Help Your Students Slow Down, Reach Higher

Most schools and education systems are not serving our students well.

But educators and parents fear deviating from the system they know. It’s time for educators and parents to know and embrace a new approach to teaching and learning. One that puts the health and the success of students first.

The system won’t change all at once. So, change your classroom; change your parenting, and change your school. Here’s how:

  1. Know and share the ways that achievement pressures are harming your students;
  2. Understand and educate others about the ways the unrealistic expectations we place on our kids actually undermine our greatest hopes and aspirations for them, and
  3. Trust and advocate for what your gut feelings and your childhood memories tell you about what young, developing pre-adult minds and bodies really need.

Playtime, Downtime, Family Time

There’s a simple framework you can use to share with other teachers, parents and school administrators to make change. According to Denise Pope et al. in Overloaded and Underprepared, just remember this. Children, no matter their age, need PDF: Playtime, Downtime and Family Time. They need other things too, but these are the three nutritional supplements that are lacking from their current diet of homework, sports, co-curricular activities and factory-inspired school day schedules.

Most of the willful malnourishment we subject our students and children to stems from misperceptions about what it takes to be admitted to the “right” colleges. This creates pressure on parents and students that causes them to adopt many unhealthy behaviors. And these unhealthy behaviors begin as early as planning obsessively about preschool selection and curriculum.

As parents and educators, we have a responsibility to understand and reform the system that is harming the next generation. As their guides, we may have forgotten what students need, but it doesn’t take reflective students very long to identify what was most important for their development.

Kids Want It, Need It

In an August 17, 2018 post in Forbes, the director of college counseling and outreach at the Derryfield School in New Hampshire, Brennan Bernard, recorded responses he received from college-bound seniors when asked what messages they would send to their younger selves. Here is a selection of their responses:

“Don’t be consumed by work.”

“Unplug more often than not.”

“Spend time with your family, you will miss them very soon.”

“Go outside.”

“Hug more.”

“Live in the present.”

“Find the balance.”

“Keep working on yourself.”

“Play a lot and don’t stop being childish.”

“Talk to people about your problems.”

“Do what you love.”

“Find music for every occasion.” (Forbes 2018)

What Bernard finds in his work is that colleges, schools, parents and students conspire to undermine the pursuit of many of these words of true wisdom, and that cultivated lack of perspective can be devastating.

“Sadly for many adolescents, the competition, complexity, and anxiety surrounding selective college admission can be a toxin that taints an otherwise exciting time of transition. As high school ramps up and the treadmill spins faster and faster, teenagers soon lose sight of the lessons that their young lives have provided. Reflection is muted by reflex, as they respond to the presumed expectations and demands of applying to college. For many, the admission experience feels like a referendum on their accomplishments, strengths, and interests — a very public process that is layered with hope, fear and forced vulnerability.” (Forbes 2018)

In speaking with another secondary school educator, How to Raise an Adultauthor Julie Lythcott-Haims confirmed her suspicion that we as parents and educators, if given the choice, will trade off adolescent health and well-being for potential advantages.

“Do you think parents at your school would rather their kid be depressed at Yale or happy at University of Arizona?” The colleague quickly replied, “My guess is 75 percent of the parents would rather see their kids depressed at Yale. They figure that the kid can straighten the emotional stuff out in his/her 20’s, but no one can go back and get the Yale undergrad degree.”

As a former college and K-12 president and as a parent, I own my own culpability in just about every aspect of this system we have set up that creates expectations for our children that are, in many cases, unrealistic, unnatural — and worst of all — unnecessary.

Highly Ranked is Overrated

You see, the advantages of admission to a selective college are not what we think they are. Challenge Success recently released “A ‘Fit’ over College Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More than Selectivity.” Denise Pope and her colleagues dispel our long-held belief that we have to push our kids harder so that they can be admitted to the college that will give them the best shot at success:

“Job satisfaction, general well-being, learning, and income are all important outcomes of college. Research shows no relationship between selectivity and learning, job satisfaction, or general well-being.” (Challenge Success 2018, emphasis mine)

No matter which college is the best fit for our students, we, parents and secondary educators, often misunderstand what colleges are looking for.

On the other side of this equation, colleges need to be more explicit about what it really takes to succeed in their academic programs. They need to stop relying on objective standards as a convenient intermediary. See Universities and Prep Schools See AP® Differently, Need to See Learning the Same for a full discussion of this mutually harmful miscommunication.

Not one of us — parents or educators — is doing this out of cruelty. We do it out of love, but if we played it back in our minds as a silent film and just looked at our actions, devoid of motive, and watched the paces we put young rapidly developing bodies and brains through, we wouldn’t recognize ourselves.

So why do we persist? When did parents and educators start thinking this way and why?

A New Risk for our Nation

It seems it all happened, coincidently, the year I graduated from high school, 1983. Lythcott-Haims identifies a convergence of factors in that timeframe that turned parenting “from preparing our kids for life to protecting them from life.” (Lythcott-Haims, 2016)

The factor that seems to have most potently and directly influenced our thinking about education, according to Lythcott-Haims is the publication of A Nation at Risk, the report of a presidential commission on educational reform.

“Since then, federal policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have fomented an achievement culture that emphasizes rote memorization and teaching to the test against the backdrop of increased competition from students in Singapore, China, and South Korea, where such teaching practices are the norm. American kids and parents soon began struggling under the weight of more homework and began doing whatever it takes to survive school…” (Lythcott-Haims 2016)

Ready for Reform

Let’s call a timeout; reset and slow down Bernard’s “treadmill.” How do we do that? Well, it takes all of us who conspired to create the problem to work together to fix it. It starts with education of the whole school community and, I think, of college admission professionals as well.

