Sometimes we find the right environment and that does it all. Sometimes it’s about making compromises and arrangements with the people in an environment so that our children are protected to the best of our ability.
For our smallest children, once it’s time to send them to preschool and kindergarten, we need to understand all the basics of their physical development and find a school that supports that. I personally would not send my child to an accelerated learning program where the focus is on academics. I’ve visited prestigious little schools in England where the focus for four-year-olds is highly academic. Art appreciation and identifying how you feel in response to a story is meaningless and pretty joyless to a four-year-old. I would search for the kindergarten or preschool that makes creative play a focused priority. The school needs to offer an outside play area and lots of time to be in it.
I would look for a school that does not tax my child’s slowly developing brain before it is ready. The emotions our young children feel need to be positive. Joy, anticipation, wonder, and excitement are all part of the picture. Remember, we’re talking about children whose brains are not fully myelinated. Any early academic skills that they have are splinter skills, not an indication of real global intellectual capacity.
It is essential to protect our small children from as many stressors as possible for as long as we can. The question we should ask is not whether they will meet some of the harsher realities of this world (they will) but how and when they do.
As parents of young children, we’re given this gift of a few years in which we’re actually able to select the place we think will be optimum to our child’s development. And the people who work in that environment are key. Are they warm and loving? When we meet them, do we get a good “vibe”? We need to know we are leaving our children in a lovingly coherent place, because a child who is surrounded by a low-stress nurturing environment will not overreact to stressful situations later.
For young children, I would seek out an environment that supports their physical development, that does not focus on introducing early academics, and where I can literally “feel the love.” This will support their growth in an optimal way.
Elementary and Middle School
When our children go on to elementary and middle school, we should keep in mind that their surroundings should still support them developmentally. Sometimes, this is really tricky: classrooms are often designed as though they’re promoting the ADHD factors in students and teachers alike, as I experienced in Florida.
We need to meet the teachers who will be spending most of the day with our children, and we need to feel good about them, as if we can have a supportive relationship with that person. If we feel anxious about or antagonistic towards a child’s teacher, I guarantee that our children will detect that anxiety and its source. If we simply can’t feel good about the teacher, we should seriously consider another school.
It’s also really helpful for us to let go of prejudices and preconceived notions about educational institutions and assess each one that we look at with sensitivity: is this place and this teacher a good fit for my child? Each child is unique, so word-of-mouth generalizations might need serious re-evaluation when it comes to considering a school’s suitability for a particular child. I’ve had to let go of all my preconceptions about different forms of education. I am deeply grateful that there are many options available, because there is no “one size fits all” school system.
If we believe passionately and hard-headedly that we need to support public education, no matter what, we might have a torturous journey at some point when we discover that the best fit for a child is a small, private school. Likewise, if we look down from a dizzy height on public schools and decide that our children will only attend the best, most highly regarded private schools, we could well be setting ourselves up for a very stressful journey if the values and aims of that system don’t end up suiting our sons or daughters.
When we first moved to Australia, we put our son in three different elementary schools in the first year. It was quite traumatic. I looked at his behavior, his daily headaches, and his reluctance to go to school every day, and then I looked closely at his physical and emotional environments. He was fine on the weekends but falling apart during the week. The difference lay in the environment and the people he experienced in each of those environments. As we switched from school to school, I gently told him to see each experience as an experiment. I said, “Remember, there’s nothing trapping you here. Give it a go, and if it doesn’t work for you, we’ll find another option. There are tons of schools and one of them will be the right fit.” Then we found the right fit and it wasn’t where I expected it to be. Suffice it to say that I swallowed all my previous prejudices regarding one particular educational system over another (yes, we all harbor those) and embraced the new environment as the right place for my son to thrive.
My friend Nicole, who lives in Florida, has her daughters enrolled in a large “magnet” public school, which apparently focuses on the arts. In her dealings with other parents, she reflects that “most parents feel like it’s their duty to push their children as hard as they can all of the time. I’m the only parent whose child qualified for gifted services who declined it . . . because, I said, I don’t want my child stressed, and I want to know whether it will stress her. The teachers had never ever encountered anyone who refused gifted services! There’s so much focus on grades here that a ten-year-old in my daughter’s class who got a ‘B’ in her report said her mom ‘about killed her.’ I’ve assured my daughters that I’m proud of the people they are and that grades are insignificant.
