Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Right Fit vs. Collecting Colleges as Trophies:
A Student's Perspective on College Applications

For me, the college applications process started early and finished late. And it was anything but easy. I “narrowed” my top choices to a list of 19, and I started mailing out my apps the summer before my senior year of high school. By the time that the school year had even started, I was already getting admissions letters in the mail. But 19 sounded absurd to me, even at the time. After all, wasn’t I only going to end up going to one? And this is only one example of the handful of likeminded questions that were running through my head. The more I considered it, the less it made sense. But at the same time there was something speaking louder, which I couldn’t resist: the pressure to conform.

I wanted to be a part of the college frenzy that was running rampant throughout my high school. I mean, it had started harmlessly enough—a few kids with Princeton shirts in middle school, rumors of summer camps at Duke—but by the time senior year rolled around, competition was so fierce that people didn’t even talk about where they were applying. In their eyes, every person who found out was just another number to compete against. So they kept their heads down, their mouths shut, and suddenly got very “busy” every weekend the SAT was offered, and got exponentially more frenzied the closer it got to the January 1st deadline.

Nevertheless, it was an exciting time. Most students kept their lips sealed about their plans, but I could get a pretty good clear picture of the kinds of schools they were thinking of, and how big their dreams were. And this secrecy only fueled the competition. At least…it provided me the push I needed until crunch time…until I was about halfway through the process, and I still had a stack of ten apps on my desk, and midterms were just around the corner. Until I started to lose it.

But it actually wasn’t the workload which ended up bogging me down, nor was it the logistical balancing act that put me over the edge. It was the sincerity of the application questions themselves, which looked at me in the eye and openly asked me “why do you want to attend ___________?” And for many of the schools, I realized that I didn’t have an honest answer. Sure, it would be nice to get in, to get the thick envelope, and to be able to tell my friends and teachers about it in late March. But because there were so many schools on my list, (that I had skimmed off the top of the U.S. News and World Report rankings) the reality was that there were many that I wasn’t interested in attending, and many that probably weren’t interested in me. I realized that even if I somehow came up with a convincing answer to the question, the college itself might not really be a good match—that for four years I might be the only kid on campus who wasn’t actually excited to go there. Regardless of how good it might look on paper.

The college-crazy culture that I had been living in had only been feeding my delusions. Each raised eyebrow and incredulous “wow, nine-TEEN?” had only encouraged me to go out and collect colleges like trophies. So I made the tough decision to cut my list drastically—to only focus on the schools that I really had a good, honest answer for—regardless of whether or not they were the “brand name” schools. It was a hard decision to make, but it was better to make it in high school than to stretch out the drama, up the ante on the tension, or in the worst case scenario: to burn out and to lose my passion for learning at a school where I really didn’t belong.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

By Stephanie Rafanelli

Remember that early parenting moment where your child falls and skins her knee for the first time and looks to you to gauge an appropriate response? Should I cry? Am I going to be OK? The calm, quietly attentive parent lets her daughter know, yes, there is a little blood and maybe even some stinging, but you will make it. We learn early that our child’s reactions will mirror ours. Our resolve or, alternately, panic, will become theirs.

Every March, a dozen or so former students wander back over to my middle school classroom to give me their college news. While most are ecstatic, there are always a few who are devastated. More often than not, these students point out that their parents are really disappointed. I wonder, is this a case of a parent’s panic being reflected through the student? Is the young adult really as dejected as he seems? Yes, college is more consequential than a skinned knee. Still, I have seen this student in action for years – conquering a difficult project, experiencing an unsuccessful student council bid, or maneuvering social upheaval. He has had practice in succeeding, failing, persevering, and staying engaged. I fundamentally believe he will be OK and probably thrive. Even at his second or third choice college.

Luckily, I have the December and January visits still fresh in my mind. Last year’s senior is now soaring as a freshman. “I am so excited about the language program – I can take classes in both French and English!” came the report from a student attending college in Canada. “I get to shadow the robotics team at a competition in April,” declared a pleased freshman now on the east coast. From a student in southern California, “I found ‘my people,’ Ms. Raf. Everyone I meet has some kind of combined major.” The angst of not being accepted at one particular college is forgotten as I am regaled by stories about the roommate, the lab schedule, or (my recent favorite) the great cafeteria food.