Overloaded and Underprepared acknowledges the difficulty of getting an entire educational community on board. The authors offer a well-paced and well-designed process for bringing about many of the changes we’ve discussed in this series. But most of all, what they offer is a simple way of remembering and focusing on giving back what we’ve taken away from childhood: “PDF…Playtime, Downtime and Family Time.” Every student needs all three of these, in different ways at different ages, “every day.”(Pope et al. 2015)


Don’t skip this section if you are the parent or teacher of adolescents. Playtime is important throughout childhood development.

“For all ages, research suggests that play — especially when it is freely chosen, unstructured and kid-directed — is linked to a wide variety of positive outcomes including increased cognitive skills, physical health, self-regulation, language ability and social skills (Alliance for Childhood, 2010; Barker et al., 2014; Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001)” (Pope et al., 2015)

This research supports what most of us think is true, but even if our instincts tell us this is right, the schedules we construct for our children prevent this from happening. In Students Succeed with Smarter Schedules, Effective Homework, I take a closer look at the more than 24 hours of expectations we have for our kids every day. So, we’re going to have to reprioritize something to provide an adequate amount of playtime.

One place to start in the younger grades is to resist the moves to limit recess. In the older grades, encourage participation in extracurricular activities, especially those that provide free, unstructured, kid-directed activities that give them a chance to socialize with friends. A highly structured practice for a competitive club athletic team, by contrast, may not provide the elements necessary for mental and emotional health.

Overdoing highly structured extracurriculars, in fact, is part of the problem. Pope et al. found that students with more than 15-20 hours of extracurriculars during the week “had more emotional problems such as depression and anxiety, slept less, and experienced higher stress level than those doing fewer hours of extracurricular activities.” (Pope et al. 2015). Best advice from their research — balance structured extracurriculars with an equal amount of unstructured playtime with friends.


When I came home from school, I used to plop down onto the green shag carpet in front of the TV and watch Gilligan’s Island, Emergency and MASH back-to-back. I’ve had a hard time justifying those seemingly wasted hours throughout my life. But it turns out that research now suggests that is exactly what I needed. Pope et al. define downtime as “time that is not focused on structured play or academics; rather, it is time to reflect and do nothing much — literally.”

Today’s kids don’t have the benefit of green shag carpet, but they can spend time in nature or read a book. And, good news for your tweens and teens, some screen time can actually be good for them. Downtime is a good time to check in on social media or play a video game before getting started on homework.

Whether at home or during the school day, think about how to make time for students to just doing nothing. By letting them do nothing, you’re doing something to promote their health and long-term success.

The biggest component of Downtime is sleep. I discussed the relationship between lack of sleep and student stress in Stressed Students Need SPACE to Thrive. Kids will conspire with you to rob them of this precious regenerative time. Don’t let them, no matter how noble the cause.

Teachers, do the math and figure out that if every teacher assigned as much as you did that day, your students would have very little time for rest.

Reminding us that younger children need 9 to 11 hours per night and teenagers need 10, Pope et al. underscore the very real and direct health consequences of too little sleep.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and other health organizations have documented the relationship between sleep deprivation and ADHD, headaches, depression, obesity, and other health problems across childhood and adolescence.” (Pope et al., 2015)

Family Time

Chic Fil-A drive-thru between play practice and soccer practice while doing homework in the car may be your daily reality. If it is, make that time count. It’s time to make time for family meals. If not dinner, try breakfast! “This holds true for kids of all ages and in all kinds of families. Recent research has shown that kids from pre-school to twelfth grade benefit when they have regular family meals together (Fulkerson et al. 2006).” (Pope et al., 2015)

Why is this so important for childhood development and success in adulthood? “When kids are part of a family unit that spends time together, they are more likely to feel supported, safe, and loved unconditionally (Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001).” (Pope et al., 2015)

Educators can contribute to Family Time too by thinking through assignments over breaks and vacations. But it is not just refraining from assigning that can help. Pope et al. also suggest assigning a few low-stakes family projects per year, such as putting together family trees or researching family histories or identifying genetic similarities.

Educating the Whole School

Pope et al. advocate for educating the whole school and offer several tactics for improving communication among all of the key stakeholders. For a discussion of one of these tactics, Fishbowls, see To Promote Lifelong Learning, Create a Continuum of Care.

Holding dialogue nights on campus is another strategy. Just remember that parents need to learn to be parents just as students need to learn to be students. And educators need to recover their training from underneath the layers of institutional and parental expectations they have internalized over the years.

It’s time for you to make changes — in your classroom, in your parenting, and in your school. Be prepared for resistance. “Will everyone buy into your plans for change? Most likely not, but being inclusive, communicating your plan honestly and effectively, and supporting it with data will give you the best chance for success.” (Pope et al., 2015)

Start work on this today. Your children and your students are worth it!

This is the sixth and final article in a series examining the SPACE model for reforming education put forth in the book Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids.

With more than 25 years of educational leadership experience, David Rowe is the former president of a tier one national liberal arts college and of the 9th largest co-educational independent day school in the United States. David serves as a Strategic Partner and Adviser for growth-oriented adaptive leaders in K12 and higher education. A husband and father of two sons, he and his family live in Windermere, Florida.