The Two Codes Your Kids Need to Know

The College Board came up with a surprising conclusion about keys to success for college and life.

Thomas L. Friedman

By Thomas L. Friedman

Opinion Columnist

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Ninth graders in a computer class in Brooklyn. The College Board has said that to be successful, students need to master computer science.CreditCreditSarah Blesener for The New York Times

A few years ago, the leaders of the College Board, the folks who administer the SAT college entrance exam, asked themselves a radical question: Of all the skills and knowledge that we test young people for that we know are correlated with success in college and in life, which is the most important? Their answer: the ability to master “two codes” — computer science and the U.S. Constitution.

Since then they’ve been adapting the SATs and the College Board’s Advanced Placement program to inspire and measure knowledge of both. Since the two people who led this move — David Coleman, president of the College Board, and Stefanie Sanford, its chief of global policy — happen to be people I’ve long enjoyed batting around ideas with, and since I thought a lot of students, parents and employers would be interested in their answer, I asked them to please show their work: “Why these two codes?”

Their short answer was that if you want to be an empowered citizen in our democracy — able to not only navigate society and its institutions but also to improve and shape them, and not just be shaped by them — you need to know how the code of the U.S. Constitution works. And if you want to be an empowered and adaptive worker or artist or writer or scientist or teacher — and be able to shape the world around you, and not just be shaped by it — you need to know how computers work and how to shape them.

With computing, the internet, big data and artificial intelligence now the essential building blocks of almost every industry, any young person who can master the principles and basic coding techniques that drive computers and other devices “will be more prepared for nearly every job,” Coleman and Sanford said in a joint statement explaining their initiative. “At the same time, the Constitution forms the foundational code that gives shape to America and defines our essential liberties — it is the indispensable guide to our lives as productive citizens.”

So rather than have SAT exams and Advanced Placement courses based on things that you cram for and forget, they are shifting them, where they can, to promote the “two codes.”

In 2016, the College Board completely revamped its approach to A.P. computer science courses and exams. In the original Computer Science course, which focused heavily on programming in Java, nearly 80 percent of students were men. And a large majority were white and Asian, said Coleman. What that said to women and underrepresented minorities was, “How would you like to learn the advanced grammar of a language that you aren’t interested in?”

Turned out that was not very welcoming. So, explained Coleman, they decided to “change the invitation” to their new Computer Science Principles course by starting with the question: What is it that you’d like to do in the world? Music? Art? Science? Business? Great! Then come build an app in the furtherance of that interest and learn the principles of computer science, not just coding, Coleman said. “Learn to be a shaper of your environment, not just a victim of it.”

The new course debuted in 2016. Enrollment was the largest for a new course in the history of Advanced Placement, with just over 44,000 students nationwide.

Two years later The Christian Science Monitor reported, “More high school students than ever are taking the College Board’s Advanced Placement (A.P.) computer science exams, and those taking them are increasingly female and people of color.”

 

Indeed, the story added, “the College Board reports that from 2017 to 2018 female, African-American and Hispanic students were among the fastest growing demographics of A.P. computer science test-takers, with increases in exam participation of 39 percent, 44 percent and 41 percent, respectively. … For context, in 2007, fewer than 3,000 high school girls took the A.P. Computer Science A exam; in 2018, more than 15,000 completed it.”

The A.P. U.S. Government and Politics course also was reworked. At a time when we have a president who doesn’t act as if he’s read the Constitution — and we have a growing perception and reality that college campuses are no longer venues for the free exchange of ideas and real debate of consequential issues — Coleman and Sanford concluded that it was essential that every student entering college actually have command of the First Amendment, which enshrines five freedoms, not just freedom of speech.

Every student needs to understand that, as Coleman put it, “our country was argued into existence — and that is the first thing that binds us — but also has some of the tensions that divide us. So we thought, ‘What can we do to help replace the jeering with productive conversation?’”

It had to start in high school, said Sanford, who is leading the “two codes” initiative. “Think of how much more ready you are to participate in college and society with an understanding of the five freedoms that the First Amendment protects — of speech, assembly, petition, press and religion. The First Amendment lays the foundation for a mature community of conversation and ideas — built on the right and even obligation to speak up and, when needed, to protest, but not to interrupt and prevent others from speaking.”

