Standing before a full La Cañada High School auditorium, Denise Pope asked the parents and teachers to take 20 seconds and write on a piece of paper how they define “success.”
One said happiness. Another said freedom. One said “the ability to sleep at night” and, of course, there was one man who facetiously said “Ferrari,” which elicited laughter.
Pope, a Stanford University researcher, said that in her experience, too many students seriously give the Ferrari answer, equating success with money. She said she believes this is rooted in overvaluing quantitative measures of success and leaving the development of adolescents to the sidelines.
“Success is not a straight line,” she said. “Success is a squiggly path.”
Pope, whose research is encapsulated in her program, “Challenge Success,” showed parents survey data from her research that showed, among other things, that 30% of high school students were doing at least 3½ hours of homework each night and the average high school student did at least 10½ hours of extracurricular activity each week.
This year, LCHS 7/8 and LCHS were approved to partner with the program. Over the past 12 years, Challenge Success has worked with more than 130 high-performing middle and high schools on how to implement practices to improve academic engagement and student well-being.
Students who consistently have loads of homework tend to have poorer mental and physical health, Pope said, and also fall into a mentality of “doing school” as opposed to being engaged in what they’re learning.
Larger workloads mean staying up late, Pope said, and students’ answers in her research were troubling when compared with the nine-plus hours of sleep recommended by Stanford’s sleep sciences department. Although av
erage middle school students were getting eight hours of sleep each night, high school students were getting fewer than seven, Pope said.
“Your kids are not getting enough sleep,” she said. “This is probably not a shock to you. When you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re going to cut corners in ways that are not good.”
With such a strong emphasis on measured academic performance, Pope said students are inclined to stay up all night studying or doing homework, even though it isn’t effective. When they fall behind as a result, they’ll often cheat on assignments. For fear of risking a safe grade, students hold back on creativity and become “robo-students.”
“We are not seeing enough thinking outside of the box,” Pope said. “We’re not seeing excitement at taking a risk.”
One result Pope said she is seeing is students who get to the college they probably worked too hard to get into and then not knowing how to handle the inevitable failures that come with a more difficult curriculum. Additionally, students who spent their formative years staying up late doing busywork instead of developing socially and personally often struggle in conflicts with their peers.
“This is not OK,” Pope said. “They’re in college. They’re supposed to be able to figure this out. When you don’t know how to make mistakes, you don’t know how to solve your own problems.”
Parents should discourage their children from loading up on advanced placement courses simply because they want to pad their résumé, Pope said. Rather, students should focus on academics and extracurriculars that truly stimulate their development while also focusing on their personal health and growth.
The acronym “PDF,” or “Playtime, Downtime, Family Time,” should be considered, Pope added. Children should have unstructured social time, time to relax and rejuvenate, and time to spend with family. Limited screen time and a space for reading or playing music should be encouraged, as well as day-to-day tasks, such as household chores.
Pope illustrated the scenario of finding a kid lying in bed listening to music when he/she has a big game or a test forthcoming.
“The best thing you can do is let them have that time,” she said.
Parents should focus on other interests besides school when talking with their kids, too.
“When the first thing you ask when you pick them up is ‘How did your test go,’ that is sending the message to them that it is more important than how they’re feeling or what they did with their friends that day,” she said.
For more information, visit challengesuccess.org.