Parish Battles Back Against Perfection Pressure

An epidemic has arisen stealthily in the last decade.

We know some of its victims. They are young people who live lives of relative abundance. In general, they come from strong homes, attend solid, college preparatory schools (both public and private), and have promising futures.

And yet, they suffer. Sometimes smiling faces mask their inner strife and turmoil. Occasionally, symptoms are more evident. The affliction debilitates; it stifles productivity, strips away confidence and separates the adolescent from a sense of meaning and purpose.

campussuicideThis New York Times article from July suggests an apt name for this epidemic – Perfection Pressure – and cites some sobering statistics:

  • College counseling centers showing a 13% increase in just the last two years of students with “severe psychological problems.”
  • A Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State study showing that anxiety and depression, in that order, are now the most common mental health diagnoses among college students.

In a recent blog post I conveyed my intent to engage the community in a conversation on a purposeful, meaningful life. Readings like the one cited above and those referenced in my August letter proved provocative, challenging me both as a father and school leader to ask:

  • What’s going on here?
  • Is anyone noticing?
  • Are we, as parents and school leaders, somehow complicit in the spread of this virus?

To be sure, the causes of Perfection Pressure are multi-faceted. The world is complex and changing rapidly; students and parents alike wonder where young people will find their place in it. The college admissions process is more unpredictable and daunting; students and parents alike scramble furiously, and too often in a misdirected way, to crack the code to the “best college or university.” Social media presents a new frontier where public scrutiny and constant peer comparison have become the norm for adolescents already wrestling with the tumultuous process of self-discovery.

I believe as parents and school leaders we have missed the onset of this epidemic, or at least looked past its symptoms as just extreme manifestations of the legendary adolescent angst.

As a parent, I am undoubtedly imperfect. In exchange for some conversations with my boys about the next academic, co-curricular or college preparation obligation, I could offer ones about what it looks like to lead a well-lived, purposeful life.

As a long-time independent school leader, I am not naïve. I know in the well-intentioned quest to provide a vibrant, college preparatory experience, I have helped craft and implement programs – including Parish’s –  which have extended some students beyond their stamina limits.  But what attracted me to Parish seven years ago was, in part, the School’s purposeful commitment to balance. I believe we do this as well as any independent school I know and, given the rising epidemic of student anxiety now prevalent in today’s achievement-oriented culture, stewarding this commitment is among my highest priorities.

I’d highlight three features of our approach which promote balance:

MSvideoprojectPutting students in the “do mode” – Learning experiences which focus on skill-development as much as content consumption and regurgitation engender higher student engagement.

When students have choice and voice in how they learn concepts and in what manner they demonstrate understanding, they will also be more engaged. Engaging learning experiences feel less constricting and burdensome, and thus promote a sense of balance.

UScommonsScheduling to promote balance – Our Middle and Upper divisions utilize a “block schedule” featuring 80 minute classes. These longer time blocks afford time for deeper, less frenetic learning experiences in class, opportunities to complete “homework” and project work at school, and even space for necessary “decompression” during the day. We also hold fast to daily chapel, a 20 minute period in our day when students and adults alike can put  “to do lists” aside and center themselves. We recognize the gift this time affords us to teach a valuable lesson in honoring stillness and reflection.

8thgradeserviceMessaging to Mission – While we celebrate the achievements of our students, their achievements alone do not define them or our School. What our students hear from us consistently – through our comprehensive ParishLeads programming and in daily chapel – is that who they are becoming as people of impact and forces for good in our world trumps any recitation of their honors or awards.

BruniBookOpportunities exist for you to extend your thinking on this topic. Later this month (October 28), Parish has joined 14 other ISAS Schools in Dallas to bring Frank Bruni to St. Mark’s. Though our tickets for the evening have been allotted, I urge you to read Bruni’s book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be and recognize how much of his messaging is consistent with what we preach and live at Parish.

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