Thursday, December 13, 2012

Lingering, Lights and Longing
by Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann

In this holiday season, too much of our lives are determined by desire. We are bombarded by the newest toys we must have. We obsess about the plans we painstakingly make. We long for friends and family from afar to be in our midst.

Some of those desires uplift us. Some are imposed upon us. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the blizzard of questions and assumptions faced by students navigating to and through high school toward a future college. Too often, for young adults and those who love them the holiday season can feel like trial by query. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “Where did you apply?” “How many schools?” “What’s your safety school?” “What do you think you’ll major in?” While the questioners are often well meaning, the degree of desire increases exponentially with each question.

Students, how can you remove the heavy mantle of other people’s needs, anxieties and expectations and determine your own desires? How can you approach this season of evaluations and essays, deadlines and decisions from a place of elevation and uplift? Just as this season brings pressure, so too, it can bring clarity. At this time when days are short and darkness comes quickly, we traditionally and instinctively infuse the holiday season with light—light, which can help us remember what is worth waiting for.

The central symbol of Chanukah is the menorah. Simple or ornate, it holds eight candles, one new candle lit on each of the eight nights of the holiday and one additional sole candle, called the shamash, the server. The candles for each night are lit, not by a match, but by the small flame of the shamash. In Jewish tradition, the shamash is thought to hold hidden light, strength not only for its own glow, but also to illumine a path for others. The flame of the shamash extends strength to uncover courage, to give birth to hope, to harken awareness. Amidst the darkness of limited vision, of generalized and undisputed expectations, of a narrow view of success, of unbridled competition, of uncritical thinking and unacknowledged feeling, let the shamash, the small candle of strength illuminate, for both students and those who love them, deeper desires.

The commandment to light the menorah is widely recognized. What is less well known is the tradition to watch the candles as they slowly burn down each night. What might we learn about ourselves, about our desires, if we sit with those flickering flames, if we enter into a dream state looking into the light, untroubled by expectations, undisturbed by anxiety? What might we discover if we find ourselves meditating, contemplating, closing out the calls of competition, masking the marketplace, refusing the ratings?

This season, whatever our religious background, whatever our spiritual practice, let the metaphor of the shamash, of light engendering light help us to quell the chatter, invite understanding and unite us with our deepest desires. Here, for each night, is a question in service to the light. Like the shamash, let them kindle others, ignite discussion with those we love about what matters, awakening our own desire for purpose in this season of holiday light and of love.

What do I wonder about?
What are my gifts and strengths?
What have my mistakes and disappointments taught me?
When do I feel alive with learning?
What would I sacrifice for?
What do I do that inspires dignity and respect?
How do I want to make a difference in the world?
What could college or my next stage be?

As we ask our questions, as we come in touch with our deepest desires, as we create clarifying conversations this holiday season, let us remember the wisdom of educator and activist John Gardner,

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.”

May the holidays be filled with warmth, with wisdom and with love.

Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann is Senior Associate Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University. She co-chaired the Campus Climate Study Group of Stanford's Task Force on Student Mental Health and Well Being and has been an advisor to Challenge Success since its inception. She teaches and lectures widely on rabbinical ethics, the relationship between religion and education, and social justice.

Friday, December 7, 2012

by Madeline Levine, Ph.D.

When Abundance Can Feel Like Deprivation (A Holiday Perspective)

The season of giving is here. And whether it’s due to Christmas, Hanukkah or any of the other holidays that coincide with the winter solstice, families everywhere scurry around trying to figure out what gifts they might buy to delight and dazzle their kids.

What lucky, lucky kids they are. Yes?

In some ways, sure. It is a blessing to be warm, well-fed, well-loved and growing up in the land of opportunity. But in other ways, no. Ironically, while cushioned with the trappings of abundance, many of our kids are deeply deprived. And what they’re deprived of is a childhood.

Think about it: today’s kids are perpetually stressed and hurried. Short of sleep. Overscheduled. Constantly pressured to get perfect grades, excel in their extracurriculars, get accepted into “the right” schools. It has to be this way, parents frequently remind them, if they’re ever going to be able to compete in a global economy.

“More, better, faster” is an exhausting way to live, but worse, it’s debilitating. It leads to emotional problems like depression and anxiety, substance abuse (honors students taking Ritalin to stay awake), social isolation and shallow relationships (how can you form friendships if you don’t have time for friends?).

And the overparenting that fuels this lifestyle wreaks its own damage. Steered, pushed and propped-up by parents, kids never develop the coping skills, the self-sufficiency, and the internal motivation they need to thrive as working adults. Heck, they may not even develop a working identity. (How can you find out who you are when someone else is always telling you who to be?)

That we’re actually harming our kids’ ability to live successful lives is astoundingly ironic, because—of course—parents believe we’re doing just the opposite. We believe we’re giving our kids a much-needed “edge.” Thus, the behavior I’ve just described is culturally sanctioned. It’s simply what parents do now.

Still, on some level we know something’s not right with the way we’re raising our kids. It’s hard not to tell they’re miserable and exhausted. Perhaps this is why we go overboard on the holiday gift giving: we’re compensating. Yet we need to realize that no amount of gift-wrapped “consolation prizes” can begin to make up for a stolen childhood.

Here are some of the “gifts” (and yes, some of these seem unlikely to appear on any wish list!) I would love to see parents give their kids this holiday season and beyond:

  • Less overscheduling and more “PDF”™ time (Play Time, Down Time and Family Time). In our frantic attempts to give kids an “edge” we have replaced free time (during which kids play, form friendships and just hang out) with lessons, practices, matches and tutoring sessions. Not only do kids miss out on some of the richest and most memorable parts of childhood, they lose the critical developmental work that happens in the quiet spaces between activities—relationship skills, coping skills, creativity and more.

  • Infuse some breathing room in your child’s schedule and you’ll see them blossom in surprising ways. You’ll also get to know them better…partly because you see them more, and partly because they’ll have the chance to get to know themselves
  • The gift of failure. Sure, there’s a time and place for parental intervention. But most of us intervene too quickly, too often and in situations where it’s inappropriate. We micromanage our kids’ school projects, bring their forgotten book bags to school, step in to “rescue” them from social conundrums. Yes, it’s painful to watch kids struggle, but it’s the struggle that develops coping skills and resilience. 

  • Stop doing for your child what he can almost do for himself. When he was a baby he fell on his diapered bottom numerous times but, eventually, he got up and walked. Let him “fall” now and, eventually, he’ll develop the competence and the confidence he needs to do that which life demands of him.
  • The freedom to be imperfect. When a single B on an otherwise A-filled report card results in headshakes and dire lectures about the future, kids quickly learn that “perfect” is the only acceptable result. First, this is untrue. The path to a successful life doesn’t always involve academic superstardom followed by an Ivy League degree. (Success is not a straight line, but an unpredictable squiggle.) But even if it were true, the stress involved trying to get there can be spirit crushing.
    Next to genetics, perfectionism is the strongest predictor of clinical depression we know of. Life is full of mistakes, imperfect days, human failings. By keeping kids from learning a healthy sense of perspective, we set them up for certain unhappiness in the future.
  • More contributions and fewer entitlements. Your child may have a big physics test tomorrow, but that’s no excuse for letting her get out of helping you clear away the dinner dishes. She’ll gain far more from learning that everyone must pitch in to solve problems than from the extra 10 minutes of study she might get. (Yes, her test is important, but no more important than the work presentation you have to prepare for tomorrow, right?)
  • Acceptance of who they are. Every child cannot be academically exceptional. Most children are not likely to be neurosurgeons or rocket scientists. (And high-prestige, high-income jobs are no guarantee of a happy life—there are plenty of CEOs who are miserable and carpenters who are fulfilled.) We need to learn that normal is okay. In fact, it’s more than okay.
    Every child has “superpowers” of his or her own, and we need to learn how to appreciate, respect and nurture those unique talents and abilities. We need to love the child in front of us, and not try to shape him into being the child our culture tells us he should be. Efforts to do so will fail, and our child will never feel loved for who he is.
  • Happy, fulfilled parents who have their own (adult) life. Too often, parents confuse their own needs with those of their kids. They spend all their time pushing their child to study more and shape their family life around “supporting” him in the all-important extracurriculars. As they spend weekend after weekend sitting passively in the bleachers cheering as he plays soccer, they lose themselves. This does no one—parent or child—any favors.
    When everything is centered on your child, you’re likely to perpetuate an unattractive sense of entitlement and self-centeredness. So get a life! Get a hobby. Find a friend. Having interests of your own not only allows you to be less reliant on your children’s triumphs to feel good about yourself, it paints a more appealing picture of adulthood. (Maybe she’ll actually want to grow up and move out some day!

