Born Ready

As high school seniors nationwide throw their mortarboards in celebration, some step into the future with a hazy sense of purpose, their majors and destinies “undeclared.” Others move forward with meticulously crafted blueprints, their college studies and career paths firmly plotted. And in some cases, those plans have been in the works since middle school or earlier.


We can hypothesize about the reasons we have started preparing children for careers sooner than in days past—parental jitters from the 2008 financial crisis, Common Core standards that emphasis career readiness, a desire to see students compete in the global marketplace. Regardless, the phenomenon of early career preparation is a reality, with children as young as elementary school learning about career options and touring universities. Many middle and high schools implement some form of the Career Cluster initiative, a program dedicated to sorting students into industry categories, from which they are guided into a career pathway.


Such direction can be a boon. Students develop ambition for careers of which they were previously ignorant. A professional focus can provide motivation to excel in school; rather than asking “why do I need to learn this?,” students have a clear reason always before them. They are well prepared to compete against others applying to similar college programs, because for many years, they have made choices—extracurricular activities, summer jobs, internships—that match their career goals.


At the same time, this early career prep might be contributing to the anxiety so many young people now face. John Thornton, a North Carolina youth pastor, wrote the following after a conversation about stress with middle and high school students:

The kids often used workplace lingo to describe their lives. One sixth-grader talked about a school assignment in which she had to develop a life plan that included her future career, which schools she should attend, and what she ought to major in at her chosen university. It was only later that I realized visualizing the future like this meant that every grade, every volunteer hour, every achievement or failure carried the weight of fulfilling that imagined future.

Joseph E. Davis, Research Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia and Chair of the Picturing the Human Colloquy at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, expressed similar concerns in a recent interview. He said:

It is the child’s job to “find their passion” and then “live up to their potential.” But while no particular direction is given, there is the clear expectation of worldly success.… “You choose your schtick but darn it, you better be pretty good at it!” Perhaps not surprisingly, levels of anxiety and depression are off the charts for young people.

Davis held that as part of the push for students to own a calling from a young age, they are saddled with the expectation that they will devote massive amounts of time to fulfilling it. In another interview, he mentioned a 20-year-old student who, after asking him to write a letter of recommendation, gave him her resume. Davis said:

It was four single-spaced pages of accomplishments that began about in seventh grade. It was just incredible; these were national achievements.… It was an extreme example of where each activity of your life is being conducted with an eye to it being an accomplishment that could be put down on paper.… In some ways, you document your greatness.

There is undeniable merit to living deliberately, to giving time to that which facilitates one’s long-term goals. At the same time, there can be a sense among some students that failing to do all of this—not figuring out what you’re going to be, not taking the “right” classes or participating in enough extracurriculars or winning impressive awards—is a recipe for disaster.


In a culture in which it’s hard to get away from the early push to choose and prepare for a career, how can teachers help counteract the anxiety that can accompany this push? Here are some ideas:


Tell the stories of great men and women who changed their minds.


It is common to start on one path and then choose another! Harrison Ford was a carpenter for fifteen years before he embraced acting as his calling. Walt Disney started out as a journalist and was fired for his lack of good ideas. Vera Wang was a figure skater prior to her career as a fashion designer. Whoopi Goldberg worked in a funeral parlor before she was an actress. Brandon Stanton, the creator of “Humans of New York,” was a bond trader before he became a professional photographer. Jonah Peretti, the founder of Buzzfeed, majored in environmental studies and taught computer science prior to his publishing career. Ellen Degeneres shucked oysters, waited tables, and sold vacuum cleaners before she turned to comedy. Andrea Bocelli was a defense lawyer before he was a world-famous singer. The list goes on and on. And the point is this: It is not only okay to change direction, it is common, and many of the people we respect do just that.


Tell your own stories or those of people you know.


It’s not just famous people who change course. Maybe you or someone you know has this story! It’s helpful for children and teenagers to hear about the journeys of those who changed their majors, discovered new passions, shifted gears professionally, and landed on their feet.


Encourage students to keep their minds open and to value what matters.


Even if a young person has a clear vision for their future, there’s a lot to be said for trying new things. Some even argue that a “sampling period” (and the freedom to quit activities that don’t sustain interest) is crucial to discovering true passions. It’s also important to remember that who we are as people—kind or selfish, truthful or dishonest, hard working or lazy—is far more important than what we do for a living.


Equipped with resources about various career opportunities—and the message that it’s okay to change direction—students can make decisions and plans with courage. Both the decided and the undecided will know that they are far more than the sum of their accomplishments, and that the future is a hopeful, open-ended place.

Schools offer yoga, advice to stressed teens as others point to contributing cultural factors

School districts in parts of Washington state are implementing yoga and other de-stressing activities into classes to address the climbing stress levels among students.

A recent survey reveals increasing percentages of students who report “very” stressful lives, and efforts to address the problem through yoga and stress-reduction techniques are positive steps toward dealing with anxiety without medications. Others also point to the cultural causes of student stress, and encourage schools to help students manage emotions while forming good character.