I know a skinned knee hurts. By now, your high school senior has had, hopefully, a few literal and metaphorical skinned knees, and she can understand both from your words and your loving support that she will survive. Ideally, your child has a network of adults – an advisor, past teachers, a coach – who can remind her of this message. Plant the seeds of next year’s conversation now – What drew her to the school to which she was accepted? What is she most looking forward to? Are there local alumni from that school who might be willing to meet for coffee? Who, among her teachers or advisors, will be excited for a full report in December? I, for one, can hardly wait to hear . . .

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.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Courageous Parenting by Dr. Madeline Levine


Every psychologist knows that there are certain times of the year when the phone starts ringing like mad. Winter holidays are one of those times when people’s hopes for idyllic family reunions often meets the reality of your uncle who drinks too much, your siblings who reliably don’t show up or your mother who thinks you married “down.”  Most of us in the mental health profession stay close to our offices between Christmas and New Years, anticipating teary, disappointed calls from adults who find, once again, that their Norman Rockwell visions have turned into Edvard Munch’s The Scream. For decades, this was the toughest time of year for both patients (well, many people actually) and therapists, when old hurts, disappointments and wounds unexpectedly reappeared, often taking center stage.

But times have changed and we have a new contender for the emotionally toughest time of year - and that is March - when college acceptances and rejections come in. What is profoundly different about this difficult time from what I described above is that, for the most part, it is unnecessary and fabricated not out of real trauma, but manufactured trauma. My phone rings this morning at 8AM (right after mail delivery) and a sobbing mother relates how her son was just rejected from “ the only school we wanted.” The first thing to note of course is the “we.”  I’m assuming it’s her son who is going to college and not the whole family. But like many of these phone calls, the bleeding between the needs of the high schooler and the needs of the parents, practically needs a tourniquet. Parents are beside themselves about rejections that are incidental to their children; children are beside themselves about disappointing their parents. The normal level of excitement and disappointment that one would expect at this point is so out of proportion to the reality of what it means to go to Wisconsin instead of Michigan, Georgetown instead of Princeton, Santa Cruz instead of UCLA or Sonoma State instead of San Jose State as to defy easy explanation. So here’s my best shot at what is really going on during March Madness.

First of all, we’ve come to believe that where our children go to college will have a profound impact on how their lives turn out. There are companies that “guarantee” admission to a prestigious college if you start working with them while your child is still a toddler. Many schools begin college preparation in 6th grade and even more in 9th. This emphasis lets our children (and ourselves) know early and regularly that high school and even childhood are staging areas for something that will happen years, even decades later. In fact, both childhood and adolescence have a whole bunch of requirements of their own that have nothing to do with where your child ultimately goes to college. Long before that happens, they need to show self-control, get interested in themselves and the world, know how to talk and work with other people and reflect on their future selves. Premature focus on college takes away much needed time from the tasks and skills that kids need to master in order to go on and be successful college students, and then successful adults.

So does the college that your child goes to matter? Yes, of course. But not necessarily in the way we’ve become accustomed to thinking about it. Colleges and universities matter when they fit well with the needs, interests and temperament of your child. The child who thrives in a big social setting is unlikely to do well in a small rural school. The child who loves structure, may struggle with a school where there are few requirements. College is a match, not a prize. We have our eye on the wrong ball when we care most about the “ranking” of the college our child goes to. Academically talented kids, for the most part, go to competitive schools. But these handful of top schools can fill their classes many times over with bright kids. No kid should feel like a failure (another typical March phone call - a crying youngster who won’t get out of bed saying “I did everything right and it was for nothing.”) It is a tragedy to have high performing kids feel like failures when they don’t get into the toughest schools. It is equally a tragedy to marginalize kids who go to community colleges.  “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” said Yogi Berra. Few of us have walked a straight and narrow path to “success.”  Many of us have changed focus, schools and careers. We should know better. There are few individual things that will determine our life’s trajectory. Life is simply more complex than that. No school guarantees success in life and no school eliminates it.