It’s fun to show your kids you love them. If lavishing them with Christmas and Hanukkah gifts gives you a warm glow, so be it. Just don’t neglect the things that aren’t things at all—namely, the skills, the habits, the mindset, the perspective and the emotional health your kids will need to create happy and meaningful lives. These are the gifts that matter, the gifts she’ll still have for years, for decades, down the road.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Why Cheat? More Importantly, Why Not?
by Stephanie Rafanelli

Reports of academic dishonesty – within prestigious universities, on high school exit exams, by authors of bestselling books – have been widespread this fall. In the wake of cheating, academic communities rush to bolster or clarify disciplinary procedures. New or repeated sessions about proper citation techniques are added to the curriculum. Teachers ask students to leave backpacks at the door and phones on the front desk.

Then we all pause and ask, “Why?”

The answers may vary slightly each time, but they usually include some variation of the following:
“I just didn’t have time to really ‘do’ the work.”
"Because I could - it is so easy."
"I don't care about the material - it's totally irrelevant to my life."
"The teacher doesn't even care or check."
And most often:
“Because I can't mess up.”
In our current high stakes system where every test or assignment seems to be a critical step on the pathway to adult success, students frequently feel that they have no room for error. The process of learning the material pales in comparison to the importance of earning a top grade. In addition, they may doubt their own ability to accomplish the task. Combine fear with some doubt, and copying someone else’s ideas may seem like a pretty good option.

How can we help students become invested in the process of learning as much as, if not more than, in the product? How do we help students develop authentic confidence in their own competence? How can we help students take more pride in and responsibility for their own effort?

Beyond the work we are doing at Challenge Success, there is a solid and rapidly growing body of research exploring these questions. Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth, James Heckman, and Eric Anderman are just a few people actively investigating what is often referred to as ‘character education.’ The research is varied, but three suggestions for educators and parents consistently emerge:
  1. Foster intrinsic motivation.
  2. Encourage persistence in face of failure.
  3. Nurture grit and stick-to-it-ness in pursuit of mastery.
While I still grapple with cheating incidents each year, I have tried to honor the ideas above in multiple ways. I let learners design projects, write some of their own test questions, and choose areas to explore. Students are allowed to revise and resubmit assignments multiple times. I involve students in creating assessment standards, participating in peer evaluation, and developing self-evaluation skills. With every task, I ask them, “So what? How might this relate to your life outside school?” Any time they can connect outside interests to something we investigate in class, I cheer. At school and at home, we talk about people who display integrity and people who don’t. We discuss why they might have made the choices they did and what we might have done in a similar situation. Was the short-term reward worth the long-term result?

Learners need to feel some authentic connection to and engagement in a task, they need to recognize small failures as a healthy aspect of the learning process, and they need to develop an understanding that true mastery and pursuit of a passion may take years. Essentially, we need to help each individual find her own answer to the question, “Why not cheat?”

Stephanie Rafanelli is both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

by Madeline Levine, Ph.D.

Regaining Gratitude This Thanksgiving

Ever notice how ironic it is that the holiday that’s designed to make us feel serenely grateful for all that we have—our family, our friends, our prosperous life here in the land of turkey and maize and cranberry salad—falls right in the middle of the most hectic, exhausting time of the year?

Think about it. Our kids are burned out from tests and endless pages of homework. One school project follows closely on the heels of another. Sports and other extracurricular events have left all of us exhausted. Meanwhile, Hanukkah and Christmas (with all their economic, social and familial obligations) loom forebodingly on the horizon.

So how can we pause for a day in the midst of all the chaos and stress—not to mention the weird family dynamics that must be navigated over the Thanksgiving table—and just feel thankful?

The complete answer to that question could fill a book! (And if you know a good one, I’d love the name of it!) But because parenting is my area of expertise, I will zero in on our (complicated, stressful, worry-filled) relationship with our children.

Twenty-first century parents fret. It’s what we do. We wring our hands over our kids’ grades, their social development, their performance on the playing field, their future.

Yet it’s been proven again and again that all of our overparenting behaviors—our bribes, our threats, our micromanagement, our insistence that kids do more, better, faster—not only don’t work, they have the opposite effect. Our frantic efforts to give our kids “an edge” are harming rather than helping them.

And so, based on the knowledge that anxiety and gratitude can’t co-exist, let’s all just relax and trust the research. By research I mean the reams of solid scientific evidence that proves backing off a little is the best thing we can do for our kids.

Below are 10 resolutions that I originally wrote for the beginning of the school year. In the spirit of Thanksgiving I have repurposed them here. I think they speak to the mindset that keeps us from living in the moment and truly savoring the all-too-short time we really have with our kids.

Ten Resolutions For Becoming a More Grateful Parent:

I will make sure my child gets a full night’s sleep. Kids need between nine and 12 hours a night. Sleep deprivation impairs concentration, memory, and the ability to accurately read emotional cues. It makes kids crabby and compromises their ability to learn.

I will remember that I am a parent, not a CEO. Results are down the line, not at the end of the quarter. This means the occasional “B” or “C” will not break your child’s future prospects. Stop catastrophizing. You won’t see the final fruits of your parenting until your child is grown and gone.

I will remember the success trajectory is a squiggle ... not a straight line. Few of us become successful by simply putting one foot in front of the other. Most of us encounter a multitude of twists, turns, direction changes, and stops on the way to our goals.

I will love the child in front of me. Appreciate and be thankful for your child’s unique gifts. Children are talented in a multitude of different ways. See your child’s particular talents clearly.

I will not push my child to be perfect. Besides genetics, perfectionism is the strongest predictor of clinical depression. Life is full of mistakes, imperfect days, and human failings. Kids need to learn how to cope with these inevitabilities. They (and you) need to be able to feel happiness and gratitude in the face of imperfection.

I will not do for my child what he can do for himself. This kills motivation and the ability to innovate. Both are missing from too many young people in today’s workforce.

I will not do for my child what she can almost do for herself. At one time your child could almost walk. Now she can walk. Enough said.

I will not confuse my needs with my child’s needs. This is the most toxic manifestation of overparenting. Get a hobby or a therapist instead.

I will honor the importance of PDF (Play Time, Down Time and Family Time. Don’t overschedule. Kids need time to play, daydream, and just hang out. It’s in these precious “between” times that crucial developmental tasks are accomplished.

I will value my own (adult) life. Being a happy, fulfilled, and yes, grateful adult makes you a better parent. It’s one of the best gifts you can give your child. It makes adulthood look like something worth striving for.

When we observe Thanksgiving the way I believe we’re meant to, we realize that life is truly rich and bountiful. As parents, we’ve been given life’s greatest gift. Learning to appreciate and honor that gift may mean breaking the culturally sanctioned patterns that cause us to unknowingly damage our kids even as we seek to make life better for them.

Overparenting is about anxiously exerting control. Gratitude is about accepting what we’ve been given and noticing the joy that it brings. This Thanksgiving weekend, let’s try to do less of the former and more of the latter. And from here out, let’s try to guide and teach our kids without seeking to force them into the mold that we (and society) believe they should conform to. When you can master that balance you will become a perpetually grateful parent.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

From Strategy to Authenticity:
Writing Your Perfect Essay
by Nate Klemp

Here’s one way to think about the college admissions essay. The task of the essay is to sway admissions officers. Writing a good essay is like marketing a product. It requires that you appeal to the preferences of admissions officers (whatever those are) and that you present a crafted and manicured version of your self – one that gives you the best chance of getting in.

