About David Olson

Sacred Heart Greenwich Middle School head & assistant head of school

The Frenzied College Admission Race is Making Our Children Sick

NAIS

The news stories about parents bribing their children’s way into selective colleges is deeply unsettling on many levels, but there is—potentially—one small silver lining. These stories shine a light on what has become endemic among today’s affluent youth and their families: a single-minded, even frenzied drive to succeed in the college admission race. This pursuit of a narrow definition success is making our children sick.

In child development research, we have been watching this problem for many years. In 2009, child psychiatrists coined the term “affluenza” to refer to the costs, for children and their parents, of lifestyles excessively oriented to maximizing personal success.

The health consequences of this focus on success are real. Since the late 1990s, my colleagues and I have documented elevated rates of serious depression, anxiety, and substance abuse among teens at “high-achieving schools.” These are public and private schools with excellent test scores, rich extracurricular offerings, and students heading to the best colleges. These are schools that serve mostly well-educated, relatively affluent families.

We have learned, however, that it’s not necessarily family wealth, but rather the unfettered drive to succeed that seems to be at the heart of the high distress. It is living in a culture where there is inordinately high emphasis on personal achievement and status.

The pressures related to college admissions have ramped up considerably over the years as competition has grown. There are many more talented young people applying to the same number of highly sought-after spots, and too many youngsters live by the credo, “I can, therefore I must.” Kids feel compelled to take on one extra AP course, one more sport, one more round of tutoring for the SATs, simply because they can (their schools provide them, and parents can pay for them).

The problem is intensified when high-achieving schools overly focus on “just do more” messages for their students. In the rush to get those top-notch SAT scores and college acceptances, teachers, coaches, and administrators tend to want ever-more accolades. It is rare to have adult gatekeepers who deliberately stop talented but exhausted children from taking on one extra commitment, even though these children often show clear signs of fraying. Instead, the message most commonly conveyed to kids is, believe in yourself and your efforts, and keep at it. Persevere. Do more! Is it any wonder that rates of serious depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are on the rise among students aspiring to go to the most selective colleges?

There are some who talk of today’s young as being overprotected and lacking in perseverance. I believe, quite to the contrary, that in fact these kids are terribly overworked. There is little to no time for play, just for fun; even sports and dance become just a means to an end, with successes to be pursued with grim determination. By the end of high school, too many of our young people are exhausted. And too many have not formed healthy personal relationships, which is the most fundamental ingredient for resilience in the face of stress; they simply have not had the time to develop these.

At the end of the day, what does this frenzied pursuit accomplish for kids who do get into the most selective colleges? Increasingly, there are reports of serious mental health issues in some of our nation’s most prestigious universities and colleges. So it’s not as though kids who “win the prize” become happy; in fact, by all accounts, the distress levels remain as high, if not greater.

We could react to the recent news stories by saying this is the fault or problem of a small group of wealthy parents, but that is simply not true. This insane “college pressure” is in fact much more widespread; it is a problem that generalizes to all communities with mostly white-collar professionals. As a recent report in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology shows, increases in rates of serious depression among adolescents have been particularly pronounced in high income groups ($75,000 or more), with rates growing from 7.9 percent in 2010 to 14.1 percent in 2017; a relative change of 79 percent.

That this problem is reaching serious proportions is evident in a recent report on adolescent wellness from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Listed here were the top environments that compromise teens’ well-being. The first three, in order, were exposure to poverty, trauma, and discrimination; the fourth was exposure to high pressures to achieve, usually, though not always, seen in relatively affluent communities.

Addressing this epidemic will need collaborative efforts from all adults involved. Parents and educators must closely examine how intensely they prioritize academic and extracurricular excellence—and at what cost to students’ mental health. School communities need to come together to foster greater connectedness and less rank competitiveness among students. And universities must examine their admission criteria, ensuring greater transparency and fairness, reducing “legacy” admissions, for example, from wealthy donors, and considering lottery-based selections among equally qualified applicants.