According to the Milford Daily News:

Data from the MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey reports more and more high school students claiming “very” stressful lives with each survey. More than a quarter of high school teenagers surveyed since 2006 checked the option. Numbers shot up to 35 percent in 2014, then rose another percentage point in 2016, the most recent survey . . .

The regional MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey covers behaviors from smoking, drinking and taking non-prescription drugs, to having sex, bullying, depression, attempted suicides and more. High school and middle students in 25 cities and towns in the area fill out the surveys every other year, and many local districts rely on the data.

And while the responses show fewer teens smoked cigarettes or marijuana, had sex, faced bullying, or drank alcohol last year than in years past, school officials are particularly worried about the rising anxiety among students.

“I’ve been here six years now and I have only seen it worsening,” Ashland High School counselor Jennifer Pavia-Shiels told the Daily News. “It’s probably the biggest mental health challenge that I see with my students.”

To help students cope, teachers incorporated yoga into a wellness class at Bellingham High School, administrators launched homework-free “family reconnect weekends” at Ashland High School, and educators in Hopedale schools assign “mindfulness” homework to encourage students to take time off for bike rides and down time.

Other schools are implementing later start times, and adding free periods to give students more time to talk with counselors.

“There’s a certain amount of stress in the sort of mild to moderate range that helps us accomplish our goals, but what we’re experiencing is beyond that, beyond what we’ve seen before,” Franklin School Superintendent Sara Ahern said. “We really want to tame it and help students identify sources of stress.”

Local educators told the news site students feel pressured to create standout resumes for college, many through multiple after-school activities and high-level academic courses while maintaining jobs and social lives.

“Many of our students feel tremendous pressure to sort of push themselves . . . at a pace that is difficult to sustain,” Milford High School Principal Joshua Otlin said.

“Really my job is to teach them some strategies to help them self-regulate when the panic is setting in,” Pavia-Sheils said. “Beyond that, we’re trying to teach almost different lifestyle choices to reduce that stress.”

Hopedale Superintendent Karen Crebase also pointed out that social media is exacerbating the problem.

“They’re living on a platform where everybody knows what they’re doing and when they’re doing it,” Hopedale Superintendent Karen Crebase said. “And I think that has made the need to be perceived in a different way even stronger.”

The problems with student anxiety mirror issues with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder addressed by Jay Tolson in The Hedgehog Review, a publication of the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Students with ADHD have been treated in large part with medication, but both issues—ADHD and teen anxiety—beg for a broader understanding of contributing cultural causes driving the trends.

Tolson writes:

[We should think] about attention . . . [at least in part] as a cultural problem. Even in relation to America’s epidemic of ADHD, for example, a healthy awareness of the indeterminacy of attention should alert us both to the inadequacy of strictly biologistic explanations of the disorder and to the strong likelihood that culture plays a part in the rising incidence of people being treated for the symptoms associated with it (the “holy trinity” of which are poor attention, poor self-control, and excessive activity).

According to the best recent study, some 4.8 million Americans used medications (usually Adderall or Ritalin) for the condition in 2012, a 36 percent increase over the number who used it 2008, with the most striking increase among women between 26 and 34. (Adolescent boys 12 to 18 still lead all age and gender groups, with almost one in ten taking some kind of medication.) The fact that no other modern industrial or postindustrial society comes close to America’s numbers explains why even some physicians feel wary about overmedicalization. There are good reasons to suspect that the condition may have as much to do with our performance-obsessed culture as with neurons, particularly when we hear about the ever-rising expectations and competitiveness in childrearing practices, schools, and the modern workplace.

Though published in 1998, Running on Ritalin: A Physician Reflects on Children, Society, and Performance in a Pill remains a valuable reflection on the challenges of diagnosing and treating the disorder. Lawrence H. Diller, a pediatrician and family therapist with extensive clinical experience and much good sense, laces his accounts of specific cases with shrewd commentary on the need to understand how the demands of our culture may be driving too many Americans to medicate their children or themselves: ‘As competition on every level intensifies, our preoccupations as a culture increasingly center on performance. And our children, whether we realize it or not, have been serving as a proving ground for the premise of medicating to enhance performance.’

Several school officials in Washington told the Daily News they’ve incorporated social emotional learning into daily classroom lessons as another positive step toward helping overstressed students.

The Jubilee Centre also offers lessons on managing emotions as a way of intentionally forming good character in students.

NYT highlights rise in teen anxiety tied to social media

An increasing percentage of teens are suffering from a variety of different forms of anxiety, and it’s preventing them from going to school, or even leaving their bedrooms.

Experts told The New York Times that the situation, highlighted by college surveys and other statistics, is steadily getting worse and is likely tied to the use of social media, and efforts by some schools to help overly anxious students deal with their issues are actually counterproductive.

Others point to a broader cultural shift in America that’s replaced the community’s role of intentionally forming good character in teens with a focus on the individual, often leaving young adults looking to social media to craft their own sense of self.

The Times featured one student from North Carolina identified only as Jake, who excelled in Advanced Placement classes, participated in cross-country, and took part in the Model United Nations before his mother said he seemingly “ran 150 miles per hour into a brick wall.”

Jake turned from a normal 17-year-old junior into a literal ball of fear, crying in the fetal positon on the floor and refusing to go to school.