I call this the strategic approach. This admissions essay writing philosophy is based on two core premises:
  1. It is relatively easy to get inside the heads of admissions officers and figure out what they want to hear.
  2. By telling admissions officers what they want to hear, you increase your chance of getting in.
The strategic approach has a seductive quality and is becoming more and more popular among high-achieving students and their parents. In a culture that values prestige and success, this approach offers what appears to be a sure-fire way of getting in to top institutions.

The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t actually work. It’s self-defeating because both of its core premises are false.

Take premise 1. Many savvy consultants and parents think they know what admissions officers want. But the reality is that each admissions officer has a unique set of preferences. Guessing what an admissions committee wants to hear is like guessing the right number on a roulette wheel. Sure, you might get lucky, but the odds are stacked against you.

Now consider premise 2. Talk to any admissions officer and they will tell you that they abhor overly crafted applications. They’re not interested in hearing from self-branded students. They’re much more interested in those who speak candidly about meaningful decisions, ideas, or experiences.

As Jeff Brenzel, Dean of Admissions at Yale, puts it:
"What concerns me…are the number of high achieving students whose lives are governed by what they, or perhaps more often their parents, imagine is going to improve in some slight way their chances of admission. Exploration and growth serve a student best for the long run, both in education and life, not the construction of a perfect resume. We try as best we can to distinguish the one from the other."
Brenzel helps illuminate the self-defeating nature of the strategic approach. Admissions officers have a kind of sixth sense for students who craft their essays and, in many cases their lives, to maximize their chances of getting in. As he notes, this kind of admissions spin actually diminishes, rather than enhances, your chance of getting in.

There’s a better way to think about the admissions essay. I call it the inspired approach. Writing an inspired essay requires that you forget about pandering to the admissions committee. It requires that you take a look within – that you use the essay as an opportunity to write about an idea or experience that has shaped you.

There is no formula for writing an inspired essay. There is no one “right” way.

There are, however, a few basic guidelines that might be helpful in creating an essay that gives colleges a window into who you are:

  1. Be You – This is your opportunity to give the admissions committee a sense of who you are. It is the one place in the application where you come alive and become something more than numbers on a transcript. If you are creative, let it shine. If you are witty, let it come through. If you are passionate about an activity, tell us why. If you have faced a challenging situation, show us how it changed you. The key is to make sure that YOUR personality jumps off the page.
  2. Provide a “Slice-of-Life” – It’s tempting to try to pack your entire resume into the essay and to distill the entirety of who you are into 500 words. Resist the temptation. The best essays don’t tell, they show. The best essays focus on a small slice-of-life – a moment, an event, or an experience that offers a window into who you are. By painting the picture of a single moment with imagery, dialogue, and details, you don’t need to tell the admissions officer anything. Your story will show them who you are and who you might become.
  3. Have a Killer Hook – To draw in the reader, your essay must have a catchy hook. Remember this isn’t an analytic paper. You don’t need a formal introduction. It’s much more effective to skip the intro and start with the imagery and emotion of a concrete experience. You can hook the reader in many ways. Your first few lines could be funny, shocking, unexpected, or even surprisingly mundane. The key is to create a sense of tension and intrigue – to leave the reader thinking, “wow, I wonder what this essay is about!”
  4. Go Beyond the Obvious – To combat your ordinary urge toward the obvious do the following thought experiment: come up with the most obvious, banal, and clichéd version of the essay you are planning to write. Go all out here. Make sure that it is as boring as possible. Now use this as a road map for what not to do in your actual essay!
As we enter the peak of the admissions season, remember – your task in writing the admissions essay isn’t strategic. It’s not like playing chess or battleship. It’s not about marketing yourself to the admissions committee.

The most compelling essays arise from a different source. They come from inspired students – from students who write about what matters to them in a raw, authentic, and honest way.

Nate Klemp, PhD is the founder of Inspired Admissions. Klemp is a former professor of political philosophy at Pepperdine University and holds a BA in philosophy from Stanford University and a PhD in political philosophy from Princeton University.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

by Alex McNeil

Decked out in robes and hats, my 200-something graduating classmates were arranged in rows on the lawn below the stage. Beyond them their family and friends sat waiting for the joint speech that was to be delivered by the salutatorian and me.

It was not to be delivered by the salutatorian and me because I was the valedictorian. I was not. My GPA put me soundly in the lower-most quartile of my graduating class, and it was only a coincidence that my best friend—Andrew—was the salutatorian. We were speaking together because we wanted to and because my school didn’t care about grades when it came to graduation speeches. Anyone who cared to perform was welcome to audition—academic standings be damned.

Our speech was probably as unmemorable as your average student-delivered graduation speech: full of stammers and stutters, creatively bankrupt. But I remember it clearly for two reasons. One, I gave it (and I was nervous as hell). Two, I didn’t think I really deserved to speak at all.

The way I saw it, I didn’t belong behind the podium because I did terribly in high school. I never understood why I was in school, nor for whom I was there, and it reflected in my transcript. By senior year I found myself with a 2.4 GPA and no college acceptances. But there I was, speaking to my peers like I knew what I was doing. I felt like I was saying “I will strike out on the path that lies before me with cool, excited confidence. You should, too.”

I was neither cool nor confident—I was college-less and confused.

School had been hard for me, and I wasn’t eager to jump into another four years of it. But the idea of college was tempting. Maybe I would be good at it, I thought. Maybe it would just magically click. Maybe.

But wistful thinking couldn’t erase bad grades. So, not really knowing what else to do, I came up with a plan. It went something like this: take a gap year; attend a junior college; do well; transfer to a good school. I figured that a break from school might be what I needed. After all, I had no idea what I was genuinely passionate about or what I was interested in doing with the rest of my life.

This was a decent plan. But I was still embarrassed that it was the only plan available. Insecure, I did everything I could to hide my GPA from my friends. I lied, omitted truths, and built up a well-articulated fortress of reasons as to why I wouldn’t be attending a four-year college in the fall. I downplayed my academic track record and focused instead on money: “Honestly, it’s economical to go to community college. I don’t want to pay tuition for my GEs! I could go to a community college and get the same education for a fraction of the cost.” It wasn’t the worst argument, but it wasn’t one I wanted to be making. The contrarian in me doesn’t like to admit it, but I just wanted what everyone else did—a little liberal arts college to call my own.

But, thanks to my ridiculously low GPA, that wasn’t an option for me. My application was too weak to get me into the schools where I wanted to be, and I had no desire to attend the schools that would have accepted me.

Summer vacation came and went. My friends went off to school, and I found myself stumbling headfirst onto an India-bound plane and into the unknown. My gap year had begun.

My trip to India was steeped in new experiences—filled with revelatory moments of both joy and disgust. I saw the nauseating wealth of Mumbai’s upper class, experienced the destitution that slept in the louse-ridden corridors of an Indian orphanage, and got rocked by a magnitude-6.9 earthquake. During a two-week stint in Nepal I met the founder of a non-profit school-building initiative.

The prospect of building a school in a country as beautiful as Nepal was too much to pass up. I asked if I could come build with him. He said yes. I joined him two months later.

I left high school as a set of numbers: my GPA, my class rank, my SAT score. I returned from my gap year as more than that. I returned as a person.

My gap year rebuilt my sense of self-worth. By the end of it—for the first time in my life—I felt comfortable and happy in my own skin. I’m attending a community college now, but I’m doing it with purpose, direction, and confidence. My gap year showed me that I am lucky to have been born in a country where education is compulsory, of high quality, and free. My gap year convinced me that it is not just my duty, but also my privilege to spend my life helping those less fortunate than I am.

Everyone should take a gap year at some point in their life—student or otherwise. It gave me time to figure out who I am, who I am not, and who I want to be. My gap year was a year of introspection and self-exploration—one that changed the trajectory of my entire life.

In retrospect, I’m glad I failed high school. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t.

Alex McNeil is an intern for Challenge Success. Learn more about him at

Sunday, October 21, 2012

by Madeline Levine, Ph.D.

Admissions Anxiety: It’s Not Just a Problem For Students

It’s early admissions time and parents across the nation are teetering on the edge of a full-fledged nail-chewing, staring-at-the-ceiling-all-night anxiety attack. Yes, you read that right. Parents. While college-bound high school seniors surely care where they’ll receive their higher education, it’s their Moms and Dads who really suffer.