About 20 years ago, the term “privileged but pressured” was tentatively suggested in child development circles in relation to family affluence. Today, the data clearly show that the problem of pressure is real, and it is in fact very serious. The well-being of a generation is at stake here. We adults must come together to do all we can, collaboratively, to re-examine the values and goals we hold up for our children.

Listen to a recent American Psychological Association podcast episode featuring Suniya S. Luthar talking about the college admission scandal and the pyschology of affluence. 

How Parents Are Robbing Their Children of Adulthood

Today’s “snowplow parents” keep their children’s futures obstacle-free — even when it means crossing ethical and legal boundaries.

CreditCreditIllustration by The New York Times

Nicole Eisenberg’s older son has wanted to be a star of the stage since he was a toddler, she said. He took voice, dance and drama lessons and attended the renowned Stagedoor Manor summer camp for half a dozen years, but she was anxious that might not be enough to get him into the best performing-arts programs.

So Ms. Eisenberg and others in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., the affluent suburb where she lives, helped him start a charity with friends that raised more than $250,000 over four years.

“The moms — the four or five moms that started it together — we started it, we helped, but we did not do it for them,” Ms. Eisenberg, 49, recalled. “Did we ask for sponsors for them? Yes. Did we ask for money for them? Yes. But they had to do the work.”

She even considered a donation to the college of his choice. “There’s no amount of money we could have paid to have got him in,” Ms. Eisenberg said. “Because, trust me, my father-in-law asked.” (Ms. Eisenberg’s son was admitted to two of the best musical theater programs in the country, she said, along with nine more of the 26 schools he applied to.)

College has been on their radar since her son was in diapers. “We’ve been working on this since he was 3 years old,” she said. To apply, she said, “I had to take him on 20 auditions for musical theater. But he did it with me. I don’t feel like I did this. I supported him in it. I did not helicopter parent him. I was a co-pilot.”

Or was she, perhaps, a … snowplow parent?

Helicopter parenting, the practice of hovering anxiously near one’s children, monitoring their every activity, is so 20th century. Some affluent mothers and fathers now are more like snowplows: machines chugging ahead, clearing any obstacles in their child’s path to success, so they don’t have to encounter failure, frustration or lost opportunities.

Taken to its criminal extreme, that means bribing SAT proctors and paying off college coaches to get children in to elite colleges — and then going to great lengths to make sure they never face the humiliation of knowing how they got there.

Those are among the allegations in the recent college bribery scandal, in which 50 people were charged in a wide-ranging fraud to secure students admissions to colleges. According to the investigation, one parent lied about his son playing water polo, but then worried that the child would be perceived by his peers as “a bench warmer side door person.” (He was assured that his son wouldn’t have to actually be on the team.) Another, the charges said, paid someone to take the ACT for her son — and then pretended to proctor it for him herself, at home, so he would think he was the test-taker.

The parents charged in this investigation, code-named Operation Varsity Blues, are far outside the norm. But they were acting as the ultimate snowplows: clearing the way for their children to get in to college, while shielding them from any of the difficulty, risk and potential disappointment of the process.

In its less outrageous — and wholly legal — form, snowplowing (also known as lawn-mowing and bulldozing) has become the most brazen mode of parenting of the privileged children in the everyone-gets-a-trophy generation.

It starts early, when parents get on wait lists for elite preschools before their babies are born and try to make sure their toddlers are never compelled to do anything that may frustrate them. It gets more intense when school starts: running a forgotten assignment to school or calling a coach to request that their child make the team.

Later, it’s writing them an excuse if they procrastinate on schoolwork, paying a college counselor thousands of dollars to perfect their applications or calling their professors to argue about a grade.

The bribery scandal has “just highlighted an incredibly dark side of what has become normative, which is making sure that your kid has the best, is exposed to the best, has every advantage — without understanding how disabling that can be,” said Madeline Levine, a psychologist and the author of “Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More Than Grades, Trophies or ‘Fat Envelopes.’”

