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Schools should hand out diplomas, not disorders

High school students being dropped off at school.

High school students being dropped off at school. Photo Credit: iStock

This fall, nearly 55 million kids will report to elementary or secondary school, according to the U.S. Department of Education -- an increase of 30,000 over last year. On Long Island, nearly 450,000 students in pre-K through 12th grade will report to class this school year.

Unfortunately, the journey from kindergarten to commencement is inflicting damage on kids. More than eight in 10 students report moderate to extreme stress, according to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive for the American Psychological Association. And levels of teen anxiety and depression are skyrocketing.

Schools must cultivate not just the students' intellect but their physical and mental well-being. They should take a page from the medical profession -- and first "do no harm." Then they must teach kids the social and emotional skills needed to become healthy, successful adults.

Students' mental health takes a hit the moment they wake up. Most secondary schools start at 8 a.m. or earlier. Yet studies show that's too early for adolescent brains and bodies.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, teens need 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep nightly. Fifty-nine percent of middle-school students and 87 percent of high school students get less than this recommended amount of sleep on school nights. More than half of 15- to 17-year-olds sleep fewer than seven hours a night.

Sleep-deprived kids exhibit diminished attention spans and concentration -- and have higher rates of depression, suicidal ideation and obesity.

The solution? Start school later. Even an extra half-hour would do good. The Academy of Pediatrics study sampled 9,000 students from schools that started at 8:30 a.m. or later. It found that late starts improved students' standardized test scores and reduced car accidents involving students by as much as 70 percent.

Schools also can reduce harm by assigning less homework. Seriously.

A recent Stanford University study found that high school students had, on average, more than three hours of homework a night. Yet research shows that excessive amounts of homework have little or limited learning value.

This is not surprising. After all, students generally must complete their homework in distracting locations -- their homes -- away from the people best able to answer their questions, their teachers. And they must do so after expending all their energy to get through the long school day.

Homework has been linked to stress and academic disengagement among both young children and teens. In many households, it's the major cause of kids' stress -- and stress between kids and parents.

All of this exacerbates teenage anxiety and depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 8 percent of teens have an anxiety disorder. Nine percent succumb to a major depressive episode each year.

There are better, less destructive ways to educate kids.

Paramount among them is social-emotional learning. This approach blends traditional curricula with understanding and honing of self-awareness, relationship-building, and effective decision-making.

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, students who follow a social-emotional learning track display a greater desire and capacity to learn -- and reduced levels of anxiety and stress -- than those who don't. They also score better on academic achievement tests.

Our schools must do more than just turn out a new crop of graduates each year. Schools must prepare children to lead happy, productive, healthy lives long after they've moved on.

Alan Shusterman is the founder and head of School for Tomorrow, a Silver Spring, Maryland nonprofit, independent school for grades four through 12.


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