The 7 rules parents must not break in the school drop-off line

Nov. 6, 2014 

Hey, black car -- we see you trying to cut into the school pick up line. You are violating Rule #4 !

Sarah Maizes
Hey, black car — we see you trying to cut into the school pick up line. You are violating Rule #4 !

If you have kids in school, you’ve witnessed it. The fighting, the brawling, the all-out chaos that makes “Lord of the Flies” look orderly.

And, no, it’s not the kids in the schoolyard. It’s the parents in the car drop-off or pick-up line. Or, as I call it, “the Thunderdome,” a Mad Max-style dystopia where cars are king and respect for mankind goes out the passenger seat window.

In a recent study by British insurance company Allianz, more than 1,000 parents were surveyed for their levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, as they did their school day morning routine. Levels peaked just before leaving the house to drive to school, at around 8:15 a.m. each morning, researchers found. And the impact of the school run stress stays with parents well into the day. Also, nearly 25 percent of parents surveyed said that morning drop off stress sets their mood for the day — good or bad.

We’re all adults. We know better. And it’s so simple. We are taught in preschool how to form a line. It’s not complicated. In fact, the simplicity and efficiency of “the line” is what separates us from the apes. Or at least it should.

Unfortunately there are just always people who believe they’re above the system. They’re “in a hurry,” “running late,” or just “dropping their kid off super fast.” Well here’s a newsflash people — we’re ALL just dropping our kids, in a hurry, and running late for a meeting — that’s why we’re in the car line, too.

So, for all of those parents who know somebody who could use a reminder as to how it all works, here are the 7 unbreakable rules of the school drop-off or pick-up line. Print them up, keep copies in your car, and when when you see an offender, paper the h*ll out of their car:

Rule #1: Do NOT get out of your car. Ever. Not to “quickly grab” your kid, wave “come on” to your child over the playground fence, or just say “hi” to your friend in line behind you to tell her how much fun you had at Girl’s Night Out. Stay in your car. And when the car in front of you moves, you move.

Rule #2: Put down the cellphone. Don’t text or type emails. Waiting for your kid in your empty (and wonderfully quiet) car seems like the perfect opportunity to catch up on work – but it’s also a distraction. People on their phones don’t notice the car in front of them has moved, and as we learned in Rule #1, you know what to do next. More importantly, it’s dangerous. People on their phones don’t see children darting out between cars to the parents breaking rule #3.

Rule #3: Don’t double park. Maybe you’re thinking “I’ll just pull up alongside this nice lady here and my kid can run out in front of her and jump in.” No. “But I see my kid right there!” Good. Then you can wave at them to meet you at the end of the line when you circle back around the block. Plus, it’s illegal.

Rule #4: DON’T cut the line. It doesn’t matter that there is a gap the size of the one in Lauren Hutton’s smile in front of that BMW ten cars up. We’re all waiting for them to get off their phone and move up (pop quiz: “What do you do when the car in front of you moves?”). Zipping into that gap is like cutting the line at a cupcake shop. You wouldn’t pull that $#*% at Sprinkles, would you?

Rule #5: Leave the PDA at home. You love your little one and want to send him on his way to school with a kiss. That’s lovely. You’re cute. But if little Johnny won’t get out of the car or he’s not ready to say “goodbye,” go park your car and walk him in. Even better? Install an ejector seat. People are waiting, folks.

Rule #6: The rules of the car drop-off lane apply to everybody, no matter what kind of car you drive. So move your Maserati to the back of the line, dude. You’re giving the 1 percent a bad name.

Rule #7: Move swiftly. Once your kids locate you, get them into the car and get going. Don’t sit there in line and have the “how was your day?” discussion with them.

In short, a little politeness goes a long way in the car lane (and beyond). Remember, being behind the wheel of a car doesn’t make you invisible. We see you. We all see you. Including our children. So let’s try to set a good example. Now put the phone down… the car in front of you just moved up.

Sarah Maizes is author of “On My Way to School,” and a mother of three. For more of Sarah’s parenting wisdom and unsolicited advice, go to www.SarahMaizes.com, or find her on Facebookor Twitter

Exercise May Protect Children From Stress

NY Times Article

By JAN HOFFMAN
Hélène Desplechi/Getty Images

Physically active children generally report happier moods and fewer symptoms of depression than children who are less active. Now researchers may have found a reason: by one measure, exercise seems to help children cope with stress.