“They’ve cleared everything out of their kids’ way,” she said.

In her practice, Dr. Levine said, she regularly sees college freshmen who “have had to come home from Emory or Brown because they don’t have the minimal kinds of adult skills that one needs to be in college.”

One came home because there was a rat in the dorm room. Some didn’t like their roommates. Others said it was too much work, and they had never learned independent study skills. One didn’t like to eat food with sauce. Her whole life, her parents had helped her avoid sauce, calling friends before going to their houses for dinner. At college, she didn’t know how to cope with the cafeteria options — covered in sauce.

“Here are parents who have spent 18 years grooming their kids with what they perceive as advantages, but they’re not,” Dr. Levine said.

Yes, it’s a parent’s job to support the children, and to use their adult wisdom to prepare for the future when their children aren’t mature enough to do so. That’s why parents hide certain toys from toddlers to avoid temper tantrums or take away a teenager’s car keys until he finishes his college applications.

If children have never faced an obstacle, what happens when they get into the real world?

They flounder, said Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford and the author of “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.”

At Stanford, she said, she saw students rely on their parents to set up play dates with people in their dorm or complain to their child’s employers when an internship didn’t lead to a job. The root cause, she said, was parents who had never let their children make mistakes or face challenges.

Snowplow parents have it backward, Ms. Lythcott-Haims said: “The point is to prepare the kid for the road, instead of preparing the road for the kid.”

Helicopter parenting is a term that came into vogue in the 1980s and grew out of fear about children’s physical safety — that they would fall off a play structure or be kidnapped at the bus stop. In the 1990s, it evolved into intensive parenting, which meant not just constantly monitoring children, but also always teaching them.

This is when parents began filling afternoons and weekends with lessons, tutors and traveling sports games. Parents now spend more money on child rearing than any previous generation did, according toConsumer Expenditure Survey data analyzed by the sociologists Sabino Kornrich and Frank Furstenberg.

According to time-use data analyzed by Melissa A. Milkie, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, today’s working mothers spend as much time doing hands-on activities with their children as stay-at-home mothers did in the 1970s. Texting and social media have allowed parents to keep ever closer track of their progeny.

Snowplow parenting is an even more obsessive form.

“There’s a constant monitoring of where their kid is and what they are doing, all with the intent of preventing something happening and becoming a barrier to the child’s success,” said Laura Hamilton, the author of “Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College and Beyond” and a sociologist at the University of California, Merced.

The destination at the end of the road is often admission to college. For many wealthy families, it has always been a necessary badge of accomplishment for the child — and for the parents. A college degreehas also become increasingly essential to earning a middle-class wage.

But college admissions have become more competitive. The number of applicants has doubled since the 1970s, and the growth in the number of spots has not kept pace, remaining basically unchanged at the very top schools.

At the same time, it’s no longer guaranteed that children will do as well as their parents. Children born in 1950 had an 80 percent chance of making more money than their parents, according to work by a team of economists led by Raj Chetty at Harvard. Those born in 1970 had a 61 percent chance. But since 1980, children are as likely as not to earn less than their parents did.

It’s painful for any parent to watch their child mess up, or not achieve their (or their parents’) goals. Now, however, the stakes are so much higher.

“Increasingly, it appears any mistake could be fatal for their class outcome,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist studying parenting and inequality at the University of Maryland.

The problem is: Snowplowing is a parenting habit that’s hard to break.

“If you’re doing it in high school, you can’t stop at college,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims said. “If you’re doing it in college, you can’t stop when it comes to the workplace. You have manufactured a role for yourself of always being there to handle things for your child, so it gets worse because your young adult is ill-equipped to manage the basic tasks of life.”

In a new poll by The New York Times and Morning Consult of a nationally representative group of parents of children ages 18 to 28, three-quarters had made appointments for their adult children, like for doctor visits or haircuts, and the same share had reminded them of deadlines for school. Eleven percent said they would contact their child’s employer if their child had an issue.