There’s not just one reason why parents get so worked up over college admissions. Typically, it’s a mix of several complex reasons. Part of it is our terrible economy: parents are genuinely worried that if their kids don’t graduate from a prestigious school they’ll surely end up back in their old room four or five years from now sending out resume after unanswered resume.

But that’s not the only reason. Reluctant as we may be to admit it, parental peer pressure plays a big role as well. Think about all the college bumper stickers you see on parents’ cars. Ever notice the shortage of community college logos? That’s because these bumper stickers are status symbols, like carrying the right purse or driving the right SUV. They’re part of our identity as “good parents.”

Unfortunately, kids are all too aware of our desire for college bragging rights. They may either strive to please us by getting into a prestigious school—sometimes to no avail—or they may throw their hands up and resign themselves to being a disappointment. (Need I point out that neither of these responses is healthy?)

To complicate matters further, our preoccupation with college is often a cover for facing the loss of our child. We obsess about the school instead of thinking about the empty room. Kids, too, can become difficult during this period of time. It's often their way of easing the transition for themselves and for their parents.

So what can you as a parent do to relieve the pressure on your high school student (and put your own mind at ease) around the issue of college admissions? Understanding the psychological basis of your own anxiety may help. Beyond that, though, there are two sets of advice I like to give, depending on the age of your student.


Realize that it’s not really about the school. It’s about the kid. Especially among upper middle class and affluent parents, there’s a strong belief that going to a top-tier college—especially one in the Ivy League—will provide unimaginable advantages in the professional world. This belief spawns an overwhelming frenzy of tutoring classes, ancillary “educational enrichment,” test prep, and more, all to help their offspring become “ideal candidates.” While going to a top-tier school may certainly offer great benefits for the right child, it’s certainly not the be-all, end-all. A famous study by Dale and Krueger compared students who attended prestigious universities to others who were accepted, but who chose to attend different, less prestigious schools. Twenty years later, researchers found no difference in job advancement or income level between the two groups (with the exception of inner city kids). The study illustrated the fact that it is primarily the student, not the school, that is responsible for success.

Here’s my point: no school ensures either success or failure. Both Bill Gates and Ted Kaczynski attended Harvard.

Focus more on whether the school is the right fit than whether it impresses the neighbors. It’s a match, not a prize. Kids report hating the pressure they feel when they are constantly asked, "Where are you applying?” They are fully aware of the judgments that will accompany their answers. Don’t feed into this problem. Instead, try questions like "Are you thinking about a big school or a smaller one? Urban or rural? Bookish or fun?”

The idea is to get kids thinking about the realities of college life and focus on the fact that it is a time of great personal development. As much will happen outside the classroom as in it. Prestigious schools are great for some kids, but they’re certainly not right for every kid. Whether a school is the right ‘fit’ may determine whether your child has a rewarding college experience or a miserable one.


Ask yourself: are the rewards involved in acceptance to prestigious schools worth the risks? The stress of keeping up the grades, and the pace, necessary for acceptance to the Gotta-Get-In schools exacts a heavy price. Kids pressured to do so take AP courses that require studying four to six hours a night after a full day of school and often hours of athletic practice. They miss out on sleep, often relying on amphetamines they call “study aids.” Not only does this lifestyle wreak havoc on their physical health and interfere with their normal development, it deprives them of the joy of being teens.

The risk/reward ratio is what matters. When parents truly understand what kids have to give up in the pursuit of academic success, they may come to realize the price is just too high for some kids. The stress that results from pushing kids to excel academically, and expecting perfection from them, can contribute to escalating rates of emotional problems. The fact that 17 percent of students at Princeton and Cornell self-mutilate is, by itself, a pretty clear indication that the highest levels of academic achievement may not be a risk-free path.

Prize your child’s happiness over society’s notion of success. Here’s a radical thought: So what if your kid wants to be a kindergarten teacher instead of a doctor? So what if she wants to wait tables during the day and try out for Broadway plays at night? Too many parents believe there is only one definition of success—and it’s one that depends on an advanced degree from a prestigious school. This is simply not true.

Some people feel successful because of the jobs they have or the money they make, yes, but others feel successful because of their relationships with friends and families. Still others feel “true to themselves.” When we take a singular focus on academic achievement, we are telling kids there is only one path to success. When they buy into this belief they can’t possibly figure out who they are, what they value, or what kind of life is likely to be authentic, meaningful, and satisfying to them. They’re not living life; they’re giving a performance.

But back to the issue at hand: admissions anxiety. There’s enough normal stress during the transition from high school to college without ratcheting it up to a kind of hysteria.

In Finland, the world's exemplar of education, all schools, including their universities are free. They strive for equity and not out of control competition and end up with kids who do much better on international testing. I know, I know: America is not likely to follow Finland’s lead any time soon. But at least parents can do their part to keep college in perspective, stay calm, and let their kids enjoy this exciting time in their lives.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

App Season
(No, not those apps, college apps)

by Stephanie Rafanelli

The college application season is fully underway and seniors across the country are madly collecting recommendations, gathering information about schools, and crafting essays about the meaning of life. As anyone who has been through an application process knows, it is an intensely personal and humbling whirlwind of an experience.

Amidst this mad dash, a process given an almost insane amount of weight – will their location at age nineteen, in fact, be the most important determinant of all future trajectories? really? – they almost certainly have a few other things going on. They probably are attending school, doing homework and classwork, and possibly taking one or more honors or AP classes. They might have extracurricular activities, such as music, sports, art, or spiritual study. I hope they have family responsibilities and are, at the very least, responsible for making their bed and washing a few dishes. Given that they are adolescent, they are doubtless spending a significant portion of their time thinking about friends, relationships, and themselves.

No wonder they sometimes look dazed. As a teacher who has spent many years offering a temporary refuge to overwhelmed seniors, I offer the following ideas about supporting your neighborhood senior over the next few months.

  1. If possible, let them be. Offer a comfortable seat and, better yet, food and then let them be. There are very few places where they can simply and quietly breath for a few minutes.
  2. Keep toys handy. Slinkys, yo-yos, bouncy balls, wind-up toys, marble ramps . . . any toy that can allow the student to become legitimately lost for a few minutes.
  3. When they seem open to talking, ask them how they are. Then listen.
  4. Offer a laugh. If like me, your own jokes have been, ahem, called into question, I recommend keeping props. My stack of Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, and Deep Thoughts books have been so well loved over the years that many have had to be replaced. There is something magical about seeing an anxious-looking senior pick up a comic book and begin laughing out loud.
  5. If you are extremely lucky, and the senior offers you a chance to ask questions, ask good questions. Resist any urge to ask where they are applying – they are turning this question over in their head and with their college counselor ad nauseam. Instead, take them by surprise and ask something like:

    • What survival skill do you think you might need to master before next year – laundry? Biking with a full backpack? Living with snow/humidity/rain?
    • If you could only take one book with you next year – what would it be?
    • What change are you most looking forward to next year?
    • What are you most apprehensive or unsure about?
    • It is your tenth high school reunion – who do you run into that you wish you had stayed in touch with? (Side note: this one always draws a laugh and, “Whoa! I’ll be, like, SO old!”)
On behalf of the class of 2013, I urge you to practice patience. Help the seniors you know to take a moment to relax and take a load off. Then, after a few minutes, gently ask them one more time to pick up their dirty socks and finish their work and get in bed. As Calvin points out, “Sometimes it seems things go by too quickly. We’re so busy watching out for what's just ahead of us that we don't take the time to enjoy where we are.”— The Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson

Stephanie Rafanelli is both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

College Applications Made Simple(r)
by Maureen Brown

It’s nearing the deadline for early applications to colleges, and that can mean anxiety over whether your son or daughter is really “sure enough” to apply to his top choice, badgering him to get the essays done and a generally stressed-out household. We spend a lot of time with high school students, and there is one thing we know for sure: they don’t want the college application to take over their lives and result in non-stop strife in their families, but they just don’t know how to avoid it, and, frequently, neither do their parents. While it would be overly optimistic to think that stress can be completely eliminated from the process there are things that can be done to increase your child’s chances of putting together a good application without losing it. Here are our suggestions for what your kids should do:

  1. Organize your stuff. Sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how many times students don’t do it. Keep a folder with all of your SAT, ACT, and AP scores and test dates so that you don’t waste time looking for the information. Likewise, keep track of the activities you have done in high school and any honors that you have received.