Finnish researchers had 258 children wear accelerometers on their wrists for at least four days that registered the quality and quantity of their physical activity. Their parents used cotton swabs to take saliva samples at various times throughout a single day, which the researchers used to assess levels of cortisol, a hormone typically induced by physical or mental stress.

There was no difference in the cortisol levels at home between children who were active and those who were less active. But when the researchers gave the children a standard psychosocial stress test at a clinic involving arithmetic and storytelling challenges, they found that those who had not engaged in physical activity had raised cortisol levels. The children who had moderate or vigorous physical activity showed relatively no rise in cortisol levels.

Those results indicate a more positive physiological response to stress by children who were more active, the researchers said in a study that was published this week in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. The children who were least active had the highest levels.

“This study shows that children who are more active throughout their day have a better hormonal response to an acute stressful situation,” said Disa Hatfield, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Rhode Island, who was not involved in the study.

Dr. Hatfield noted that the study did not control for sugar intake, which has also been associated with higher levels of cortisol. And as the researchers themselves noted, the wrist-born accelerometers could not accurately measure certain activities like bicycling or swimming.

Michael F. Bergeron, a professor of pediatrics at the University of South Dakota and executive director of the National Youth Sports Health and Safety Institute, cautioned that chronic levels of cortisol might be a better measurement of a child’s propensity toward stress, rather than the single-day measurements taken in the new study.

“A single response to a single stressor may be what the body needs to do, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he said.

Although elementary schools in the last decade have generally been supportive of physical education, only 29 percent of high school students meet the national guideline of 60 minutes a day, said Russell R. Pate, a professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina, who has worked on national studies of fitness levels in students.

“It’s not a huge surprise that kids who are encouraged to be more active would be more relaxed,” he said.

In a school, a child who gets more activity on a daily basis, Dr. Hatfield said, will respond better to everyday stressors like tests and social challenges. “The study suggests the physiological reason: it may be because their hormonal response is different,” she said.

Six Ways to Help the Stressed-Out Teen in Your Life

ERIN ANDERSSEN

The Globe and Mail

Published Wednesday, Feb. 06 2013, 5:36 PM EST

To many a frazzled Canadian parent, the days seem shorter and the expectations higher. Our teens have hopped on the racing treadmill, facing a bleak job market and doubling down on university degrees, juggling the insatiable, and intrusive, demands of social media. The result: Nearly 7 per cent of Canadian teens suffer from serious anxiety, with symptoms that cause them to miss school or avoid peers – and behind them is a whole cohort of stressed-out adolescents, trying to juggle all their obligations. (In a 2008, Statistics Canada study, four of 10 teenagers reported being under “constant pressure to accomplish accomplish more than they could handle.”) But if anxiety thrives in the conditions confronting the modern teen, there are some steps that parents can take. The good news is that mom and dad might feel the load lighten too.

1. Keep them busy (but bite your tongue): A common refrain of modern parenting is that young teens are being overscheduled. And while downtime is important, research suggests that it’s not the extracurricular activities themselves that are anxiety-inducing – in fact, pursuing a favourite hobby or sport by choice is mentally sustaining. What heightens stress are the achievement goals parents attach to the activities, says Suniya Luthar, a psychology professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, who conducted the study in 2006 with Grade 8 students, and replicated the same findings with older students last year. “It’s not the number of hours, it’s the pressure they feel” to be MVP or star of the school play, she says. What’s more, this pressure may spill over into their friendships: If you are being taught, even unconsciously, to see teammates, or co-stars, as rivals for the big scholarship, Luthar asks, how does that impact your relationships? “We have to to be hypervigilant about our kids being drawn into this [attitude of] ‘achieve more, and excel more at all costs,’” says Luthar, “The message in that is so overpowering, that parents need to work extra hard to show our kids the importance of kindness, connectedness and integrity.” That’s an easier endeavour when parents aren’t counting goals in the stands, or plotting the next résumé-building endeavour. “It’s about who’s calling the shots,” says Carl Honoré, author of The Slow Fix and the parenting book Under Pressure. His advice: Drop your teen at hockey practice and go relax over a latte.