Instead of crying over rejections, we should be celebrating acceptances with our kids in March. Of course going to a high-ranking school may carry potential advantages. But an Ivy League study showed that there were no ultimate differences in workplace success or satisfaction among students who were accepted to Ivy League schools and attended and those who were accepted but didn’t go there. Ultimately it is your child’s life. The best guarantees of success for our children - not at the end of the grading period, not when they get into college - but twenty years down the line when they move into their adult lives, have to do with real involvement with learning (not just going through the motions,) a good emotional foundation and good values. Their college acceptances have nothing, or little, to do with your parenting. This is about your child. And they should feel good about moving towards one of the greatest transitions in their lives. Wherever your kid gets into college this month, go out and celebrate. This is how you share without bleeding. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Courageous Parenting
There’s So Much Pressure.
Do We Really Have A Choice?
by Dr. Madeline Levine

Hi. Welcome to Courageous Parenting. Since you don’t know me yet, and I don’t know you, let’s start with a brief introduction. I’m Madeline Levine, co-founder of Challenge Success and author of the NYT bestseller, The Price of Privilege. I’ve been a clinical psychologist working mostly with teens and parenting issues for the past 30 years (Making me sound rather old. Probably an advantage to you since I’ve either lived through or treated most of the things that you are likely to be worried about.)

I’ve thought long and hard about whether our current high-stakes, high-pressure culture is here to stay. Most of us seem to be participating in this culture, often in multiple ways, and just as often, against our better judgment. We worry about the schools our children attend. Are they rigorous enough? Have we done enough to give our kids a “leg up?” We hover over homework, track test scores, push for competitive sports and keep our children endlessly busy with extracurriculars. While all of these topics will be discussed in great detail over the coming months let’s start with what the research says. I’ll then tell you what my experience has taught me.

Kids do not benefit from excessive stress (period!) That’s not to say that having your kid do his homework, or grounding him for an infraction or insisting on chores is too much to ask of “vulnerable” children. Kids for the most part are robust and resilient. We take that strength away from them when we add stress that is out of synch with the well-documented needs of kids. Homework into the night, depriving kids of the sleep that they need for optimal brain development, is out of synch with healthy development and therefore damaging. So is insisting on near perfect grades, outstanding athletic achievement or building water plants in third world countries to beef up college resumes. Kids thrive at the “just right” challenge. That is when they are challenged just beyond their current level of competence. Not when they’re expected to act like rocket scientists, professional athletes or adults.

Actually, a body of research tells us that our kids are most likely to do well, both academically and emotionally when we are aware of their strengths and weaknesses; help them cultivate those strengths and compensate for those weaknesses. When we see them clearly. When we love them unconditionally and still set limits and impose consequences when called for. When we are alert for signs of excessive stress like headaches and stomachaches. And when we do see signs, are quick to protect our children by looking at both our own contribution as well as their schools’ contribution.

But often the pressure seems to be overwhelming. Getting into the “right” school starts to feel (mistakenly) like a matter of life and death. We become “night teachers” working into exhaustions (for both us and them) so that they turn in perfect work (and lose the opportunities to learn from mistakes.) We neglect to make sure that our kids are getting the mandatory “down time” to think, dream, and reflect on their future selves. Instead we pack their days with a schedule befitting a junior leaguer or a CEO.

This isn’t what kids need. They need what kids have always needed. Love, limits, support, unpressured time, goals to reach for and a sense of having something to contribute.

Challenge Success has many goals. To improve best practices in school, to lessen developmentally inappropriate demands on kids, to insure that they learn to make healthy choices, to support parents. But our guiding principle is that every child is unique and has the potential to contribute to himself, his family and his community. There are many ways to be successful in this world and our sons and daughters need to be fully aware that a good life can come just as easily from being a pianist, a teacher, a nurse or a venture capitalist. It’s what’s inside that counts. Every day, parents come up against choices that are tough to make. Do you encourage your son to turn down the traveling soccer team even when he’s earned a spot? Do you choose the play preschool over the one known for it’s academic rigor? Does your child skip chores because there’s a big test coming up? Most of these questions have relatively simple answers.* Challenge Success is here to help you navigate through some of the thornier calls we need to make. So am I.

Comments, questions, proposed topics and criticism are all equally welcome.

*Depending on your son’s age, his athletic involvement should be up to him. That doesn’t mean that you need to give up family life. If the team demands that you do, I’d think twice.

Play-based preschools have kids, who on average, do better academically down the line than academic preschools.

Much more to be learned from completing a chore and discharging a responsibility than from a few extra minutes of more studying.