  2. Decide which teachers you will ask for references and do it before you leave for summer at the end of junior year. Remember, your teachers are busy, too, and they will appreciate advance notice so that they can plan. Put together a packet of information for your teachers—a resume, sports profile, etc. that will help them know more about you.

  3. Understand requirements and deadlines. Colleges ask for similar, but unfortunately not identical, information. Look at the Common Application early, gather the basic information and draft at least the short answer essay before starting senior year. Make a chart or spreadsheet of EXACTLY what you need to submit with the deadline for each component of the application. If you are being recruited as an athlete or performer, realize that your process will be different and your timelines will be accelerated.

  4. Make sure your counselor knows who you are before October! Really. Every year during the third week of October, with the early decision deadlines looming, students flock to their counselors’ offices looking for advice. It is not easy for counselors to help you in a meaningful way if they don’t know you.

  5. Narrow down your schools list. No one can write more than 7 or 8 high-quality applications. You may complete more than that, but recognize that you will not have the time or energy to do your best work on all of them. Work in priority order. And, if you would rather die than go to Misery U, take it off your list no matter what your parents, friends or counselors say. Of course, you should have an informed, logical reason for despising the school.

  6. Agree on ground rules with your parents. No one wants to be bugged daily by their parents about writing applications, but let’s be realistic—there is going to be bugging. Agree with your parents on a time once a week when you will talk about where you are in the process and what you still have to do.

  7. Write about what you care about in your own voice. There is no perfect essay, and trying to concoct one usually fails miserably. Think about something that you care about or that interests you. What do you want the readers of the application to know about you that they might not otherwise know without reading your essay? Try not to over think it, and be true to yourself. And remember, having someone proofread it does not mean writing it for you. Do your own work.

Maureen Brown, MBA, is Executive Director for Challenge Success, where she oversees daily operations as well as marketing and strategic planning. Ms. Brown comes to Challenge Success with over 20 years of consulting experience in health care, financial services, and technology. Prior to joining Challenge Success, Ms. Brown worked as an independent consultant and as a Partner at APM, Incorporated, where she structured, sold and managed strategic and operations improvement engagements for health care institutions, primarily university medical centers. Ms. Brown has also worked in Cash Management for Philadelphia National Bank and Citibank. She has been on various boards at Georgetown, and most recently co-founded the Bay Area Georgetown Technology Alliance. Ms. Brown has also served as a Board member at Woodside School.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Busywork Blues

This was written by a student (and friend) involved with Challenge Success. We appreciate his wlllingness to share his personal story with us.

In the living room of my parent’s house there is a table worn smooth from the weight of books and spotted with flocks of pen tip indentations. This of course is the dreaded “Homework Table,” which sustained nearly two decades of use by both me and my older brother. It is from this table that I would often depart early in the morning, only to return again later—after school was out, after tennis practice was out, well after sundown.

Although I explicitly remember spending what constituted a significant portion of my adolescence at this table, I am hard pressed to recall the specifics of any of the actual assignments. Granted, this retrospection is a few years removed, it still brings up an interesting question: if the overwhelming majority of homework is busywork, why assign it at all?

While each of the papers that I have been assigned in college requires critical thinking and provides flexibility to reward intellectual curiosity, high school assignments rarely encouraged me to go beyond what I had to do, and were simply a means to an end—frequently appearing to be assigned more out of habit than of help. More often than not, they would simply be a nebulous batch of problems lifted by my teachers from the back of the book. These blitzes of questions had little real-world application, and were alarmingly tedious—often generating more frustration than actual learning. One particular high school teacher was notorious for his rigor—his assignments would often be supplemented by a short worksheet which unsurprisingly operated under the title “Drill It and Kill It.” The instructions for this exercise were to set an alarm for a designated amount of time, and race through as many problems as possible. While his efforts to hone efficiency could be seen as admirable, these overly-repetitive tasks did not encourage understanding, and placed too much of an incentive on isolated instances, instead of the larger picture. While seemingly harmless, over time this sort of assignment creates an attitude where too much of a reward is placed on the immediate, which can lead to narrow-mindedness and overshadow the far more important goal: long-term learning.

And it is with this sort of busywork that the issue of homework becomes inseparable from that of academic integrity. On a great many occasion, I would walk into school dazed and bleary-eyed from an exhaustive night of homework to see my classmates huddled in the back of the library covertly copying the solutions down in the few minutes before the bell rang. If it takes a scant handful of minutes to copy down an assignment, how can it really be beneficial? By assigning homework without a strong relationship to course content and emphasizing that the answer is all that really matters, teachers are creating a scenario in which critical thinking isn’t really worth it and cheating really does pay.

Admittedly, not all homework is evil, and I am very thankful for many of the hours I sat underneath my fluorescent lamp on that old dining room table. But I cannot help but look back with at least some regret—at all the hours of work which really didn’t amount to any purpose, and of all those assignments which were at best misguided. The mindless work piled before me did nothing in the way of strengthening my critical thinking skills, and it left me ill-prepared for the project-based learning I would later face in college. I was a part of a system that just didn’t make sense—and long hours were spent grinding away, as I struggled to find the meaning behind what I was learning.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why Homework? And How?
by Stephanie Rafanelli

As ‘Back To School’ evenings are being held across the country, I know that homework has resurfaced as one of the most hotly debated topics among all constituencies – students, parents, teachers, and administrators.

In my opinion, here are the three essential questions to ask of every piece of homework:
  1. What is the point?
  2. What is the timeline?
  3. How will it be assessed?
  1. What is the point?
  2. Is this a skill-building exercise such as writing practice or balancing chemical equations? If it is, and has been designed to help a student build what Teresa Amabile calls ‘domain skills’ so that the learner can move toward richer, more complex, and creative work, how can it be effective for all learners? Each student does not need the same, standardized amount of practice to master every skill.

    Is the work needed to prepare for the next class? I have wrestled with this question for years. For a long time, I believed that it was essential for my middle school students to spend thirty minutes thinking about and preparing for upcoming lab experiments through pre-lab hypotheses and explanations. When I changed the assignment to a ten-minute “Read over the lab and try to decide why we are doing it” task, one that my students immediately renamed the “So what?” of every lab, I found a noticeable difference. Students came to class already connecting the activity to something important in their own life or dying to explain how it was utterly unimportant. In both instances, students arrived noticeably better prepared and more engaged.

    Is this homework primarily exploratory? Is it used to allow the student to create or nurture an authentic connection with the curriculum, to experiment with a new idea or technique, or to share a personal interest with the class? Where can the learner be given autonomy regarding the topic, the method of exploration, the manner of recording any learning, and the process of presenting his/her discoveries?

    If the work is neither for basic skill building nor class preparation nor for student-driven exploration, why do it?

  3. What is the timeline?
  4. How far in advance of the due date is the student able to work on the assignment? This will vary by assignment, by teacher, and by developmental stage, but it is still a critical question for every task. As a majority of students participate in a number of extracurricular activities, students need as much lead-time as possible to complete any homework. Last year, our fourth grade son had a ‘Wednesday to Wednesday’ set of tasks. He knew each Wednesday what all the weekly assignments were and was able to do each at his own pace. Middle and high school students, in particular, are learning how to look at the week ahead, predict which days will be packed and which may be free, and should be allowed to work on tasks in their own schedule.

  5. How will the work be assessed?
  6. This may seem ridiculous, but will the assignment be assessed? I am disheartened to hear so often from teachers that many assignments are never even glanced at, once turned in. Teachers in some schools are asked to hand out such a high volume of standardized sheets that they cannot possibly keep up with the paperwork. Why in the world did the students have to complete the task?