2. Find your teen an “auntie”: Modern families are shrinking, more mobile and time-crunched – and that means teens, distancing themselves from parents, who might otherwise have spent time with adult relatives in the past, may turn to peers to fill the gap. But Steve Biddulph, an Australian psychologist and the author of the new bookRaising Girls, says that girls, especially, who are more susceptible than boys to media messages about their appearance and sexuality, can benefit from time with an older woman, who can impart important life lessons that focus on character, not fashion sense. That person doesn’t need to be a relative. In Britain, Biddulph notes, there’s a trend of groups of moms intentionally creating relationships with each other’s daughters, to serve as a sounding board beyond their own moms. A wise auntie can pass on advice in a way a parent might not be able to, especially in the crucial early teen years. And they are also another adult to watch for warning signs when the stress of adolescence becomes more serious.

3. Encourage them to face their fears (even if they fail): “Life is the rough and the smooth; and part of the problem now is we just want the smooth,” says Honoré. “This is a Photoshop culture we live in. We want to edit out the bad stuff.” But teens need to understand that feeling anxious is a normal human reaction to stress – a physiological response designed to warn of danger, and, in healthy measure, improve performance and focus. Avoiding or postponing an activity, such as the dreaded science test, actually enhances anxiety the next time around. A key component of therapy for anxious teens (and adults) is forcing them outside their comfort zone. In one of her group sessions, Dr. Alexa Bagnell, a child psychiatrist at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, directs her young patients to stand in front of the sign for the Halifax Public Gardens – and ask for directions to the public gardens. “People will laugh at them and they have to process that and realize the world didn’t end.” Missing school, says Bagnell, can be especially problematic – because teens become increasingly anxious about falling behind, or how their peers might be judging their absences. Better to encourage a nervous teen to prep for the stress-inducing event – practise party small talk for instance – than skip it altogether.

4. Sleep, eat, sweat and be merry: In adolescence, melatonin, the hormone in the brain that initiates sleep, is released later at night, so teenagers “are already fighting their biology” to get good rest, explains Bagnell. Add in the constant white noise of electronics, energy drinks and homework, and the average high-school student, who needs between nine and 10 hours of sleep, is only getting about seven hours. “Sleep deprivation makes it more difficult to manage our emotions and make decisions, and increases our stress level.” A good night’s sleep, Bagnell says, in a dark room – along with eating well and exercising – is a proactive de-stresser, and it’s important for parents to monitor bedtime, including when their teen actually falls asleep. Research also shows that students who get good rest before a test perform better overall than those who cut into their mental rest with a few more hours of cramming.

5. Tune out the (media and Internet) message: This week, a new Ipsos Reid survey found that 84 per cent of Canadian families feel technology keeps them better connected. But teenagers may be too connected. Another online Ipsos Reid survey last year found that 21 per cent of Canadian teens between the ages of 12 and 17 had witnessed someone they knew being bullied through a social-networking site. Half reported a negative experience themselves, including an embarrassing photo or someone hacking their site and pretending to be them. What’s more, teenagers, and girls in particular, are inundated with media that set an impossible standard for beauty and success. Biddulph says that, particularly in the early teens when social time on the Internet increases, parents need to monitor their child’s activity, discuss the ethics of social behaviour online, and educate them about marketing tricks such as airbrushing.

6. Reduce your own anxiety: Anxious parents are more likely to pass on the trait to their kids, both genetically and with their own behaviour – a link supported in a study published by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center last fall. “You can only help your kids if you are significantly less anxious than they are,” says Biddulph. Positive mental health develops when active and even stressful periods are followed by an opportunity to relax. Make sure your teen has a quiet space to escape, and spend time as a family that isn’t goal oriented – a weekend meal, for instance, minus the scheduling flowcharts. “Ideally, your home should be a haven because the outside world has gotten faster, and probably nastier,” says Biddulph.

Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?

The New York Times

Platon for The New York Times

Students at Shaker Heights High School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, on Jan. 25, the day before they took the SAT or SAT math subject test. Clockwise from top left: Elana Ross, Linda Fan, Aryanna Jones,  Sasha Rae-Grant, Patrick Reed, Jeremy McMillan. More Photos »

Noah Muthler took his first state standardized test in third grade at the Spring Cove Elementary School in Roaring Spring, Pa. It was a miserable experience, said his mother, Kathleen Muthler. He was a good student in a program for gifted children. But, Muthler said, “he was crying in my arms the night before the test, saying: ‘I’m not ready, Mom. They didn’t teach us everything that will be on the test.’ ” In fourth grade, he was upset the whole week before the exam. “He manifests it physically,” his mother said. “He got headaches and stomachaches. He would ask not to go to school.” Not a good sleeper anyway, Noah would slip downstairs after an hour tossing in bed and ask his mom to lie down with him until he fell asleep. In fifth grade, the anxiety lasted a solid month before the test. “Even after the test, he couldn’t let it go. He would wonder about questions he feared he misunderstood,” Muthler said.  So this year, Muthler is opting Noah out of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, using a broad religious and ethical exemption. Just knowing he won’t be taking the tests in March has put Noah in a better frame of mind about school. “The pressure is off his shoulders now,” his mother said. When he doesn’t grasp a concept immediately, he can talk it through without any panic. “He looks forward to science class and math class again,” Muthler said. “He wants to be a chemical or nuclear engineer.”