Sixteen percent of those with children in college had texted or called them to wake them up so they didn’t sleep through a class or test. Eight percent had contacted a college professor or administrator about their child’s grades or a problem they were having.

“Some of them think they’re doing the right thing by their children,” said David McCullough, Jr., a high school teacher and the author of “You Are Not Special and Other Encouragements,” who helped popularize the “snowplow” term. “Parents understand that going to a highly prestigious college brings with it long-lasting advantage.”

It’s not just the wealthy. Recent research suggests that parents across lines of class and race are embracing the idea of intensive parenting, whether or not they can afford it.

Often, that involves intervening on behalf of their children. In a recent study that surveyed a nationally representative group of parents about which parenting choices they thought were best, people, regardless of race, income or education, said children should be enrolled in after-school activities so they wouldn’t have to feel bored. If a child didn’t like school, they thought parents should talk to the teacher to get the child different work.

Still, true snowplow parenting is done largely by privileged parents, who have the money, connections and know-how to stay two steps ahead of their children. Families without those resources don’t necessarily have the money to invest in lessons and college counselors, and may not have experience navigating college admissions or ultracompetitive job markets.

Carolyn O’Laughlin worked as a director of resident life at Sarah Lawrence and Columbia, and now does a similar job at St. Louis Community College, Meramec. “I don’t talk to parents nearly as much here, where parents are down the street, as I did when the parents were across the country,” she said.

At the elite schools, Ms. O’Laughlin said, a mother once called her to ask her to list the items in the school salad bar so she could choose what her daughter should eat for lunch, and another parent intervened over video chat to resolve a dispute with a roommate over stolen peanut butter.

Now, many of the students she works with are immigrants or first-generation college students.

“As I read about the scandal, I feel for those parents, I do,” she said. But “first-generation students coming through here are figuring out how to navigate an educational system that hasn’t always been built for them,” she said. “It is changing the course of their lives and the lives of their families.”

Cathy Tran, 22, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, is the daughter of people who immigrated from Vietnam who did not attend college. “They do give me a lot of emotional support, but they haven’t really been able to tell me about what I should be doing, like next steps,” she said.

Clearing her own path to college had some benefits, Ms. Tran said. “I actually think that I have a sense of independence and confidence in myself in a way that some of my friends whose parents attended college might not have,” she said. “I had some friends who didn’t even know how to do laundry. I guess in some ways I feel like I was forced to be an adult much earlier on.”

Learning to solve problems, take risks and overcome frustration are crucial life skills, many child development experts say, and if parents don’t let their children encounter failure, the children don’t acquire them. When a 3-year-old drops a dish and breaks it, she’s probably going to try not to drop it the next time. When a 20-year-old sleeps through a test, he’s probably not going to forget to set his alarm again.

Snowplowing has gone so far, they say, that many young people are in crisis, lacking these problem-solving skills and experiencing record rates of anxiety. There are now classes to teach children to practice failing, at college campuses around the country and even for preschoolers.

Many snowplow parents know it’s problematic, too. But because of privilege or peer pressure or anxiety about their children’s futures, they do it anyway.

Felicity Huffman, an actress charged in the college admissions scheme, has long extolled the benefits of a parenting philosophy in which children are to be treated as adults. On her parenting blog, What the Flicka (which was taken down this week), she described raising children as “one long journey of overcoming obstacles.” In another post, she praised schoolchildren “for walking into a building every day full of the unknown, the challenging, the potential of failure.”

This week, Ms. Huffman was accused of paying $15,000 for an SAT proctor to secretly inflate her daughter’s test scores.

