The Pressured Child; Helping Your Child Find Success in School and Life
By Michael Thompson, Ph.D., Teresa Barker
As a psychologist my advice is simple: If you can find a way to ask children how school is for them, they will tell you. (I hasten to add that when it comes to talking to children, it is easier being a psychologist than a parent-more on that later.) Children tell me why school is scary. They tell me when they are bored. They tell me when teachers are hypocrites. Without fail, when interviewing a student, I always learn something that no adult was able to tell me about that child's functioning in school. I often learn something insightful about the school itself.
This past year I interviewed a boy who was in serious trouble for plagiarizing a paper in his senior year. The school was upset, his parents were distressed, and the boy was ashamed. He had been a good student, and when I asked what had happened to him he said. "This school is all about rhythm and regimen, and I've been out of rhythm for over a year." Not only was his characterization a brilliant description of his academically high-pressure school, it struck me as absolutely accurate on a psychological basis. He was out of rhythm with the demands of school. Haven't we all felt that way at some time during our school careers?
I have never heard from a student a life-at-school story with which I could not personally identify. A student describes her fury at the drama teacher who humiliated her in front of the class by saying. "Some people in this class are too shy," right after she had done her pantomime in front of her peers. I remember something like that. A disgusted third-grade boy becomes irate because the teacher supervising the playground made them stop playing soccer after just one near-light between two boys. Of course that would make him angry. I cannot tell you how many times, when sitting with a child. I have wanted to shout, "That's the reason you're doing so badly. Now I understand why you can't concentrate!"
Sometimes the issue has nothing to do with classes, teachers, or homework. A tenth-grade boy with chronic headaches was having a stressful breakup with his girlfriend. This was taking up all of his mental energy. His parents' insistence that he work harder at school was falling on ears clogged with emotional pain.
That's a problem with being a parent. When your child tells you that he's doing badly in school because he's breaking up with his girlfriend, the parent side of you is compelled to say. "Don't make excuses!" or. "Well. I'm sorry that things aren't working out, but school is your future and you must not let everything go to hell in a hand-basket over your first love relationship." Such an exchange usually brings the discussion to an end.
A psychologist doesn't need to reproach or remind children of what's important. We need only to understand their inner life. This is why it is easier to get the story as a psychologist. Fearing a parent's judgment, children shut down in anticipation.
Almost invariably, I come away with the feeling that the child understands her school situation better than her parents do-even the most concerned and compassionate parents. Time and again, I have sat in my office with parents who are surprised as I explain what school is like for their child. They say. "We didn't realize she felt frightened every day." or. "We had no idea he hated his teacher so much. We didn't think things were that bad."
In eighth grade, I hated my teacher. I thought he was a real jerk: vulgar, slothful, self-indulgent, and mean to kids. I complained to the principal, fantasizing that I could get him fired. Two years later, I conducted a campaign against my tenth-grade French teacher, one of the most boring and petty human beings it has ever been my misfortune to know, hoping I could drive him into retirement. That didn't work either. Instead, I kept getting lectures and detentions for my efforts. Other years, I was detached, ashamed, or anxious. This, despite a level of academic success that took me to Harvard.
Throughout eighth grade, my parents repeated the adult mantra "You have to learn to work for people you don't like." I wanted to scream back: "It's not just that I don't like him. I don't respect him as
a human being and I'm forced to spend all day with him. Do you know what that feels like?" I wanted my parents to understand what it felt like to be in this man's classroom every single day. to understand that, even though I was doing reasonably well academically and was in many ways a "good student," I hated it. Every day, I hated it all over again.
A friend reported this to me after an open house at her seventh-grader's school, where parents attended a mini-version of their student's day-just five minutes in each class: "At one point, in the math teacher's presentation. I realized I was not paying attention. I tried to remember what I had been thinking about in those moments before I realized I wasn't listening and was lost in thought. Here it is: I was thinking about my driving schedule for the next day. I'm not sure I would ever have thought there is anything more boring than thinking about my driving schedule, but I guess there was: the math teacher. We were so relieved when we got out ninety minutes later-and we skipped last period!"
My daughter, Joanna, kept telling me that her tenth-grade science teacher was unbelievably boring. I was certain that she was overstating the case until I went to school with her on parents' visiting day. After fifteen minutes of listening to her teacher drone on in his deadly fashion. I wanted to scream, pass notes, daydream, or-as the Monty Python folks used to say-"Run away!" For me, the best thing about his class was that I did not ever have to return. Sadly, my daughter had to go back four times a week for seven more months. All I could do to help her was to get over that difficult threshold of adult loyalty and acknowledge the truth: "You're right. Joanna, he is incredibly boring."
My friend Jim Sadler is the headmaster of a small school in the Virgin Islands. Because his school is so small, he is personally responsible for evaluating all the members of his faculty. With a faculty of 70, he visits each teacher's classroom twice a year, for a total of 140 classroom visits. He tries to distribute the visits evenly across the academic year, but sometimes after a long recruiting trip to the mainland, he returns to the island and has to double or triple up his visits. "When I face a day in which I am scheduled to go to three classes. I just dread it." he told me. "Isn't it amazing that we ask kids to do something we wouldn't do? I can hardly bear going to three classes, yet we require kids to go to seven classes per day, five days per week." A total of thirty-five classes, week after week.
School is a rich and interesting world in which children live most of their young lives, yet we don't give them enough credit for what is going on inside their minds. Many parents think life begins after school. That couldn't be farther from the truth, both as a psychological matter and as a mathematical matter. If a college-bound girl is going to live to the age of eighty, her time spent in school and college represents 28 percent of her life. School occupies more waking hours of a child's life than home does. Every child in school has an intense psychological journey that must be lived-happily or unhappily inside the school building. Inside those brick walls is where kids may feel excited, exultant, furious, or disappointed. Children know this very well. They sit at their desks and feel the passage of time. Some teenagers have said to me, "At this school, I don't have a life!" The phrase has haunted me.
Did you have a lite in school? It so, what kind of a lite was it? Or did you have a life outside school, in spite of school? If you want to understand what your child is experiencing, you need to recover authentic memories of your life in school. You have to focus on the unique psychological journey you took through school. Did your education touch your soul? Did it appeal to your authentic self? Did you discover yourself in school? What did you discover?
I asked a gifted scientist about his elementary school years. He immediately began to relate stories from fifth grade. When I questioned him about his first five years in school, grades kindergarten through four, he couldn't remember anything. I pressed hard, and he couldn't bring much back. He did know that he was slow in learning to read. "I didn't learn to read until third grade. In fact, I was about to be held back," he said. He then remembered that in fourth grade he went to the library and took out a book on Ohm's law to try to calculate resistance for parallel circuits.