Muthler understands Noah’s distress; more mysterious is why her son Jacob, who is in eighth grade, isn’t the least bit unnerved by the same tests. He, too, is in the gifted program, but that seems to give him breezy confidence, not fear. “You would think he doesn’t even care,” Muthler marveled. “Noah has the panic and anxiety for both of them.” Nevertheless, she will opt out Jacob from the tests, too, to be consistent.

Never before has the pressure to perform on high-stakes tests been so intense or meant so much for a child’s academic future. As more school districts strive for accountability, standardized tests have proliferated. The pressure to do well on achievement tests for college is filtering its way down to lower grades, so that even third graders feel as if they are on trial. Students get the message that class work isn’t what counts, and that the standardized exam is the truer measure. Sure, you did your homework and wrote a great history report — but this test is going to find out how smart you really are. Critics argue that all this test-taking is churning out sleep-deprived, overworked, miserable children.

But some children actually do better under competitive, stressful circumstances. Why can Jacob thrive under pressure, while it undoes Noah? And how should that difference inform the way we think about high-stakes testing? An emerging field of research — and a pioneering study from Taiwan — has begun to offer some clues. Like any kind of human behavior, our response to competitive pressure is derived from a complex set of factors — how we were raised, our skills and experience, the hormones that we marinated in as fetuses. There is also a genetic component: One particular gene, referred to as the COMT gene, could to a large degree explain why one child is more prone to be a worrier, while another may be unflappable, or in the memorable phrasing of David Goldman, a geneticist at the National Institutes of Health, more of a warrior.

Understanding their propensity to become stressed and how to deal with it can help children compete. Stress turns out to be far more complicated than we’ve assumed, and far more under our control than we imagine. Unlike long-term stress, short-term stress can actually help people perform, and viewing it that way changes its effect. Even for those genetically predisposed to anxiety, the antidote isn’t necessarily less competition — it’s more competition. It just needs to be the right kind.

Every May in Taiwan, more than 200,000 ninth-grade children take the Basic Competency Test for Junior High School Students. This is not just any test. The scores will determine which high school the students are admitted to — or if they get into one at all. Only 39 percent of Taiwanese children make the cut, with the rest diverted to vocational schools or backup private schools. The test, in essence, determines the future for Taiwanese children.

The test is incredibly difficult; answering the multiple-choice questions requires knowledge of chemistry, physics, advanced algebra and geometry, and testing lasts for two days. “Many students go to cram school almost every night to study all the subjects on the test,” says Chun-Yen Chang, director of the Science Education Center at National Taiwan Normal University. “Just one or two percentage points difference will drag you from the No. 1 high school in the local region down to No. 3 or 4.”

In other words, the exam was a perfect, real world experiment for studying the effects of genetics on high-stakes competition. Chang and his research team took blood samples from 779 students who had recently taken the Basic Competency Test in three regions of Taiwan. They matched each student’s genotype to his or her test score.

The researchers were interested in a single gene, the COMT gene. This gene carries the assembly code for an enzyme that clears dopamine from the prefrontal cortex. That part of the brain is where we plan, make decisions, anticipate future consequences and resolve conflicts. “Dopamine changes the firing rate of neurons, speeding up the brain like a turbocharger,” says Silvia Bunge, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley. Our brains work best when dopamine is maintained at an optimal level. You don’t want too much, or too little. By removing dopamine, the COMT enzyme helps regulate neural activity and maintain mental function.

Here’s the thing: There are two variants of the gene. One variant builds enzymes thatslowly remove dopamine. The other variant builds enzymes that rapidly clear dopamine. We all carry the genes for one or the other, or a combination of the two.