Claire Cain Miller writes about gender, families and the future of work for The Upshot. She joined The Times in 2008 and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues. @clairecm  Facebook

Jonah Bromwich is based in New York. He writes for the Style section. @jonesieman

Getting Kids Unhooked from Their Smartphones

Mindful

Setting guidelines around kids’ tech use starts with the habits and conscious choices of parents. Mark Bertin, MD, shares tips on how families can be mindful with their tech.

elena_fedorina/Adobe Stock

Kids and screen time cause considerable parental angst these days—and for good reason. Research shows children spend on average seven hours a day glued to computer, tablet, smartphone, or television screens. This reality has created such a stir that in the fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) updated its decade-old recommendation on childhood screen time.

Far from a radical revision, the guideline newly suggests a little well-chosen time is fine starting near eighteen months, when used interactively with a care taker. Below eighteen months no time remains best, apart from maybe video conversations with grandparents. From two to five, an hour daily maximum is recommended, and for older kids, two hours total time tops, no different than before.

Why is screen time such a uniquely charged and challenging topic? Guidelines of this type are tough to implement in the real world. Kids don’t want to hear that outside of homework too much screen time actually impacts healthy development. However, since children lack mature executive function, cognitive skills required to manage life like a grown up,  wise decision-making around screens remains limited until they learn better. As strong a pull as children feel, healthy technology use relies on parents.

The Command Center of Life

Executive function is like the CEO of our lives. Anything regarding organization, planning, anticipating, focusing, and regulating behavior relies on executive function. Healthy development of executive function in early childhood has even been linked to life-longacademic and social success.

In large part, kids depend on parents to manage life while waiting for executive function to mature. Executive function represents the path toward complex problem solving and goal setting, and the ability to defer short term gratification for long term gain. The unsettling reality is that executive function doesn’t fully mature until around the age of thirty. That’s one reason kids and teens make not-so-smart decisions when it comes to social media. In a nutshell, even an independent-seeming teenager almost certainly lacks the full capacity to make long-sighted choices.

Immature executive function is a large part of what makes kids act like, well, kids. Around screens, think of it this way: Most adults have fully developed executive function and a strong ability to manage attention, prioritize, plan, and control impulses, and consider the future. They still struggle to keep phones and devices from becoming a distraction. What does that mean for the average child?

Because children lack the self-management capacities of a mature adult, they are particularly at risk when it comes to screens. For many, whatever feels best right now (I’m bored, where’s my tablet?) trumps health and well-being virtually every time. For teens immersed in their complex social world and drive for independence, volatile hormones and emotions create a perfect storm when joined with immature executive function and a smartphone. Sending naked selfies—hey, why not? The part of the brain responsible for reflection and foresight isn’t all grown up yet!

Putting Your Kids on a Media Diet

Like parents through the generations, our modern role is to love our kids, guide them, and teach them. Kids have always needed supervision, and there’s nothing unique about their fascination with technology. Parents before us managed a child’s behavior around driving, partying, curfews, and manners, and we now must keep track of technology, too. This means setting boundaries and giving them more independence as they earn it over time, not before.

Four Negative Impacts of Phone Addiction

Technology is a tool; it is not inherently good or bad. To keep it in a healthy place in our lives requires skillful use. Unlike passing trends that scared parents over the years, research shows poorly monitored screen time bluntly impacts kids for the worse. (Rock and roll was never shown to affect child development in any real way; it isn’t evil, as it turns out.) Well moderated activities may augment learning, but hundreds of studies show that when devices drive their own use, consequences follow. A few examples include:

  • Short- and long-term attention and executive function suffer. Laser-like attention towards a screen is an illusion; kids remain engaged because their attention constantly, actively shifts. That’s why it’s fun. Increased time in front of screens has been linked to long-term worsening of focus. Short-term use—like playing games on the school bus—has been linked to immediate decreases in executive function.
  • Sleep becomes disrupted. Studies show we all benefit from at least an hour without screens prior to bed. If you’re someone who falls asleep with the TV, you’re distracting yourself from restlessness but probably not helping yourself fall asleep.
  • Screen time can interfere with language, communication, and other forms of social engagement. Background television in homes has been linked to shorter social interactions. Even just having a phone on the table in a conversation has been shown disruptive. “Educational” DVDs used in one study not only failed to work—they caused language development to slow. Particularly in younger children, screen time should be an opportunity to engage, not disengage, with others.
  • Screen time breeds behavioral difficulties. One study showed nothing more than cutting inappropriate media content in preschool homes leads to better school behavior. In another, violent video games in teens were shown to decrease activity in parts of the brain that respond to violence. Of course, not every child playing video games gets swayed, but over any group of children there seems to be an influence.