I asked her about the structure of the school day, and she said, “What they do is they avoid recess. Recess is rare. If it does occur, it lasts only two to four minutes. There’s a concerted effort to avoid any social interaction between children. It keeps bullying and other issues at bay. Children are overstimulated in the classroom the whole day. They’re not given any time to socially connect or interact. No talking is allowed. They can whisper and chat in small groups about work only. If students are walking in the halls, they have to walk in silence, in a row. In the cafeteria, where they have ten minutes to eat, all the children sit and face forward. They can whisper, but anything above a whisper and the lights get flicked and enforced silence follows. After they’ve eaten, the children go into a dark room where a movie is playing where they wait for their teachers to collect them. The other day my youngest daughter’s class was making noise, so when the teacher came to pick them up from the movie room, the noise report was given to her and she marched the children back to their classroom, taking them past the playground, where she said, ‘You would have had recess, but because you were noisy, you have to go straight back to the classroom.’”
Nicole says her children are so wired when they get home that she makes sure their bikes are ready outside the garage. They go for an hour-long bike ride. Otherwise, she says, the evening is “a meltdown.” This is a creative way of mitigating the stress of the day and making sure the children move their bodies and spend time with their parents.
When I asked her why she has her children attend there, she said, “This is good compared to mainstream America.” (This is someone who has, more thoroughly than anyone else I know, researched schools in her thirty-mile radius for the past several years and found the best possible place for her children.)
A few of the teachers are open to some degree. I can talk to them. But I’m thinking of homeschooling my youngest. She’s not thriving in this environment. Third grade is the year she’s in and it’s the year the kids do the FCATs. It’s the one grade where they hold you back a year if you fail. The teacher keeps threatening the kids with the words, ‘You’re gonna be held back!’ As my youngest starts to understand grades, she’s getting upset about what a C means. She’s started saying she’s fat! She also has no opportunity to forge friendships and no free time. My eldest is coping much better and has a sense of irony about everything. She’s also outperforming almost every other student in the school and, for the moment, is fine.”
I asked her why she’d refused the gifted services for her daughter.
“Well, I’ve said I need to explore it further. I want to know whether gifted services mean extra stress. If kids are pulled out of their regular classes, do they have to catch up on what they miss in addition to what they get in the gifted program? Is it really enrichment? My feeling is that it’s just pushing them harder. So I’m going to sit in on the gifted classes and see for myself.”
Here is a parent who might take one child out of a school that seems to be fine for the other child. In addition to that, she’s communicating with the teachers so that she knows exactly what’s happening with and to her children.
I asked Nicole what she did to support her children in a less-than-ideal primary school environment and what she did to assess whether the environment was indeed the right fit for a particular child. Here’s what she’s done.
“I volunteer in the classroom (that way I see how the teacher interacts with the children and what the day looks like); I interviewed and spoke to the teachers who would be teaching my child; I let teachers know what I wanted. For example, I’ve said to my daughters’ teachers, ‘Look, we understand that homework is a reality here; however, from my perspective, if there’s an opportunity to give less rather than more, please do. I prefer no stress.’ Maybe they think I’m crazy, but in my mind, it’s worth it. I had to advocate for my child and what my family’s philosophy is . . . if you run into a brick wall, change schools! Be involved. Parents who volunteer get a better sense of the environment and the people in it.”
Children in elementary school need to be engaged in activities that support neural development. In the past, children used to do things like knit or play the recorder. These are elements that existed in mainstream education but have been mostly pushed out in favor of iPads and laptops for every child. In doing so, we’ve lost a fundamental developmental step that we might be paying for in other areas.
Activities that engage and support fine motor skills in elementary school children involve the brain in complex activity that paves the way for the development of neural connections that will be required for later academic skills.
In Finland’s educational model, where formal learning begins later than it does in the UK, the US, Australia, and many other countries, we might be concerned that this would be occurring relatively late. However, there is absolutely no proven benefit at all for children learning to read at age four or five as opposed to seven. Looking at the success of the Finnish system, I’d strongly advocate that educational authorities look to that country for a successful educational model where children are evidently not being hurried towards an imaginary high-stakes finish line and where the results are inarguably impressive.