In lab experiments, people have been given a variety of cognitive tasks — computerized puzzles and games, portions of I.Q. tests — and researchers have consistently found that, under normal conditions, those with slow-acting enzymes have a cognitive advantage. They have superior executive function and all it entails: they can reason, solve problems, orchestrate complex thought and better foresee consequences. They can concentrate better. This advantage appears to increase with the number of years of education.

The brains of the people with the other variant, meanwhile, are comparatively lackadaisical. The fast-acting enzymes remove too much dopamine, so the overall level is too low. The prefrontal cortex simply doesn’t work as well.

On that score alone, having slow-acting enzymes sounds better. There seems to be a trade-off, however, to these slow enzymes, one triggered by stress. In the absence of stress, there is a cognitive advantage. But when under stress, the advantage goes away and in fact reverses itself.

“Stress floods the prefrontal cortex with dopamine,” says Adele Diamond, professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. A little booster hit of dopamine is normally a good thing, but the big surge brought on by stress is too much for people with the slow-acting enzyme, which can’t remove the dopamine fast enough. “Much like flooding a car engine with too much gasoline, prefrontal-cortex function melts down,” Diamond says.

Other research has found that those with the slow-acting enzymes have higher I.Q.’ s, on average. One study of Beijing schoolchildren calculated the advantage to be 10 I.Q. points. But it was unclear if the cognitive advantages they had would stay with them when they were under stress outside the security of the lab environment.

The Taiwan study was the first to look at the COMT gene in a high-stakes, real-life setting. Would the I.Q. advantage hold up, or would the stress undermine performance?

It was the latter. The Taiwanese students with the slow-acting enzymes sank on the national exam. On average, they scored 8 percent lower than those with the fast-acting enzymes. It was as if some of the A students and B students traded places at test time.

“I am not against pressure. Actually, pressure is good [for] someone,” Chang commented. “But those who are more vulnerable to stress will be more disadvantaged.”

As of 2014, Taiwan will no longer require all students to take the Basic Competency Test, as the country moves to 12-year compulsory education. The system will no longer be built to weed out children, but to keep them all in school. But academically advanced students will still take some kind of entrance exam. And those elite students will still feel the pressure, which, it bears repeating, will hurt some but help others.

“The people who perform best in normal conditions may not be the same people who perform best under stress,” Diamond says. People born with the fast-acting enzymes “actually need the stress to perform their best.” To them, the everyday is underwhelming; it doesn’t excite them enough to stimulate the sharpness of mind of which they are capable. They benefit from that surge in dopamine — it raises the level up to optimal. They are like Superman emerging from the phone booth in times of crisis; their abilities to concentrate and solve problems go up.

Some scholars have suggested that we are all Warriors or Worriers. Those with fast-acting dopamine clearers are the Warriors, ready for threatening environments where maximum performance is required. Those with slow-acting dopamine clearers are the Worriers, capable of more complex planning. Over the course of evolution, both Warriors and Worriers were necessary for human tribes to survive.

In truth, because we all get one COMT gene from our father and one from our mother, about half of all people inherit one of each gene variation, so they have a mix of the enzymes and are somewhere in between the Warriors and the Worriers. About a quarter of people carry Warrior-only genes, and a quarter of people Worrier-only.

A number of research studies are looking at COMT, including several involving the American military. Researchers at Brown University have been studying COMT’s connection to post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Quinn Kennedy, a research psychologist at the Naval Postgraduate School, is studying how the gene correlates with pilot performance. Douglas C. Johnson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, is part of a consortium of researchers called the OptiBrain Center, where he is interested in COMT’s role in combat performance and well-being.

While the studies are ongoing, the early results show those with Worrier-genes can still handle incredible stress — as long as they are well trained. Even some Navy SEALs have the Worrier genes, so you can literally be a Worrier-gene Warrior. In Kennedy’s sample, almost a third of the expert pilots were Worriers — a larger proportion than in the general population.

Kennedy’s work is particularly revealing. She puts pilots through a series of six flight-simulator tests, where pilots endure turbulence, oil-pressure problems, iced carburetors and crosswinds while landing. They are kept furiously busy, dialing to new frequencies, flying to new altitudes and headings and punching in transponder codes.

Among recreational pilots with the lowest rating level — trained to fly only in daylight — those with Warrior genes performed best. But that changed with more experience. Among recreational pilots who had the next level of qualification — trained to fly at night using cockpit instruments — the Worriers far outperformed the Warriors. Their genetically blessed working memory and attention advantage kicked in. And their experience meant they didn’t melt under the pressure of their genetic curse.

