Common Core and Increase in Student Stress

Written by Anthony Pantaleno, PhD, a school psychologist

ccss-stressesStudents Are Already Faced with Significant Challenges in Society Today
In addition to the typical stressors faced by many American students such as family fragmentation, peer socialization and “fitting in,” and the lure of substances and sexual experimentation that has always been seen as trademarks of the adolescent subculture, children and adolescents in the U.S. are attempting to manage more significant mental health challenges that not so long ago were the purview of an adult world. The effects of these additional stresses are staggering:

  • 160,000 Kids Stay Home from School Each Day Out of Fear of Bullying
    ABC News reported that 30% of students are either bullies or victims of bulling. In recent years, a series of bullying-related suicides in the US and across the globe have drawn attention to the connection between bullying and suicide. What many people may not realize is that there is also a link between being a bully and committing suicide.
  • 10-20% of Young People Experience Cyber-bullying on a Regular Basis
    About half of young people have experienced some form of cyber bullying, and more than 1 in 3 young people have experienced cyber threats online. And they aren’t telling anyone. Fewer than 1 in 5 of cyber bullying incidents are reported to law enforcement, and well over half of young people don’t tell their parents when cyber bullying occurs.
  • CDC Reports 4,400 Suicides Among Young People Each Year
    Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among young people. And for every suicide among young people, there are at least 100 suicide attempts. That means that 440,000 students have made a conscious decision not to live and have acted on that decision.

A December 2013 poll conducted by National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health also reported that 40% of parents believe that their high school kids are stressed over school.

Rigorous Standards of Common Core Present New Challenges
In some states, such as my home state of New York, there has been enormous conflict over the past 2 years, or as some would state—a full scale war—between the Commissioner of Education and the NYS Education Department versus parents and educators regarding the most appropriate process for rolling out the Common Core. Instead of the Common Core being slowly introduced and integrated into the curriculum at lower grades, New York students have found that the Common Core has been imposed into their lives all at once without the prerequisite skills needed to be successful in this higher-order curriculum. The result has been the highest level of stress in students, educators, and parents that I have witnessed in the school system since entering the field in 1978.

For those in the audience unfamiliar with the Common Core, this is a national educational initiative which seeks to make certain that all high school graduates across the country have exposure to the same instructional methods which will make them college ready for the marketplace in the 21st Century. In order to achieve this goal as soon as possible, some states like my home state of New York, have ramped up the rollout of the common core framework across all grade levels K-12 at a pace which has met with tremendous opposition. The “core” of the Common Core requires that all students’ basic skill sets in reading, writing, and math are transformed from the more “black and white” fact-based instructional system where information is memorized and presented back to the teacher to a system which demands high-level analytical thinking, abstract reasoning, and the ability to deconstruct and synthesize information beyond the basics. It changes the rules of the game for tens of thousands of students mid-stream.

This all sounds fantastic in theory, and no one really disputes the need for such a shift. The resistance comes from several fronts—parents of children with disabilities whose learning style does not follow the normal curve, parents who do not see college admission as the only end-goal of a high school education, and educators who know that new initiatives take time to nurture and grow successfully. What the Common Core initiative lacks is an appreciation for the developmental rate at which children, adolescents, and all of us, in fact, learn new tasks.

If I want to teach a child how to ride a bike, I must wait for a certain level of physical and muscle growth to take place. I am very likely to begin your lessons with training wheels on that bike to give you the feel and joy of riding on your own. As you develop a sense of confidence, the day will come when I will raise those training wheels a bit off the ground. You’re likely to complain a bit as you notice that the bike wobbles a bit and you have to work a little harder to keep it in balance. Over time, as your muscles and senses begin to work together, you’re ready for your first solo ride—sans training wheels. With further practice, you soon have a lifelong skill that will be available at a moment’s notice, even after years of not riding for one reason or another.

I suppose a shortcut to teaching this lifelong skill could be achieved by telling you to “just ride the bike” without the prerequisite steps, but then again I could also teach you to swim by throwing you in thirty feet of water and move your arms about quickly. This is not how most people want to learn to swim. Reason and decades of research in teaching new skills tells us that if we press a reluctant learner beyond his/her level of readiness, anxiety and avoidance may be the result. It’s for the same reason that a new driver doesn’t take their first driving lesson on the local parkway or freeway.