This becomes particularly important, she noted, “when technology and democracy are thought of as in conflict, but are actually both essential” and need to work in tandem.

One must observe only how Facebook was abused in the 2016 election to see that two of the greatest strengths of America — innovation and free speech — have been weaponized. If they are not harmonized, well, Houston, we have a problem.

So the new A.P. government course is built on an in-depth look at 15 Supreme Court cases as well as nine foundational documents that every young American should know. It shows how the words of the Constitution give rise to the structures of our government.

Besides revamping the government course and the exam on that subject, Coleman and Sanford in 2014 made a staple of the regular SAT a long reading comprehension passage from one of the founding documents, such as the Constitution, or another important piece of democracy, like a great presidential speech. That said to students and teachers something the SAT had never dared say before: Some content is disproportionately more powerful and important, and if you prepare for it you will be rewarded on the SAT.

Sanford grew up in Texas and was deeply affected as a kid watching video of the African-American congresswoman Barbara Jordan arguing the case against Richard Nixon in Watergate. What she remembered most, said Sanford, was how Jordan’s power “emanated from her command of the Constitution.

“Understanding how government works is the essence of power. To be a strong citizen, you need to know how the structures of our government work and how to operate within them.”

Kids are getting it: An A.P. U.S. Government and Politics class at Hightstown High School in New Jersey was credited in a Senate committee report with contributing content to a bill, the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act, which was signed into law last month.

Sanford cites it as a great example of her mantra: “‘Knowledge, skills and agency’ — kids learn things, learn how to do things and then discover that they can use all that to make a difference in the world.”

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Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs Op-Ed columnist. He joined the paper in 1981, and has won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is the author of seven books, including “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” which won the National Book Award.

Decoding the Teenage Brain

Edutopia

New technologies are shedding light on what really makes adolescents tick—and providing clues on how we might reach them better.

January 31, 2019

 

A recent interview with British neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, the author of the 2018 book Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain, begins with a caveat.

“I think it’s important to know before we start that up until 20 years ago we really didn’t know that the brain changes at all after childhood,” she confides. “That’s what I was taught during my undergraduate degree. We now know that’s completely untrue.”

In matters of settled opinion, science has often found itself in the role of provocateur, even saboteur—prodding at conventional wisdoms until they yield unexpected truths, and sometimes toppling them entirely. The mysteries of celestial bodies, heredity, and mental illness have all undergone dramatic rethinking.

So it shouldn’t be entirely surprising that new technologies that allow us to peer into the brain as it processes information are driving a revolution in our understanding of human cognition. Images from fMRI machines, for example, reveal that the brain is less like a collection of discrete, specialized modules—one for speech and one for vision, the old model—and more like an integrated network of functions that support each other. Those same images show that cerebral networks undergo dramatic, global maturation well into our 20s.

The findings have cast doubt on many theories about adolescence. For too long, assertions about teenagers—from their purported irrationality to their apparent sense of invulnerability—have circulated widely and uncritically. The new research suggests that we have plenty of rethinking to do.

OF MICE AND MINORS

Adolescent rodents and adolescent humans are susceptible to peer pressure—and members of both species take risks at much higher rates when in the presence of companions their own age.

In a study conducted in 2005, neuroscientist Laurence Steinberg asked teenagers and adults to play a virtual driving game that tested their willingness to take risks as traffic lights turned from green to yellow to red. Participants were penalized when accidents occurred. Adolescents responded to the risks as well as adults did and performed about equally when playing alone. But in the presence of peers, risk-taking surged among the teenagers and young adults—risky driving increased threefold for 13- to 16-year-olds, and the number of crashes spiked—while remaining flat among adults.

Chart showing research on adolescent driving

Illustration by Leigh Wells

In driving games—and in life—adolescents operate a vehicle safely when alone. Around peers, though, everything changes.

A study involving mice and alcohol consumption reached a similar conclusion. That 2014 experiment exposed rodents of different ages to the equivalent of an open bar: They could drink alcohol at their leisure. The adolescent mice—those at the tender age of 4 to 5 weeks—drank about as often as adult mice when by themselves. But in the presence of other juveniles, they settled in for a bender, drinking 25 percent more of the time. There was no change in the drinking of adult mice.

