By Dr. Jan Hittelman

As a psychologist, I see the consequences of stress in children and adolescents on a daily basis. Unlike other psychological issues, there are simple things that we can do in the course of their school day that would reduce stress while also increasing academic achievement. Here are my three wishes:

• Start the school day later: It’s a fact that most adolescents require 9.5 hours of sleep. Because of hormonal and metabolic changes, adolescents are typically unable to fall asleep before 11:00pm. Teens often need to wake up at 6:00am to get to school on time. Thus we set them up for sleep deprivation, which impacts learning, safety, and overall health.
• Teach stress reduction in school: We know how to teach effective, research-proven, stress reduction techniques. In multiple focus groups conducted in both of our local school districts, students consistently identify stress as the main cause for substance abuse, depression and suicidal thinking. This is of particular importance to us because Colorado leads the nation in teen depression and Boulder is one of the leading counties in Colorado for teen suicide.
• Minimize nightly homework: Research on the benefits of homework is, at best, mixed. The Center for Public Education reports that “The link between homework and student achievement is far from clear. There is no conclusive evidence that homework increases student achievement across the board”. It is not uncommon for students to spend up to three hours a night on homework. Instead of habitually piling on homework, what if students are given a brief quiz at the end of each lesson with homework assigned only to those students who have not mastered the concepts taught? If we did it this way students would likely be more motivated than ever to learn the material (to avoid getting homework). Teachers would also be able to identify students needing assistance much more efficiently than with periodic exams alone.

The only way that my wishes will come true is if we as a community let our school districts know that this is important to us. The truth is that the typical feedback that school board members and administrators receive from parents is that they want more academic challenges, AP classes, etc. in order to get their children into the “best colleges”. I’ve met with intelligent high school students who believe that unless they have over a 4.0 GPA they will be unable to go to any four-year college. If you haven’t heard a 4.0 is no longer the highest GPA you can achieve; meaning perfect is no longer good enough. No wonder our children are stressed!

It wouldn’t be so upsetting if the current education system in our country were working. Unfortunately we are constantly reminded that our children lag behind many other industrialized countries, yet we continue to grasp onto antiquated philosophies and educational delivery systems that are failing our youth as well as our economic base.

Is this all just wishful thinking or are we ready for change?