In New York it feels that the Common Core has thrown our students into the deep water without much preparation resulting in increased student stress levels. Let me illustrate with 3 scenarios:

  1. Last summer, I was interviewing a 5th grade boy in my private practice office. His mother had brought him in due to a heightened level of anxiety that he was beginning to express to her. I asked him to share three of his biggest worries with me. He spoke about the threat of nuclear war from North Korea, and about his father’s need to do a lot of air travel due to the nature of his job. He finally leaned back and then added, “And on top of these things, I have to take the Common Core ELA and Math tests this year”!
  2. At the start of the current school year, some of the departments were asked to present to the faculty a look at Regents exam changes—both pre and post Common Core. As a math-disabled adult myself, I cringed at a presentation by our math department. In the pre-Common Core example of a question from the Algebra Regents, a fairly standard algebraic equation was presented which asked the student to solve for “X”. Most of the teachers agreed that this was do-able. In the Common Core version of the same algebra Regents exam, 3 equations were presented to the student, fully solved. The student was then asked to respond in multiple choice format to which of a set of algebraic principles could be applied to solve all three equations. A colleague turned to me and said, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore”!
  3. The final scenario involves the instruction of students with disabilities, many of whom are in special education programs precisely because they lack the more abstract reasoning skills required to be successful in mainstream classes. Parents are now asking what will happen if their children cannot pass the new Common Core Regents with a grade of 65? Students are being asked to read and write at levels that they have not seen since they started kindergarten, and when they are unable to perform, are acting out at increasing rates.

Record numbers of students “opted out” of the recently administered Common Core ELA exams in New York. Parents complained that their children were coming home from school in tears that the line in the sand had to be drawn.

As if this were not enough of a tsunami for the school systems to bear, test results from Common Core exams have been linked to teacher evaluation, commonly called the Annual Principals Performance Rating (APPR). Teachers whose students do not meet the passing standard of the common Core exams are given a rating of “developing” and are given 3 years to improve their test results or face the risk of being asked to leave the profession.

So what does all of this intense system change do to children and teachers? It triggers the same fight-or-flight stress response system that the body uses when faced with a more real and present danger, like a barking dog breaking away from its owner’s leash and charging at someone—our muscles tighten, our heart rate increases, out breathing becomes increasingly shallow—and some of us will experience a sense of dread and foreboding as well. These are the same symptoms identified by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, DSM 5, as a specific phobia. It’s symptoms of test anxiety for certain, but with a more pronounced edge given that the individuals experiencing these symptoms are children…and in large numbers.

So what are teachers, parents, and other educators to do to help restore sanity to the schools?

Innovative Approaches to Managing Student Stress
Programs which create a sense of welcoming and belonging have made huge changes in schools across the United States and around the world. Here are examples of the most replicated approaches to positively impacting school-wide mental health.

  • Natural Helpers is a national, peer-to-peer program that educates students on how to quietly help their friends. They lend an ear when needed, or refer peers with serious problems—such as depression and substance abuse—to other resources. Anyone can do a Google search for schools using this program and learn how to develop a program in your own school.
  • Operation Respect seeks to create a respectful, safe and compassionate climate of learning where academic, social and emotional development can take place free of bullying, ridicule and violence.
  • Yoga and Mindful Meditation approaches are becoming increasingly popular in the classroom, and with great success. These introduce the relaxation-response, a well-known physiological antidote to symptoms of physical and mental stress. A resource guide with references to yoga and mindfulness programs was recently developed at a conference at Hofstra University and will be made available to all participants in my upcoming free webinar.

How does a student develop the skills to master the educational challenge of the Common Core?
Digital technology hijacks students’ attention in a way that distracts them from the academic pursuit of excellence. With students so tuned in to digital technology, why not use this same natural penchant for technology in a manner that can enable students to meet these rigorous standards with a sense of mastery and confidence? I would maintain that there is an essential digital toolkit that can be an enormous asset to ALL students in their quest to meet the 21st century challenge of Common Core face-to-face.

My own introduction to the Kurzweil 3000-firefly software first came when trying to assist my 2nd grade child when she was first diagnosed with dyslexia. Kate is now a thriving college freshman attending one of the finest SUNY colleges. Our school district was one of the first on Long Island to introduce Kurzweil technology into its special education program. Katie showed an immediate attraction to the text to speech technology that is a hallmark of this product. She immediately took to using the writing tools and the study skills toolbars built into the system. By the time she was in 10th grade, Katie was ready to be declassified. I have recommended this product to so many families, especially in this day of being asked to meet the even more challenging demands of the Common Core.

Join the conversation with Dr Anthony Pantaleno, PhD, a school psychologist in this webinar:
Student Stress, the Common Core, and Powerful Strategies for Change
April 30th at 4:30 PM ET

One comment

  • A body experiencing stress loses the ability to focus, concentrate on details, pay attention, think creatively- its primary intention is to flee from ‘danger’, the stressor….. stress from school- teacher’s stress, performance anxiety, overwhelm from homework – can thwart a child’s best intentions and create blocks to any real learning. The biochemicals released during the experience of stress also alter brain development and create triggers for future stress experiences and increased anxiety overall. We need to take this very seriously as we advocate for all kids to have an environment that fosters healthy development and overall well being along with creating a strong foundation for lifelong learning.

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