Mindful Screen Management

Mindfulness means living life with more awareness and less reactive habit. For a parent, that means not trying for perfection but taking the time to monitor and readjust often. As children need our guidance around any other area of health, they need it with technology. If there’s one takeaway point around the entire body of technology research it is this: Strong parental involvement moderating screen time in and of itself correlates with academic, behavioral, and social success.

Strong parental involvement moderating screen time in and of itself correlates with academic, behavioral, and social success.

Staying involved means pushing back against mindless screen habits. The role screens play in life is driven by buckets of research and advertising dollars, an industry itching to make more and more money. Wherever technology helps, educates, or entertains in a balanced way, that’s perfect. When its use is driven by boredom, fear, or compulsion, mindfulness means pausing and redirecting our behavior.

Nothing much has changed through the years about how children develop or the role of parents. You wouldn’t let a child eat chocolate cake at every meal and you wouldn’t let them drive recklessly. By the same token, you can’t let them use screens without limits. Parenting in the digital age means the same thing as in the stone age: Children require affection, firm limit setting, and a mindful, aware, clear-sighted approach to guiding them, from sticks and stones through television and smartphones.

Six Ways to Be Mindful with Your Tech as a Family

Some basic family guidelines for screen time include …

  • Start with yourself. Children learn an awful lot just from watching their parents, and 70 percent of today’s kids feel their parents are on their screens too much. When you’re with your kids, try to put down your device and pay attention to your family. You are the first role model for screen use.
  • Parents decide how much. For all the debate about how much time is healthy, it comes down to parents prioritizing what they want to prioritize. Take a daily calendar, and fill in everything you value first. Start with bedtime, school hours, homework, reading, exercise, outdoor time, after-school activities, and down time for open-ended play. Whatever is left after that exercise is the maximum available time for screens, without exceeding the AAP guidelines. (An online tool to figure this out is available here). Another trick is to ask yourself: What percentage of unscheduled down time goes directly to a screen?

What percentage of unscheduled down time goes directly to a screen?

  • Parents decide when. Set guidelines around homework, meals, and a screen bedtime. Use allotted times wisely, scheduling so you can get what you need done around the house. Teach courtesy and manners too—meaning, when there’s an actual person around we pay attention to that person. One practice to stay engaged with others is taking a deep breath first when the phone rings or vibrates, pausing before deciding if it needs immediate attention.
  • Parents monitor content. The Internet can be an incredible, healthy, helpful source of information for curious kids. It also can expose them to much that is developmentally inappropriate. A handful of games may educate, plenty more clearly do not. Sites such as a Common Sense Media provide unbiased information for parents about what is age appropriate around various games, shows, and movies. Keep computers and screens out of bedrooms so you know what your kids are doing. Use content filters, teach healthy use, and keep an eye on overall habits. Aim to stay a wise, involved parent.
  • Remember that screens are a privilege, not a right. In generations past, kids used the family car responsibly and kept to curfew, or else there were consequences. Technology is no different. If children don’t follow family rules, there’s nothing wrong with a similar result—you’ve lost the privilege of your phone for the weekend. To disconnect for a time won’t destroy their social lives any more than getting grounded did all those years ago.
  • Make active choices. Awareness is the core of mindfulness, stepping from autopilot into active decision-making. For example, a trend has grown to give every middle school student a smartphone, although most parents realize how disruptive they often are at that age. Most experts think high school a better time for a smartphone, but the trend lives on. Around that choice or any other, pause, note what’s driving your experience, and then decide what you think best.
This article originally appeared on The Garrison Institute, one of Mindful’s partners. See the original article.