These results aren’t just laboratory tricks. Using real crash data from 2007–10, a study published in 2012 found that the risk of death for teenagers driving alone increased by 44 percent per mile when traveling with one peer, and quadrupled with three peers in the car. By contrast, Blakemore writes, traveling companions are actually a “protective factor” for adults over 26, “who are less likely to crash if they have a passenger than if they’re alone.”

In a few recent experiments, peer pressure emerges as a measurable biological phenomenon, crossing over into the perceptible world like the first earthquake waves etched onto a seismograph. A 2013 study found that when human subjects were told that a peer was watching them, skin conductance readings—a measure of the electricity triggered by stress and arousal—were consistently higher in adolescents than in either adults or children. Brain scans administered at the same time revealed telltale flares of greater activity in key regions of the teenage brain linked to self-awareness and the ability to understand others.

It’s never been a question of feeling invulnerable—for teenagers, there’s just something about the presence of peers that is transfiguring. They understand the risks, and take them anyway.

A TELLING MISMATCH

A likely culprit in adolescent risk-taking is a brain network that stretches back deep into evolutionary history—the limbic system, the seat of primal instincts like fear, lust, hunger, and pleasure. “These are regions in the deep center of the brain,” explained Blakemore. ”They are much older, and we share these systems with a lot of other animals.”

In 2014, Blakemore and two colleagues gathered brain images of 33 people and plotted the growth rates of individual limbic systems over time. They also looked at another critical brain region: the prefrontal cortex.

Chart showing gray matter growth comparison in teenagers

Illustration by Leigh Wells

Adolescent brain scans reveal that reward systems mature well before inhibitory systems. That tends to confirm a major theory of teenage development.

The charts that resulted (above) show that limbic structures like the nucleus accumbens changed only modestly during adolescence while the prefrontal cortex experienced a dramatic shift in volume, shrinking and reorganizing as it pruned away unused synaptic connections. The upshot? The brain scans seem to indicate that the limbic system—the brain’s reward system—is mature and firing on all cylinders in teenagers, while the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for things like self-control, planning, and self-awareness, is still busy developing.

“One major theory of adolescent development is that there is a mismatch between these two systems,” Blakemore elaborated. “The limbic system, which gives you the rewarding feeling of taking risks, is structurally more developed before the prefrontal cortex, which stops you from taking risks.”

If that seems too neat to you, Blakemore agrees. “I wouldn’t discount social factors like changing schools,” she cautions, or “overlook individual differences in teenagers.”

Still, there’s plenty of evidence that the limbic system is hyperactive during adolescence. It’s not youthful irrationality or a flair for the dramatic at work; teenagers actually experience things like music, drugs, and the thrill of speed more powerfully than adults do. In his 2014 book Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence, Steinberg draws a straight line to peer influence as well, noting that teenage peers “light up the same reward centers that are aroused by drugs, sex, food, and money.”

ALL NATURAL PLASTIC

It’s not all gloom and doom. The teenage years are “the last, great neuroplastic era in our lifetimes,” according to Steinberg, referring to the brain’s continued capacity for intellectual and emotional growth. The same emerging circuitry that makes teenagers vulnerable to risky behavior and mood swings also confers significant advantage on adolescent learners.

Chart depicting brain response in adolescent mice

Illustration by Leigh Wells

A snapshot of the rodent brain at a moment of learning: The young mouse’s brain reveals a more powerful learning response.

At the deep neural level, new information is written into the gray matter of the brain itself—expressed in structural changes to synapses, which, through repeated exposure, form increasingly durable webs of memory. A study conducted in 2002 provides a fascinating window into the brain at the very moment of learning. The chart above shows the electrical response in both adolescent and adult mice to a novel piece of information, represented by the red arrow. Like a bell struck more sharply, the brain of the adolescent mouse produces a more dramatic reply—and then sustains it for longer.