“I just can’t take it!” he screamed. “You just don’t understand!”

Jake explained his anxiety to The Times.

“You know how a normal person might have their stomach lurch if they walk into a classroom and there’s a pop quiz?” he said. “Well, I basically started having that feeling all the time.”

Jake certainly isn’t alone.

“Over the last decade, anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services. In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase—to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011—of undergraduates reporting ‘overwhelming anxiety’ in the previous year,” The Times reports.

“Surveys that look at symptoms related to anxiety are also telling. In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA began asking incoming college freshmen if they ‘felt overwhelmed by all I had to do’ during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent,” according to the news site.

“Those numbers—combined with a doubling of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers over the last 10 years, with the highest rates occurring soon after they return to school each fall—come as little surprise to high school administrators across the country, who increasingly report a glut of anxious, overwhelmed students.”

The anxiety problems are hitting students from a variety of backgrounds, with poorer students concerned about their personal safety in bad neighborhoods and abusive households, and more affluent students consumed with perfection and expectations of getting into a top college.

Other students suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorders, fear of terrorism, or family conflicts.

One common denominator, however, seems to be social media.

The Times reports:

Anxious kids certainly existed before Instagram, but many of the parents I spoke to worried that their kids’ digital habits—round-the-clock responding to texts, posting to social media, obsessively following the filtered exploits of peers—were partly to blame for their children’s struggles. To my surprise, anxious teenagers tended to agree. At Mountain Valley (treatment center in New Hampshire), I listened as a college student went on a philosophical rant about his generation’s relationship to social media. “I don’t think we realize how much it’s affecting our moods and personalities,” he said. “Social media is a tool, but it’s become this thing that we can’t live without but that’s making us crazy.”

Jean Twinge, psychology professor at San Diego State University, told The Times she was initially skeptical that internet use played a role in the rise of teen anxiety, but reams of research seem to support the notion.

“The use of social media and smartphones look culpable for the increase in teen mental-health issues,” she said. “It’s enough for an arrest—and as we get more data, it might be enough for a conviction.”

Meanwhile, schools are struggling to address a raft of anxious teens in several different ways, though some experts believe efforts to make life easier for them are likely contributing to the problem.

Lynn Lyons, a psychotherapist and author who works with teachers and counselors, pointed to policies that segregate anxious students from uncomfortable situations during a presentation at Fall Mountain Regional High School last fall.

“Anxiety is all about the avoidance of uncertainty and discomfort,” she said. “When we play along, we don’t help kids learn to cope or problem-solve in the face of unexpected events.”

Special educational plans for anxious students that allow them more time for tests, or to enter school through the back door to avoid the melee of other students, for example, aren’t helping.

“If anxiety could talk, it would say, ‘You know, let’s just get out of here. We don’t have to do this!'” Lyons said. “But in order to retrain the brain, in order to create that message that says that even though I’m uncomfortable I can do this, we need to stop treating these anxious kids like they’re so frail, like they can’t handle things.”

It’s a similar situation in college, she said, where students are offered “safe spaces” or shielded from ideas they might find offensive.

“Kids are being given some really dangerous messages these days about the fact that they can’t handle being triggered, that they shouldn’t have to bear witness to anything that makes them uncomfortable and that their external environments should bend to and accommodate their needs,” Lyons told The Times.

Much of the problem stems from a cultural shift that has taken the focus away from the role of society and community in developing strong character and replaced it with a focus on the individual without the broader context, Joseph Davis, at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, wrote in the The Hedgehog Review.

“The circumstances under which children are raised and socialized have changed profoundly over the past half century, as has the experience of growing up. These changes, spurred by far-reaching social and demographic changes, are broadly familiar, at least with respect to the middle class,” Davis wrote. “They include the decline of relatively stable and uniform patterns of child rearing and the increased prevalence of permissive and consensus-orientated rules for children. The complications of such a changed social reality cannot be negligible factors in the struggles of today’s youth.

“But the focus on faulty thinking, self-absorption, and other explanations that locate the problem at the individual level divert attention away from the role of families, communities, and institutions,” Davis wrote. “Even discussions of the competitive environment and achievement orientation of certain high schools and colleges lead back to the idea that student problems arise from a misreading of pressure and disappointment.”

Davis explained that without institutions or communities that intentionally work to form good character, students are left to develop their sense of self on their own, and most turn to social media to help them along.

“Social media like Facebook are precisely designed to facilitate these self-representations by providing access to the range of possibilities such self-making depends on. That is one reason young people become so engrossed in and dependent on them,” he wrote.

The situation leaves youngsters vulnerable to the real world, and that explains why many students eventually seek out counseling or mental health services, according to Davis.

“The challenges that real life inevitably poses to the precariously constructed self result in both a need for constant vigilance and a growing reliance on therapeutic assistance,” Davis wrote. “Ironically—we might even say tragically—young people say that much of what they get from mental-health treatment is professional reassurance that their personal struggles, whether with grades or breakups or motivation, require little, if any, meaningful re-evaluation of how they became so vulnerable.

“Such a re-evaluation would, in any case, be unthinkable to many young people.”