Media Guidelines for Kids of All Ages

Child Mind Institute

Rachel EhmkeTips for making sure your children’s screen time is healthy

Parents used to just worry about kids watching too much TV, or playing too many video games. We still worry about those things, but now the screen time list has gotten much longer. Phones, tablets, apps, social media, texting — they all can captivate kids (and adults) starting at a very young age. What’s a parent to do? Going back to bed isn’t an option, but taking a deep breath and encouraging rational moderation is. Here are some tips, broken down by age group, to get you started.

Very young children (0-4)

– Limit exposure. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding television and other entertainment media for children under 18 months. After 18 months parents can begin introducing “high quality” programming, but the AAP cautions that parents should watch with their children to answer any questions they might have. For children two to five, the AAP recommends limiting media consumption to an hour of high quality programming, again with the caveat that parents should be watching alongside.

– Start leading by example early. Even before your child has a phone or tablet of her own, show her how they should be used. Don’t check your messages at the dinner table. Look at people when they’re talking to you — not at your phone. Remember that your children are always watching you and young children notice everything — that’s how they learn.

– Don’t underestimate the value of traditional toys and open spaces. It’s important for kids to experience unstructured “free play,” which means that they decide what to do, and how to do it, and are playing simply for play’s sake—not to get to the next level in a game, or learn some specific skill. Children should experience the fun of making up their own rules — and breaking them — as they go along. This kind of play lets kids:

  • Move at their own pace, instead of being driven (or hurried) along by fast-moving media
  • Develop creativity
  • Get experience making decisions
  • Practice sharing and working with others
  • Learn to be a leader and self-advocate

Apps — however educational they claim to be — are no substitute for the kind of learning that comes to kids naturally if we let it.

– Do leave the tablet at home. While they are helpful during a long car or plane ride, tablets and other devices are out of place in the stroller or car on the way to preschool. It’s important for kids to have the opportunity to look around them and find entertainment (not to speak of learning) in the real world, too. And they should not be part of play dates!

Grade school age kids (5-11)

– Watch things together. If you’re worried that your kids are getting bad messages from the media, the best way to counteract them is to watch alongside your kids and point out when something isn’t right. Call out a female character if she only seems to care about boys, or how she looks. Provide context if you are seeing unhealthy relationships (including friendships) or unrealistic beauty standards. Besides reinforcing your values, this will teach your kids to watch television and movies actively, not passively, which is good for their self-esteem. Do this during commercials, too!

– Screen time shouldn’t be all the time. The AAP recommends that parents set sensible boundaries on how much screen time is appropriate for their child. Just as important: designating media-free spaces, like bedrooms and the dinner table. Establishing (and enforcing) these limits from a young age teaches kids to be healthy media consumers.

– Be discerning. Determining what is quality screen time and what isn’t might not be obvious, but look out for things that:

  • Are age-appropriate
  • Engage your child’s imagination
  • Have the right values

Common Sense Media has more pointers here. Conversely, if you don’t want your child playing a particular game or watching a particular show, explain your reasons why and be specific — don’t just say it’s “bad.”

– Don’t make screens the reward (or consequence). Technology is enormously appealing to kids as it is, but when we make screen time the go-to thing kids get for good behavior — or get taken away for bad behavior — we are making it even more desirable, thereby increasing the chances that a child will overvalue it.

– Encourage other activities. There are many ways to have fun. Running around outside, playing a sport, reading books, doing crafts — variety is important for a balanced life. Encourage your kids to develop a wide range of interests. Model yourself doing this, too. Let your kids see you reading a book and making things and having a hobby. Finally, present these things as just as rewarding as screen time — not alternatives to it. Equal billing is important.

