Friday, February 15, 2013

“A majority of students are telling us they are nervous or anxious all the time,”

The title is a quote from Maria Yau, research coordinator for a study that was recently released by the Toronto District School Board.  The study asked 103,000 students questions about various aspects of their lives, including their daily levels of stress and anxiety.  However, stress and anxiety were merely one aspect of the comprehensive census, the results of which are summarized here in a powerpoint.  Now, I would agree that it's rather disquieting (though not necessarily shocking) that today's teens are as stressed out as they are, and I will get back to more thoughts about that later.  But looking at all the findings of the study, I was struck by the irony inherent in how the results were presented in the media.  Virtually every news story about the census focused almost exclusively on the 'stress and anxiety' findings, but a visit to the TDSB site reveals these other findings;

  • 92% of students feel safe at school
  • There's been a 10% increase in students eating a proper lunch, thanks in part to school food programs put in place because of the 2006 survey
  • There been a 14% increase in attendance at parent teacher interviews
  • Over 90% of students feel that their background is respected by adults in the school
So where's the irony?  Does focusing solely on stress and anxiety, while completely ignoring positive findings from the same survey not increase the level of stress and anxiety?  Given the full scope of the survey results, it's more than just a little disingenuous for the various news people to go all "chicken little" over this narrow band of findings.  Yes it's worrisome that stress levels are so high, but would it not serve the public interest better to also include some information about what schools, and students, in the 21st century are doing better at than they've ever done in the past?  Let's celebrate kids' (and schools') successes, and let's be aware of elevated anxiety levels, but let's not exacerbate anxiety issues in the service of selling papers.

So teenagers are stressed, that in itself is not necessarily a good or bad state, it depends on the source of the stress.  Findings in neuroscience indicate that stress can have either a positive effect or a negative effect on learning, it seems to depend on the source of the stress.  Generally speaking, a brain that's stressed by the material at hand (i.e. a kid worrying about the content on a test or a difficult assignment) has its learning capacity slightly enhanced by the anxiety.  But a brain under stress from external sources (i.e. a kid worrying about her home situation or worrying about grades rather than the material at hand) will have diminished learning capacity.  This last point makes intuitive sense, we've all experienced trying to learn while being distracted by negative forces in our lives, it tends not to go very well.  Unfortunately, the overall results of this census would seem to indicate that it's the external stressors that are affecting young people today.  Indeed, the census indicates that students seem to be pretty happy with the way things are going at school.  It's the rest of the world that's having the deleterious effects on student anxiety levels.  The chart below has some thought provoking numbers.

There's no doubt that we live in a stressful world, but surely we can do better than to create a culture where learning is disrupted by the level of anxiety in young people's lives?  That external anxiety is anathema to learning is not a new idea, Csikszentmihalyi, Vygotsky and many others have come to the same conclusion. We need to start using this knowledge to design educational systems that do everything within their power to reduce stresses on students.  Worrying about "marks" is one area in which we could make improvements, and at our school we're tackling that (slowly).  Post secondary direction is another area in which we should do more to alleviate worries.  We need to convince more kids that it's okay to not be a "white collar" professional.  (In fact, it's very arguable that skilled trades are some of the few professions that simply cannot be outsourced).  Of course there are external pressures on today's teenagers that we can do precious little to change.  But we need to always be mindful that the more external stress we put on young brains, the less learning we can expect them to achieve.