Losing Patience With Children: Are Schools Aggravating the Youth Mental Health Crisis?

The staggering increases in depression and suicide in children and teens since the early 2000s coincide with the widespread use of smartphones and the rise of social media. Although there is evidence of links between technology use and declining mental health, what if we have it wrong? What if living online is not the cause of this apparent epidemic but a symptom of an even larger problem?

This idea is presented in a provocative essay, “We Have Ruined Childhood” by author Kim Brooks. Describing a “fundamental shift in the way we view children and child-rearing,” she writes:

Children turn to screens because opportunities for real-life human interaction have vanished; the public places and spaces where kids used to learn to be people have been decimated or deemed too dangerous for those under 18. … And so for many Americans, the nuclear family has become a lonely institution—and childhood, one long unpaid internship meant to secure a spot in a dwindling middle class.

School is central to that “unpaid internship.” Almost no one believes that American schools are adequately preparing kids for college and/or careers, even as we hear calls for it from across the political spectrum. But we are succeeding in introducing them to the demands and stresses of adulthood. Starting in preschool.

Kids growing up amid poverty, abuse, neglect, or other chronic stressors are already on high alert for perceived threats and struggling to manage their emotions, and schools tend to be more adept at adding pressure than relieving it.Click To Tweet

“Now that kindergarten serves as a gatekeeper, not a welcome mat, to elementary school, concerns about school preparedness kick in earlier and earlier,” according to a 2016 article in The Atlantic by early childhood educator and author Erika Christakis. “Preschool classrooms have become increasingly fraught spaces, with teachers cajoling their charges to finish their ‘work’ before they can go play.” And the shift has been tragically counterproductive; Christakis cites a study showing that

although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. … [C]hildren who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning

Perfectionism is also on the rise, according to a 2019 analysis of nearly 80 studies, some involving teens. “Perfectionism is robustly linked in the research to anxiety, stress, depression, eating disorders and suicide,” noted the researchers, who cited social media, “controlling and critical” parents and the constant emphasis on “rank and performance” as likely causes.

What would drive perfectionism in children? In an essay for Vox.com, a pastor who runs youth retreats described something he learned about teens’ school experiences:

All of them said they voluntarily get their grades pushed to their phones through notifications. It took me a minute to realize just how annoying and agonizing that must feel. It means that at any moment, they could find out they bombed a test or missed an assignment. … Technology serves as a source of constant intrusion into their lives, never allowing them to forget about their schoolwork or grades.

He added, “I also noticed how much their schools force them to think about their careers at increasingly young ages. … A middle school student said, ‘Things are stressful, but you just have to have a good work-life balance.’”

Is this something you had to worry about in middle school? What about getting killed, or watching classmates die? School shootings are relatively rare, but active-shooter drills are now common, even though no one really knows if they’re doing more harm than good. In a 2019 article, Erika Christakis writes:

Around the country, young children are being taught to run in zigzag patterns so as to evade bullets. I’ve heard of kindergartens where words like barricade are added to the vocabulary list, as 5- and 6-year-olds are instructed to stack chairs and desks “like a fort” should they need to keep a gunman at bay. In one Massachusetts kindergarten classroom hangs a poster with lockdown instructions that can be sung to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”: Lockdown, Lockdown, Lock the door / Shut the lights off, Say no more.

… Being small and powerless is inherently stressful. This is true even when nothing especially bad is going on. How misguided to take young brains already bathed in stress hormones and train them to fear low-probability events such as mass shootings — and how little most of us think about what we’re doing.

All of this is on top of whatever effects of stress that children might bring with them from home. Kids growing up amid poverty, abuse, neglect, or other chronic stressors are already on high alert for perceived threats and struggling to manage their emotions, and schools tend to be more adept at adding pressure than relieving it. Not because teachers and administrators don’t care — most do, passionately. But they are working within a system that seems to be losing patience with children and their needs.

Explore how you and other educational professionals can continue to support social-emotional wellness in school settings with our featured Trauma-Informed School Environments Training and Consultation.

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