– Be prepared for them to discover porn. Even if they’re not exactly looking for it, kids today can stumble onto pornography very easily. Curiosity is often a big motivator, so don’t be shy about having some frank, developmentally appropriate conversations about sex. If they hear it from you then they’ll be less likely to turn to the Internet for answers, and they’ll be more likely to ask you to explain what they see online or hear from friends. And if they do see porn, let them know what they saw was no more realistic than any other movie.

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.”

Parents and Teachers Pass On Math Anxiety to Kids Like a Virus, Especially to Girls

“Why do smart people enjoy saying that they are bad at math?” laments Petra Bonfert-Taylor, a professor of engineering at Dartmouth College. “Few people would consider proudly announcing that they are bad at writing or reading.” After seeing one too many examples of adults “passing on [mathematical anxiety] like a virus,” Bonfert-Taylor has an important message for math-phobic parents and educators: “We are passing on from generation to generation the phobia for mathematics… [and] as a result, too many of us have lost the ability to examine a real-world problem, translate it into numbers, solve the problem and interpret the solution.”

Many people will recognize what Bonfert-Taylor calls “damaging myths” that adults perpetuate when they call themselves bad at math: “math is inherently hard, only geniuses understand it, we never liked math in the first place and nobody needs math anyway.” And while well-meaning adults may think they’re encouraging kids by sharing their own math fears, research has shown the opposite — “Anxiety over mathematics has been recognized as a grade killer.” Research has found that the problem is particularly significant for girls, who “are especially affected when a teacher publicly announces math hatred before she picks up the chalk.” Moreover, as Bonfert-Taylor explains in a Washington Post article: “A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that female — but not male — mathematical achievement was diminished in response to a female teacher’s mathematical anxiety. The effect was correlated: the higher a teacher’s anxiety, the lower the scores.”

Parents’ anxiety about math can have a similar effect on kids’ achievement and their attitude toward the subject. According to Bonfert-Taylor, “children who received math homework help from mathematically fearful parents showed weaker math achievements than their peers, which in turn resulted in increased math anxiety for the children themselves.” New research on math anxiety confirms that these parents unintentionally teach kids to expect that math will be beyond their capabilities. As Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist and president of Barnard College, explains in an NPR piece, “A parent might say, ‘oh I’m not a math person, it’s okay if you’re not good at math either’… [which] can send a signal to kids about whether they can succeed.”

Fortunately, Beilock’s research has found a surprisingly easy way for parents to stop passing on math anxiety and build their children’s math confidence — and it doesn’t require overcoming their own fear of the subject. For the study, researchers gave Chicago-area families an iPad filled with math-themed stories for parents and children to read together. From first to third grade — the years when children tend to solidify their fear of math — the families read stories that included fun math facts, like the size of the world’s largest cupcake or information about walking frogs, and then kids would answer simple questions about the content. By the end of the first year, parents didn’t feel more confident in their own abilities with math, but they did feel more confident in their kids’ math potential — and equally importantly, they valued math skills more. This had a direct effect on their children’s achievement: when the kids’ math skills were tested at the end of the study, children of math-anxious parents who had participated in the program performed just as well as the kids of math-confident parents.

The most important finding from the study for parents is the importance of normalizing math at home in a way that’s relaxed and playful. While Beilock’s research used math-themed books and stories, there are many other ways to do it, from playing with math games and toys to cooking together. Bonfert-Taylor agrees, arguing that we need to teach kids that “working on mathematical skills is not unlike practicing a sport. Neither can be learned by watching others perform the activity and both require encouragement and effort… You do not need an innate mathematical ability in order to solve mathematical problems. Rather, what is required is perseverance, a willingness to take risks and feeling safe to make mistakes.” So the next time you’re sitting down to talk math with a Mighty Girl in your life, Bonfert-Taylor urges you to “try to have fun and give reassurance that perseverance will yield results. Numbers are always simple, clean and beautiful — and nothing to be afraid of.”

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CNN