That’s good news—and a clear signal that the teenage brain is by nature more receptive to learning, says Frances Jensen in her 2015 book The Teenage Brain. Adolescent animals simply “show faster learning curves than adults,” and we retain the capacity to improve even fundamental attributes like our IQ well into our teenage years.

REACHING TEENAGERS IN CLASS

Take the direct approach: Talking to teenagers frankly about their brain development can provide useful context for their emotional worlds, and reset their expectations about their potential for continued intellectual growth. “We know that people like biological explanations. It’s true in neurological stroke patients—showing that the brain is plastic and can change and rehabilitate is really useful,” Blakemore said.

Explaining the role of the limbic system, the influence of peers, and the malleability of the teenage brain establishes a basis for students to better understand themselves and exert control over their emotional and academic lives. Blakemore insists there’s also a simple question of respect at stake: “They have a right to know,” she says emphatically. “It’s happening in their brains.”

Make good use of peer pressure: Peer pressure and social influence can be used for good, too. Smoking research shows, for example, that teens ignore warnings about the long-term health consequences of cigarettes, but respond to the social effects. It’s more convincing to remind teens that cigarettes “give you bad breath, or put younger children in danger,” said Blakemore. Teens “also respond to the idea that this is an adult industry that is exploiting them to make money. That has been shown to help for smoking and also for healthy eating.”

Schools are aware of many of these social dynamics, and have used teen leaders, social influencers, and appeals to fairness and justice to change behaviors around vapingbullying, and academic cheating.

Teach self-regulation: It’s not too late. The prefrontal cortex, which governs executive functions, is still developing and remains highly responsive to the environment and to training during adolescence. It stands to reason that explicitly teaching self-regulation, long-term planning, and empathy might have particular benefits for teenagers.

According to Steinberg, efforts to improve the self-regulation of teenagers “are far more likely to be effective in reducing risky behavior than are those that are limited to providing them with information about risky activities.” And social and emotional learning programs that show adolescents “how to regulate their emotions, manage stress, and consider other people’s feelings” can have positive effects on executive functions more generally, improving focus and self-discipline, and setting teenagers up for academic and professional success well beyond high school.

The author of this article is the chief content officer at Edutopia. You can follow him on Twitter @smerrill777.

The charts in this story were drawn by illustrator Leigh Wells, and adapted from studies by 1) Margo Gardner and Laurence Steinberg, 2005; 2) K.L. Mills, A.L. Goddings, L.S. Clasen, J.N. Giedd, and S.J. Blakemore, 2014; and 3) N.L. Schramm, R.E. Egli, and D.G. Winder, 2002, via Synapse magazine, courtesy of Wiley-Liss, Inc.

Why Girls Beat Boys at School and Lose to Them at the Office

The New York Times

Hard work and discipline help girls outperform boys in class, but that advantage disappears in the work force. Is school the problem?

Lisa Damour

By Lisa Damour

Ms. Damour is a clinical psychologist.

CreditWenting Li
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CreditCreditWenting Li

From elementary school through college, girls are more disciplinedabout their schoolwork than boys; they study harder and get better grades. Girls consistently outperform boys academically. And yet, men nonetheless hold a staggering 95 percent of the top positions in the largest public companies.

What if those same habits that propel girls to the top of their class — their hyper-conscientiousness about schoolwork — also hold them back in the work force?

When investigating what deters professional advancement for women, the journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman found that a shortage of competence is less likely to be an obstacle than a shortage of confidence. When it comes to work-related confidence, they found men are far ahead. “Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in,” they wrote. “Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect.”

As a psychologist who works with teenagers, I hear this concern often from the parents of many of my patients. They routinely remark that their sons do just enough to keep the adults off their backs, while their daughters relentlessly grind, determined to leave no room for error. The girls don’t stop until they’ve polished each assignment to a high shine and rewritten their notes with color-coded precision.

We need to ask: What if school is a confidence factory for our sons, but only a competence factory for our daughters?

This possibility hit me when I was caring for an eighth grader in my practice. She got terrific grades but was feeling overwhelmed by school. Her brother, a ninth grader, had similarly excellent grades, but when I asked if he worked as hard as she did, she scoffed. If she worked on an assignment for an hour and got an A, she felt “safe” only if she spent a full hour on other assignments like it. Her brother, in contrast, flew through his work. When he brought home an A, she said, he felt “like a stud.” If his grades slipped a bit, he would take his effort up just a notch. But she never felt “safe” enough to ever put in less than maximum effort.