Love, patience, and understanding for the developmental process itself will alleviate parental stress in the early grades. So look for a school that understands that children develop at different rates and that works with differentiated learning approaches. This means that the school is aware that there are visual learners, kinesthetic learners, and auditory learners and offers learning opportunities that suit all those preferred styles of learning across the board. It means a school where brain maturation is understood as a slow process that will take up to twenty-five years to complete. Find an elementary and middle school where children are valued and where it’s obvious that there is a variety of activities to support the development of gross and fine motor skills that engage the children in creative activities that bring joy and harmony to their lives (music, art, drama, dance), as well the normal academic program. Experiential learning, as we all know, is one of the most significant ways in which we develop the capacity to do something well.
Remember that heart rhythms are affected by activities that regulate breathing: rowing a boat, dancing, singing, playing a wind instrument, and reciting poetry or Shakespeare all affect the breathing and, thus, the heart. Elementary and middle schools that offer these activities, including Waldorf/Steiner schools, which offer a developmental model that closely aligns to children’s physiological, emotional, and cognitive growth, and Montessori, which allows an individualized approach to learning, would be absolutely worth considering. We don’t have to find Utopia, but we can go a long way to minimizing the potential of stress at school for our children.
Outside of school, engage with children physically and creatively as much as possible, expanding on all these elements. Kayaking together as a family on the weekend, playing games like cards or tag, making a family member a birthday card, or building a go-kart all create strong, warm relationships and allow children the space they need to develop into well-balanced human beings.
When we come to look for the ideal high school environment for our teens, we need to consider that they find what they are looking for, what inspires them, as well as what we believe they need. For that to happen, we might take a step back and engage our teens in a conversation that takes into account the following:
Does the environment look like somewhere where you can be happy spending your day? (Is it aesthetically appealing?)
Do the teachers seem genuine?
Do you feel like you will matter here?
Does the curriculum offer things that interest or inspire you?
In fact, the research we need to do for high school is the same as for elementary and middle school, but our teens need to be much more engaged in the decision-making process. We need to support them to find an environment where they are not treated like inmates in an institution. An excellent but highly academic school might be just the thing for one teen but inordinately stressful for another. Choosing an environment that is supportive of our teen’s development needs to match who they are as a person. Some young people need a school with two thousand others, while others thrive in smaller schools. It’s essential that during this period, when almost anything outside of serious academic work is regarded as superfluous, we adults ensure our teens are getting the space and time to breathe out, to follow their creative impulses, to daydream, to do physical activity, to play music, and to spend time with friends. If we can balance these elements, we will be supporting their development in an optimum way, in optimum environments, and mitigating the effects of the stresses they will face.
For the turbulent teens, finding a school that is aesthetically pleasing and tells them they are welcome and trusted, a place where they are treated with respect, and a place where activities are offered that inspire them and challenge them, rather than terrify and oppress them, is ideal. And this place could be anywhere.
The people in this place will be affecting our teens, so their values and their state of heart will impact how our children feel. As we know, the IHM has measured the role of “physiological coherence in the detection and measurement of cardiac energy exchange between people. When an individual is generating a coherent heart rhythm, synchronization between that individual’s brainwaves and another person’s heartbeat is more likely to occur.” This is still absolutely true for our teens. We know without a doubt that the physiological factors that ensure proper cognitive, emotional, and intellectual development are intimately linked with the heart and with the healthy function of the autonomic nervous system. Clarity of thought is not just randomly associated with feeling good. Brain function is optimized when the rhythmic systems in the body are operating in coherence with one another. A person in high coherence is not a stressed person.
It’s during the teen years that the phrase “use it or lose it” is particularly apt. The brain is going through a rapid pruning phase, and those neural connections that aren’t used are pruned. If our teens are sitting glued to the screen, lost in some addictive computer game, it doesn’t take a high-powered scientist to figure out that those thumb-eye connections will be in excellent working order while the ability to speak a foreign language or play an instrument might be relegated to the back seat or vanish altogether.
Support teens to move through the world and engage as much and as often as possible with new things that they love. This, in itself, is a stress protector and will ensure their brains continue to develop optimally.
A child surrounded by a nurturing, low-stress environment will not overreact to stressful situations later.
Look for an early-childhood environment that focuses on physical development and creative play rather than early academics.
Look for an elementary and middle school that offers differentiated learning approaches and understands the needs of this age group’s physical development, one that also welcomes volunteers and parent involvement.
Look for a high school that inspires and challenges teens and makes them feel like they matter.
Seek out environments where the people are warm and positive. The state of their hearts will affect our children.