    Do the learners know exactly how the assignment will be assessed? Frequently, students have only a vague sense of the grading scheme for each class and develop the idea that assessment is semi-arbitrary and out of their hands. Ideally, as we prepare our students for their future years, we are helping them build the skills to self-assess. The underlying goal of the assignment ought to be crystal clear. They should have practice creating assessment rubrics and grading systems. They can have input into the revision policy and determine point losses for certain deadlines. They should be empowered to contribute to the assessment of each undertaking.
No matter to which constituency you belong (for the record, I belong to three of the four groups this year), I urge you to ask the questions of every piece of homework. Teachers, given that you are hopefully following reasonable homework guidelines to begin with, can you dig a little more deeply into the “so what?” of every assignment? Students, work with your educators to understand the idea behind the task and participate in the assessment. Parents, observe your learners and help them communicate how their process is going with their teachers. Administrators, create faculty work time to discuss the research surrounding homework and learning.

Stephanie Rafanelli is both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.

Monday, September 10, 2012

by Madeline Levine, Ph.D.

Want to Avoid the Homework Wars? - Here’s How

School is back in session and parents everywhere are bemoaning the return of the dreaded H-word. Homework.

Yes, kids are coming home loaded down with math worksheets to compute, reports to write and projects to do. By the time they’ve slogged through it all—and done the extracurricular du jour—it’s bedtime. In fact, it’s past bedtime. Forget relaxing. Forget hanging out with friends. Heck, forget a sit-down meal with the family.

In general, kids have too much homework these days. The amount of time students in high-achieving schools spend on homework has dramatically increased over the past 30 years or so, and guess what? Their lives haven’t gotten any simpler during this time frame.

Not only does too much homework not foster academic achievement, it can actually hinder it. What’s more, it may harm kids in countless other ways. (For more info on this subject check out our research on homework at

Excessive homework can put major stress on kids which can lead to anxiety and depression. It can prevent them from getting the sleep they need. It has been shown to make some kids gain weight (you can’t exercise when your nose is buried in a book all evening!). It can crush their love for reading.

Mostly, though, it eats up all their free time—time they should be spending on fun activities (not just extracurriculars chosen as college application fodder), family time or just hanging out with friends.

Down time, which includes time spent in unstructured play, is where the real “work” of childhood takes place. This is when kids learn about the world and their place in it and develop the critical sense of self they’ll carry throughout life.

Think of child development as a three-legged stool. One leg is cognitive and academic, one is social, one is personal. When all of a child’s time is spent on the academic leg, he never has the chance to learn get-along skills, or contribute to household chores, or figure out what’s interesting to him.

The irony is that the very skills kids need to thrive in a global economy—collaboration, innovation, problem-solving—are the ones that get neglected when the sole focus is on academics.

So what can you do if your child seems to be overburdened with homework? A few suggestions:

First, know how much is too much. For the average child (keeping in mind individual kids may be exceptions to these guidelines), an acceptable amount of homework per night is as follows:
- Elementary school: approximately 10 minutes or so per grade level
- Middle school: an hour or so
- High School: 2 to 2-1/2 hours
Any homework beyond these limits is no longer providing any advantage, and is probably cutting into those things that do provide advantages like adequate sleep and what we at Challenge Success call “PDF”– that is, play time, down time and family time.

Do a little digging. Maybe the problem isn’t what you think. Watch your child carefully as he does his homework. Does he buckle down and get it done? Or does he take frequent “breaks” to doodle on his paper, fiddle with toys or even turn on the TV? Maybe he needs fewer distractions or some pointers on time management. In fact, if you speak to the teacher you may find what he’s calling homework is actually classroom work he’s failing to get done because he’s too busy talking to his neighbor.

Help your child let go of the perfectionism. On the other end of the spectrum, some kids may take longer than they need because they want the homework to be “perfect.” Your child might be agonizing over that tough extra-credit math problem for an hour when she should probably just let it go and go to bed…or studying for five hours for an exam when two would probably suffice.

Such kids may need to lighten up a little. Perfectionism can be a precursor to depression. Life is filled with imperfections and failures and that’s okay. (Remember this the next time you start criticizing any grade less than a B.)

Ask yourself if he’s taking too many tough classes at once. If he has three or four AP classes in the same semester, that’s likely to be overload. The homework associated with these classes can be intense. Insist that next semester he take fewer tough classes and let the chips fall where they may. Winning the academic rat race is not worth your child’s psychological health and happiness, because ultimate success rests on far more than just grades.

Join forces with other concerned parents and approach the school. It’s true there are certain groups who routinely argue that schools aren’t rigorous enough. (Think “Tiger Mom” types.) But there is plenty of research citing the negative impact excessive academic pressure has on overall health, happiness, social adjustment and, yes, learning. Go ahead. Build your case, get together a group of likeminded parents and go make some noise.

Finally, get yourself out of the homework game. It’s fine to be concerned about the amount your child is doing, but beyond third grade or so, don’t get involved in the content (unless you’re invited, that is). You’re her advocate, not her night teacher.

In fact, if you find yourself needing to check behind your child on every assignment, constantly “reminding” her to do her homework, and so forth, you’re not doing her any favors. She needs to be internally motivated, and every time you get involved, you interfere with that. You do your job and let her do hers. Twenty years down the road you’ll be more likely to have a kid who is confident, resilient and enthusiastic about learning!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Back to School, Back to Routine
by Stephanie Rafanelli

As a magical summer winds to a close, I cannot help but get excited for the new school year. After two decades in the classroom as a student and another two decades as a teacher, my calendar begins at the end of August. In our house, a return to the routine of the school year revolves around the one immutable piece of the schedule: bed time. Summer sunlight, travel, spontaneous family movie nights, and more all wreak minor havoc on sleep. With the added complication of juggling different sleep needs for our four, ten, and thirteen year-olds, our evenings can be, in a word, interesting.

Like Madeline Levine described in her recent blog, sleep is one of the most critical factors in maintaining health and happiness. In addition to the studies she cited linking good sleep habits as a protective factor against depression and extreme crabbiness, sleep helps the brain consolidate memories and learning, allows the body to process carbohydrates correctly (preventing excessive weight gain), benefits the immune and cardiovascular systems, and increases response time.

Our ten and four year-olds still embrace bedtime as one of the best parts of the day. At our last family dinner party, our little one marched over to my chair and announced, indignantly, “It is way past my bedtime.” Our middle child craves the final reading time at the end of the day and eagerly gets in bed with a book. At any rate, we have not had any occasion to relay any of the fascinating findings from sleep studies to our younger children. However, we have begun discussing sleep habits with our oldest.

For some reason, our thirteen year-old does not find these studies as riveting as we do (although I saw a flicker of interest in his eyes when I mentioned the important role sleep plays in athletic performance). Until he does, we have tried to give him increasing autonomy over the rest of his schedule. Our not-so-hidden agenda is for our children to develop their own abilities to plan ahead and eventually create their own healthy schedules. Additionally, we hope to minimize conflict by allowing reasonable independence wherever we can.

Over the past two years we have allowed our middle school student to choose when to do his homework and when to take breaks. We give multiple advance notices before family events or carpool changes. We eat dinner together and have a habit of asking, “What’s on deck for tomorrow?” The family calendar is on the kitchen wall and everyone (including the four year-old) contributes items to the schedule. My husband and I share when we have had a scheduling misstep and we talk about how it affected our day.

Now approaching eighth grade, our oldest has a fair amount of freedom. He knows his school schedule, his extra-curricular schedule, and his bedtime. He is now in charge of managing his homework, reading, whiffle ball, music, and sibling play time. As you might imagine, there have been some failures – at Challenge Success, we would call these successful failures – in his planning over the past two years. He has had a few 9 pm realizations that he forgot an assignment or underestimated the time a task might take. He has had to go to bed with an unfinished assignment and then manage the consequences the following day (more on this in next month’s blog). Far more often though, he has greeted me at breakfast by saying something like, “I really want to go see the basketball game this afternoon, so I am going to do my Spanish homework right when school ends.”

Given our experience observing cursive practice last year, we do not expect this process to be quite as smooth in the future with our rising fifth grader. In the interest of eventual self-sufficiency, he will get to make more choices about his schedule. While I am not at all certain how many successful failures lay in our near future, I do know one thing: bed time is non-negotiable.