That experience — of succeeding in school while exerting minimal or moderate effort — is a potentially crucial one. It may help our sons develop confidence, as they see how much they can accomplish simply by counting on their wits. For them, school serves as a test track, where they build their belief in their abilities and grow increasingly at ease relying on them. Our daughters, on the other hand, may miss the chance to gain confidence in their abilities if they always count on intellectual elbow grease alone.

So how do we get hyper-conscientious girls (and boys, as there certainly are some with the same style) to build both confidence and competence at school?

First, parents and teachers can stop praising inefficient overwork, even if it results in good grades. Gendered approaches to learning set in early, so it’s never too soon to start working against them. Recently, as I read “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” to my 8-year-old daughter, I stopped at a passage in which Hermione — the fictional poster child for academic fastidiousness — turned in an essay that was “two rolls of parchment more than Professor Binns asked for.” Hermione, I pointed out, doesn’t make great use of her time. She’s a capable student and could probably do just as well without working so hard. “Right,” my daughter said. “Of course she could!”

We can also encourage girls toward a different approach to school — one that’s more focused on economy of effort, rather than how many hours they put in. Whenever one of the academically impressive and persistently anxious girls in my practice tells me about staying up until 2 in the morning studying, I see an opening. That’s the moment to push them to become tactical, to figure out how to continue learning and getting the same grades while doing a little bit less. I urge my patients — and my own teenage daughter — to begin study sessions by taking sample tests, to see how much they know before figuring out how much more they need to do to attain mastery over a concept or task. Many girls build up an incredible capacity for work, but they need these moments to discover and take pride in how much they already understand.

Teachers, too, can challenge girls’ over-the-top tendencies. When a girl with a high-A average turns in extra credit work, her instructor might ask if she is truly taken with the subject or if she is looking to store up “insurance points,” as some girls call them. If it’s the former, more power to her. If it’s the latter, the teacher might encourage the student to trust that what she knows and the work she is already doing will almost certainly deliver the grade she wants. Educators can also point out to this student that she may not need insurance; she probably has a much better grasp of the material than she gives herself credit for.

Finally, we can affirm for girls that it is normal and healthy to feel some anxiety about school. Too often, girls are anxious even about being anxious, so they turn to excessive studying for comfort. We can remind them that being a little bit nervous about schoolwork just means that they care about it, which of course they should.

Even if neither you nor your daughter cares about becoming a chief executive, you may worry that she will eventually be crushed by the weight of her own academic habits. While a degree of stress promotes growth, working at top speed in every class at all times is unhealthy and unsustainable for even the most dedicated high school students. A colleague of mine likes to remind teenagers that in classes where any score above 90 counts as an A, the difference between a 91 and a 99 is a life.

To be sure, the confidence gap is hardly the only thing keeping women out of top jobs. Women also face gender bias, sexual harassment and powerful structural barriers in the workplace. But confidence at school is one unequal advantage that we can address right now. Instead of standing by as our daughters make 50 flashcards when they were assigned 20, we can step in and ask them why. Many professional men brim with confidence because they have spent years getting to know their abilities. Women should arrive in the work world having done the same.

Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist in Shaker Heights, Ohio, is the author of the forthcoming “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.”

How to Help Teens Weather Their Emotional Storms

A D.I.Y. snow globe full of glitter is an apt metaphor for the emotional chaos of the adolescent brain.

Trying to help a deeply upset teenager — perhaps one undone by a social slight or flipping out about an upcoming test — is among the most common and stressful challenges in all of parenting. Amid all that stress, it’s easy for well-meaning adults to make missteps.

More often than not, we jump in with earnest questions or suggestions: “Any chance you did something that hurt your friend’s feelings?” or “Would it help if I quizzed you on what you’ve studied so far?” But, despite our best intentions, these efforts often seem to only agitate our teenagers further.

