straight and understand that we are all too often damaging our children in ways that are both substantial and often invisible until later. Nothing matters as much as raising a kind, well-adjusted, reflective kid. If you don’t know this in your heart, trust me on it. No amount of external accomplishment compares to knowing that you are sending a good, capable child out into the world when the time is right. Your child will thank you. And you will sleep better.

A few tips:

  • If you want a healthy child, model a healthy lifestyle. Kids pay far more attention to what you do than to what you say. Take care of yourself physically and emotionally. Try not to be frantic. Shut off your own electronic devices.
  • Development is uneven and there are forward times and backwards times. Don’t panic easily. A temporary drop in grades doesn’t signal the end of the world (unless you think it’s tied to depression, and that’s still not the end of the world. Get help.). Kids have an unfathomable amount of work to do in addition to schoolwork. They need to explore the world, develop interests, make friends, craft an identity, and adjust to a body that changes from day to day, to name just a few. Cut them some slack. Don’t underestimate the importance of non-academic achievements.
  • Most studies point to non-academic factors as being more important to success than things like grades. This is not to downplay grades. It is just to say that your child’s capacity for empathy, ability to collaborate, and integrity are just as likely to make him successful as attendance at any particular school. Socio-emotional skills and emotional intelligence are every bit as important as IQ. Value those skills. My favorite question comes from a mom worried about her daughter, “She seems to like talking to her friends too much. They all come to her when they have problems to solve. What can she possibly do with that?” Oh, I don’t know. 🙂

Madeline Levine, PhDMadeline Levine, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, consultant, and educator. Her New York Times best-selling book, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems. Her follow-up best-selling book, Teach Your Children Well, focuses on expanding our current narrow and shortsighted view of success and providing concrete strategies for parents. Her two previous books, Viewing Violence and See No Evil, both received critical acclaim. Dr. Levine began her career as an elementary and junior high school teacher in the South Bronx of New York before moving to California and earning her degrees in psychology. She has taught Child Development classes to graduate students at the University of California Medical Center / San Francisco. Dr. Levine lectures extensively to parent, school and business audiences both nationally and internationally.

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