Stephanie Rafanelli is both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

by Madeline Levine, Ph.D.

Back to School Alert: The Necessity of a Sane Bedtime

As a culture, we’ve somehow gotten to a place where a good night’s sleep is typically seen as a luxury. Sleep deprivation is de rigueur for many adults all year long. And as summer fades away and a new school year looms on the horizon, it’s about to be even more true for our kids.

It’s not hard to see why sleep has fallen to the bottom of the priority list for many families. Our lifestyles are crowding it out. Our kids often have not just one but several extracurricular activities, each of which requires a significant time commitment. And let’s not forget homework: most kids have plenty of it to fit in between soccer practice or music lessons or karate class.

By the time we’ve picked up the kids from whatever practice they’re at, shoveled in dinner and gotten them started on homework, it’s already late. By the time they’re done with assignments and study time it’s alarmingly late—but what are you going to do?

The thinking goes like this: we live in a super-competitive world where getting a good job requires getting into a good school which requires getting good grades in tough classes…and building up a good, application-worthy slate of extracurriculars. To fit all of this in something has to give. And that “something” is sane bedtimes.

These kids are just going to have to suck it up and get used to running on less sleep, parents may think. There’s really no other choice.

It’s true that there are no easy answers for solving the “sleep deficit” our kids are suffering. Yet it’s also true that this is no trivial issue. Getting too little sleep doesn’t just make kids cranky. It makes them depressed, cripples their relationship skills, and affects their memory. In extreme cases, problems caused by lack of sleep may even lead to suicide.

Studies show that kids who get less sleep are more likely to report suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. Alternately, teens whose parents actively set appropriate bed-times are significantly less likely to suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts. Once thought to be a symptom of depression, it is beginning to appear that a lack of sleep promotes depression.1

And even teen crabbiness is being tied to a lack of sleep. Kids who don’t get enough sleep or who don’t sleep well (waking up for repeated texts) have more difficulty processing emotional information. That means they aren’t getting it right not only with you, but with their peer group as well.2 Their misreading of your facial expression easily leads to outbursts of “Why are you being so critical?” when you were simply thinking about whether to have chicken or fish for dinner. Teens who are self-centered naturally to begin with, hardly need another factor to add to their difficulties in being tuned in to others.

To overcome the drowsiness caused by sleep deprivation, many kids resort to taking “study drugs” like Adderall (meant for kids with ADHD), which can impair long-term learning and can produce fatal arrhythmias. (While few parents condone the use of study drugs, neither do they do anything to stop it. If the child is on the honor roll and seems okay staying up half the night, it can be easy to turn a blind eye to exactly how they’re achieving so much.)

Evidence like this strikes dread into every parent’s heart. We’ve always heard “Kids need their sleep!” but they also need to be able to compete in a tough global workplace once they’re grown and on their own. So what’s the solution? First let’s be clear on what the “right” amount of sleep is for kids at different ages. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children get 10-12 hours of sleep each night, preteens get 10 and teenagers get about 9.

Do children differ in their sleep needs? Of course studies always look at groups of children not your individual child. So, while I can’t give one-size-fits-all advice (no one can), I can offer some guidelines and common sense perspective that may get lost amidst the handwringing about how “it’s just not possible” given the amount of homework she has.

Set a consistent bedtime – Kids who have a consistent and appropriate bedtime learn the basics of “sleep hygiene” or good sleep habits early in life. You can’t force a child to sleep (a real problem with teens whose biological rhythms are at odds with their school schedules). However, you can optimize the chances of sleep by making sure kids are lying down in a quiet and dim room.

Make sure kids have a half hour or so before bedtime to “unwind” – Figure out with your children what relaxes them – a hot shower, a good book or a backrub. It’s hard to go from full throttle to sleep without some winding down. Learning to relax has many benefits from easing your child into sleep, to learning how to calm down before a test, to knowing how to soothe himself when he’s upset.

No electronics in the bedroom – Kids do not need one more iteration of the day’s drama before trying to go to sleep. So no cell or texting. The light thrown off by computers has been shown to stimulate the retina and make sleep more difficult. Younger kids in particular should not have a computer in the bedroom.

Talk to your child’s school about keeping homework in line with best practices – the reason most kids don’t get enough sleep is because they are struggling to complete homework after a long day. If your child is doing more than 10 minutes or so per grade of homework in elementary school, an hour or so in middle school and 2- 2 1/2 hours in high school then they are working past the point of homework providing any advantage.

A single letter grade doesn’t determine a future. Neither does an Ivy League education. Your child’s success or failure as an adult isn’t set in stone in high school. To parent as if it does is to create an exhausting, unfulfilling blur of a life for your child—and ironically, it causes other problems that work against your child’s long-term health and happiness.

You wouldn’t withhold food or water from your child in the quest for academic success, would you? Don’t withhold sleep, either. It really is the same thing.

Insist on a sane bedtime this school year. And don’t worry so much about the future: happy, healthy, wide-awake children will have the energy and resourcefulness to create a rewarding life for themselves. If you can create the conditions for that, you’ve done your job as a parent.

1 (Gangwisch, J. E., Babiss, L. A., Malaspina, D., Turner, J., Zammit, G. K., & Posner, K. (2010). Earlier Parental Set Bedtimes as a Protective Factor Against Depression and Suicidal Ideation. SLEEP, 33(1).

2 (Soffer-Dudek, N., Sadeh, A., Dahl, R., & Rosenblat-Stein, S. (2011). Poor Sleep Quality Predicts Deficient Emotion Information Processing over Time in Early Adolescence. SLEEP, 34(11), 1499-1508. <> )

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Art and Practice of Play
by Stephanie Rafanelli

4 year-old: So, what do you want to do?
10 year-old: I don’t know.
4 year-old: Well, you could be my dog.
10 year-old: Ok.
4 year-old: But this time, you have to behave.

If you live with a preschooler, play is probably the default activity in your home. Make believe, construction, water play and more are staples in our house, even for our thirteen and ten year-olds. Variations of the conversation above, one I overheard a few months ago, occur on a daily basis and the infectious enthusiasm of our youngest is nearly impossible to resist.

Assorted scholars define play differently. I am comfortable with this simple definition of play: play is any freely chosen and self-directed activity. Soccer practice, while hopefully fun, is not play. A neighborhood whiffle ball tournament with group-decided bases and imaginary all-star players is play.

While we live in an era in which play and free time have been marginalized, I am thrilled to see the increasing attention paid to the vital importance of play. Decades of research1 combined with new studies have confirmed the critical role of play in developing self-control, executive function skills, socio-emotional learning, problem solving, coordination, language processing . . . I could go on. Practicing the art of play is essential to becoming a highly functional human and a positive member of any community.

As a middle school educator, I find myself in conversations with parents who are convinced of the value of play, but are unsure what play might look like for a middle school student. As long as the activity is freely chosen and self-directed, it can be play. Here are a few ideas to help you foster your child’s practice of play:
  1. Schedule time for nothing. Put it on the family calendar. Try to schedule these times as often as possible.
  2. Model play. Read in front of your kids. Invent new recipes to test out. Daydream. Dance (full disclosure – this embarrasses my older two to no end). Write a story. Play word games. Take a walk without a destination.
  3. Have as many resources around as possible. Visit the library regularly to have a trove of good books lying about. Visit recycling areas to have affordable access to cardboard and building materials. Look for art store sales to stock up on any fun materials. Have a few big tubs or buckets. Keep discarded paper and a few old newspapers and magazines for building, folding, weaving, cutting, collaging, painting, etc.
  4. Be comfortable with “I’m bored.” This statement is wielded very effectively by some kids in search of defined structure, a quick treat, or what seems to be the common default – extra electronic media time. Acknowledge your child’s statement and ask if they would like you to make some suggestions or if they want to come up with ideas on their own.
  5. If they want some more specific suggestions, here are a few:
    • Create a script and make a movie, a commercial, a dance routine, a video letter to your future self, etc.
    • Be the chef tomorrow. Plan a menu, decide what ingredients need to be purchased, think about portions and a budget, decide if a sous chef is needed. If possible, figure out a way to get to a store on your own.
    • Invent an instrument and try to play a recognizable tune. Design a submarine that floats exactly in the center of a tub of water. Find some slime recipes (there are many), make a few, and compare. Try to combine two different objects and create a new item (further – create an advertising poster to sell the new invention).
    • Copy some old comic strips or cartoons and rewrite your own captions. Add new figures or erase parts of the original. Become a humor researcher – check some comic books out from the library and decide what parts are funny.
    • Play soccer with a tennis ball. Try to juggle it (soccer-style), catch it on the nape of your neck, control it accurately with your foot, and shoot at a mini target.
    • Draw, cartoon, paint, sculpt, create poetry, write. Compose a musical piece or craft a song or rap. Build, sand, and paint some wood.
  6. Pay attention. Catch your child being engaged in or excited about something. Then do what you can to create the time and tools for those explorations to continue. Without guidance.
With a little practice, we can all fall back into the magical – and essential – habit of playing.