Even though I’ve got years of training and experience as a clinical psychologist, for a long time I more or less muddled my way through the adolescent meltdowns that inevitably arose at my practice. Lately, however, I’ve managed to improve my approach, and I owe it all to a fateful trip to Texas.

I was chatting with the counseling team at a Dallas girls’ school a few years ago when the conversation turned to how we each handle students who become unglued during the school day.

“That,” said one of the counselors in a Texas twang, “is when I get out a glitter jar.” As I tried to conceal my immediate skepticism, she went off to retrieve one. While we waited for her to return, I sat there thinking that whatever she was bringing back, I hated it already.

First, as a parent with a neatness hang-up and kids who love art projects, I have come to loathe glitter. Second, if there was any psychology behind this, it seemed bound to be a little, well, poppy.

The counselor returned holding a clear jam jar. Its lid was glued on and it was filled with water plus a layer of sparkling purple glitter sitting at the bottom. “When a girl falls apart in my office, I do this,” she said, while shaking the jar fiercely, like an airport snow globe. Together we beheld the dazzling glitter storm that resulted. Then she placed the jar down on the table between us and continued, “After that I say to her, ‘Honey, this is your brain right now. So first … let’s settle your glitter.’”

Mesmerized, I watched the swirling glitter slowly fall to the bottom of the jar. Finally getting over myself, I was ready to acknowledge the brilliance behind this homemade device.

Sitting right there was an elegant model of the neurology of the distressed teenager. Early in adolescence, the brain gets remodeled to become more powerful and efficient, with this upgrade retracing the order of the original in utero development. The primitive regions, which are just above the back of the neck and house the emotion centers, are upgraded first — starting as early as age 10. The more sophisticated regions, located behind the forehead and giving us our ability to reason and maintain perspective, are redone last and may not reach full maturity until age 25.

While this process is underway, young people are put in a rather delicate position. Though they tend to be highly rational when calm, if they become upset, their new, high-octane emotional structures can overpower their yet-to-be upgraded reasoning capacities, crashing the entire system until it has a chance to reset.

I have enthusiastically recommended glitter jars to several parents and colleagues knowing that some teenagers will instantly benefit from having a concrete model of emotional distress. That said, I have come to appreciate that a glitter jar’s main utility is in the instructions it provides to those who are caring for the overwrought: Be patient and communicate your confidence that emotions almost always rise, swirl and settle all by themselves.

Not long after I returned from Texas, I ran into a visibly upset sophomore in the lunchroom of the school where I consult each week. She looked stricken, and her eyes were red from crying.

Urgently she asked, “Are you free?”

“Yes,” I replied, turning her toward my office.

Once there, she buried her hands in her face and broke into heaving sobs. Soon, she slowed her breathing and looked at me, even as tears continued to stream down her face. In the past, I would have taken that opening to quiz her about what had gone wrong. In retrospect, I now see this as the verbal equivalent of further shaking the mental glitter jar. Instead, I asked if she wanted a glass of water, or some time alone to let her painful feelings die down. She declined both offers, so we just sat there quietly.

Not a minute had passed before she relaxed completely. Then she volunteered that she had done poorly on a test that morning and had fallen down a rabbit hole of worries about what a bad grade might mean for her future. Now, with her glitter nearly settled and her mind more clear, she regained perspective on the situation. Within moments she decided that the low grade probably wasn’t such a big deal, and if it was, she’d figure out how to make up for it in other ways.

This is not to say that letting glitter settle is the solution to all teenage problems. But I have found it to be a better first response than any other. Every time I stop myself from trying to figure out what made a teenager upset, and focus instead on her right to just be upset, I find that doing so either solves the problem or helps clear the path to dealing with it.

It’s critical to recognize that when we react to psychological distress as though it’s a fire that needs to be put out, we frighten our teenagers and usually make matters worse. Reacting instead with the understanding that emotions usually have their own life cycle — coming as waves that surge and fall — sends adolescents the reassuring message that they aren’t broken; in fact, they’re self-correcting.

So, when you next encounter a young person in full meltdown, take a deep breath and think to yourself (Dallas accent optional), “First … let’s settle your glitter.”

Lisa Damour is a psychologist in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and the author of “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood” and “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.”