1To read some of the research, I recommend the work of Marian Diamond, Alison Gopnik, Jaak Panksepp, Jane Myck-Wayne, Elena Bodrova with Deborah J. Leong, and Laura Schulz with Elizabeth Bonawitz. To read a good survey of the research on play, I recommend the aptly titled Play, by Dr. Stuart Brown.

Stephanie Rafanelli is both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.

Monday, July 9, 2012

by Madeline Levine, Ph.D.

Why it Pays to Play

If you’re like many parents, your child’s summer may already be booked up with “enriching activities.” Maybe you’re shipping her off to a rigorous math or computer camp designed to give her an academic edge. At the very least you’re using the break from school to double up on her (already daunting) schedule of gymnastics and dance classes, supplemented with an ambitious summer reading list.

I have a question though: When will your child have time to play? Just…play?

It’s too bad that the old-fashioned notion of summer as endless free time—to climb trees, chase fireflies, build a fort in the woods, maybe set up a lemonade stand—has fallen by the wayside. This is what kids need—they need it far more than they need a high-priced summer camp or some other program aimed at cramming a little bit more learning into their exhausted brains.

Play is serious business. We may see it as wasted time, but it’s actually anything but. Play is the work of childhood. It’s a classroom in which children develop a whole set of skills that really matter both in school and in life. Indeed, research shows that children who attend play-based preschools, as opposed to academic preschools, do significantly better in school down the line.

David Elkind, one of the country’s most knowledgeable (and beloved) experts on child development, says that “play is essential to positive human development.” He recognizes that there are different types of play: play that teaches children concepts and skills, play that initiates children into the world of peer relations, and play that helps kids develop strategies for dealing with stress.

What these variations on play have in common is that they are self-initiated and self-directed—the playing child is calling the shots.

If a child goes into his room and strums on his guitar because he loves it, that’s play. When an instructor comes into the picture and starts teaching guitar, the child may enjoy the experience but he’s far less likely to be playing because his attempts to improve are no longer self-directed.

If you really want to up the ante, consider that tomorrow’s adults may need the exact skills developed by play—creativity, innovation, collaboration, problem solving, and self-direction—more than any other generation before. The global economy demands them. This makes it even more ironic that time for free, unstructured, self-directed play is at an all-time low.

So what, exactly, is it that makes play so valuable? Here are some of the reasons:

It miniaturizes the world so that kids can deal with it. Watch your daughter play with the “family” in her dollhouse. She will set rules, enforce them and have siblings collaborate. While her older brothers may be intimidating to her, the miniature “siblings” are not. She has a chance to experiment with different ways of relating (being friends, bopping each other over the head) that will help her navigate the bigger world.

It teaches them how to handle stress and conflict. Consider the spats, arguments, and out-and-out fights kids get into when they’re playing with their friends. If they can’t resolve or at least smooth over their disagreements, then the game will grind to a halt—and that’s not good for anyone.

It’s a feast for the senses—and the senses are the vehicles for childhood learning. You can explain a concept to children all day and they won’t get it. But when they discover it themselves—by doing, not by listening to someone talk—that’s when the light bulb really comes on.

It gives kids a sense of power in a world in which they are essentially powerless. This is why kids love pretend dragon-slaying so much: they are helpless in the face of real-world “dragons” like parents, teachers, and other authority figures. Try to remember what it felt like to be small and powerless. Much of children’s fiction is based on this theme (think Dorothy and her shaking clan before the hidden Wizard of Oz).

It bridges the gap between imagination and creativity. All children are imaginative. Anyone who has ever seen a little girl wearing a white bathrobe and a towel draped over her head pretending she’s getting married or a little boy using a stick he found in the yard to cast wizard spells at the family dog has seen that imagination in action. Self-directed play cultivates that imagination into creativity.

It teaches us about ourselves. A sense of self must be shaped internally, not externally. Kids need to learn what they’re good at and not good at—what they like and don’t like—on their own rather than being told by parents, coaches, and instructors. This is why it’s so important to let our kids try out lots of different activities rather than immersing them full-time in one or two that you prefer.

It is this sense of self that provides a home base, a place to retreat to, throughout life. If they don’t have that they will be always looking for external direction and validation. Business leaders are saying that this constant looking outside for validation makes for workers who need too much time, resources and direction.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Media and “The Meanest Mom in Town”
by Stephanie Rafanelli

In the interest of full disclosure, I have the “only” seventh grader in “the whole town” who does not have a mobile phone. According to his friends I might be the “meanest mom in town”…

As Madeline Levine persuasively contended in her most recent post, an essential job of parenting in our (especially electronic) media-saturated society is teaching media literacy. In fact, I believe this so strongly that I have incorporated media literacy activities into my classroom curriculum for over a decade. However, in our home we have delayed some of the thornier issues surrounding media inflow. We have one family computer and one television. Both sit in a public area and their use is determined by our family rules.

We expect our children to learn how to become savvy media consumers and we know that the learning process will probably involve some mistakes. For our thirteen year-old, we know he is not quite ready to tackle some of the decisions that accompany texting, immediate picture uploading, or constant availability. As the news will support, even ostensibly responsible and media-conscious political leaders need some more guidance with appropriate versus inappropriate electronic media usage.

In addition to delaying the purchase of a phone, we have limited the amount of media friction in our house by using this time-honored parental technique: distraction. Our oldest is an enthusiastic soccer and baseball player, so we found camps where he could both volunteer and also earn a little money as a junior counselor. The benefits of his “job” are many. He is out of the house and running around for most of the day. He is tired and needs to be up early, so his sleep timing has remained similar to his school-year schedule. He is developing a wonderful sense of responsibility and community through meeting and caring for a pack of younger players. His confidence is growing as he gets immediate and authentic feedback about being a competent counselor. His job skills and reference pool are expanding and will serve as a base when he eventually applies for a ‘real’ job. And, of course, he has much less time to try to negotiate electronic media time.

Encouraging adolescents to do something else with their time is perhaps an obvious, but I think important point. Video games, cell phones, computers, satellite television, iPods, iPads … the opportunity for electronic entertainment is abundant. It is far more prevalent than when I was a teenager.  As a result parents need to be more vigilant and more proactive in encouraging their children to experience and participate in the world around them without the filter of a screen.

In the not very distant future, our oldest will likely get a phone and/or a computer. We will continue to have a family electronic media contract and will involve our kids in determining a baseline rate plan with responsibility for overage. We will build up to allowing computer use in a more private space and will require our children to “friend” us when they get a social media account. We will keep reading the books and watching the shows our children are consuming so we can foster their ability to question what they are absorbing. We will insist that all electronic devices spend the night in the kitchen to preserve a sleep-friendly* bedroom.

As we often say at Challenge Success, one size does not fit all. Given the personalities of our ten and four year-old children, we predict the timing for each will be different. We have no idea where technology and electronic media will be in the next few years (our 4 year old was born into an iPhone and Facebook world, not so our 10 year old) so we continue to gauge each new freedom as our children and the landscape changes.

For now, I might remain the “meanest mom in town” for
another year . . .

*First, we hope to prevent nighttime social activity. Second, we think the research demonstrating that using a bright screen can delay the natural production of Melatonin, the body’s sleep hormone, is pretty compelling.

Stephanie Rafanelli is both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.