What this suggests, Kennedy says, is that, for Worriers, “through training, they can learn to manage the particular stress in the specific pilot training, even if it is not necessarily transferred over to other parts of their lives.”

So while the single-shot stakes of a standardized exam is particularly ill suited for Worrier genotypes, this doesn’t mean that they should be shielded from all challenge. In fact, shielding them could be the worst response, depriving them of the chance to acclimate to recurring stressors. Johnson explains this as a form of stress inoculation: You tax them without overwhelming them. “And then allow for sufficient recovery,” he continued. Training, preparation and repetition defuse the Worrier’s curse.

There are many psychological and physiological reasons that long-term stress is harmful, but the science of elite performance has drawn a different conclusion about short-term stress. Studies that compare professionals with amateur competitors — whether concert pianists, male rugby or female volleyball players — show that professionals feel just as much anxiety as amateurs. The difference is in how they interpret their anxiety. The amateurs view it as detrimental, while the professionals tend to view stress as energizing. It gets them to focus.

A similar mental shift can also help students in test-taking situations. Jeremy Jamieson, assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Rochester, has done a series of experiments that reveal how the labeling of stress affects performance on academic testing.

The first experiment was at Harvard University with undergraduates who were studying for the Graduate Record Examination. Before taking a practice test, the students read a short note explaining that the study’s purpose was to examine the effects of stress on cognition. Half of the students, however, were also given a statement declaring that recent research suggests “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better.” Therefore, if the students felt anxious during the practice test, it said, “you shouldn’t feel concerned. . . simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.”

Just reading this statement significantly improved students’ performance. They scored 50 points higher in the quantitative section (out of a possible 800) than the control group on the practice test. Remarkable as that seemed, it is relatively easy to get a result in a lab. Would it affect their actual G.R.E. results? A couple of months later, the students turned in their real G.R.E. scores. Jamieson calculated that the group taught to see anxiety as beneficial in the lab experiment scored 65 points higher than the controls. In ongoing work, Jamieson is replicating the experiment with remedial math students at a Midwestern community college: after they were told to think of stress as beneficial, their grades improved.

At first blush, you might assume that the statement about anxiety being beneficial simply calmed the students, reducing their stress and allowing them to focus. But that was not the case. Jamieson’s team took saliva samples of the students, both the day before the practice test to set a base line, and right after reading the lines about the new science — just moments before they started the first question. Jamieson had the saliva tested for biomarkers that show the level of activation of the body’s sympathetic nervous system — our “fight or flight” response. The experimental group’s stress levels were decidedly higher. The biological stress was real, but it had different physiological manifestations and had somehow been transformed into a positive force that drove performance.

If you went to an SAT testing site and could run physiological and neurological scans on the teenagers milling outside the door right before the exam, you would observe very different biomarkers from student to student. Those standing with shoulders hunched, or perhaps rubbing their hands, stamping their feet to get warm, might be approaching what Wendy Berry Mendes and colleagues call a “threat state.” According to Mendes, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, the hallmark of a threat state is vasoconstriction — a tightening of the smooth muscles that line every blood vessel in the body. Blood pressure rises; breathing gets shallow. Oxygenated blood levels drop, and energy supplies are reduced. Meanwhile, a rush of hormones amplifies activity in the brain’s amygdala, making you more aware of risks and fearful of mistakes.

At that same test center, you might see students shoulders back, chest open, putting weight on their toes. They may be in a “challenge state.” Hormones activate the brain’s reward centers and suppress the fear networks, so the person is excited to start in on the test. In this state, decision making becomes automatic. The blood vessels and lungs dilate. In a different study of stress, Jamieson found that the people told to feel positive about being anxious had their blood flow increase by an average of more than half a liter per minute, with more oxygen and energy coursing throughout the body and brain. Some had up to two liters per minute extra.

Jamieson is frustrated that our culture has such a negative view of stress: “When people say, ‘I’m stressed out,’ it means, ‘I’m not doing well.’ It doesn’t mean, ‘I’m excited — I have increased oxygenated blood going to my brain. ”

As the doors to the test center open, the line between challenge and threat is thin. Probably nothing induces a threat state more than feeling you can’t make any mistakes. Threat physiology can be activated with the sense of being judged, or anything that triggers the fear of disappointing others. As a student opens his test booklet, threat can flare when he sees a subject he has recently learned but hasn’t mastered. Or when he sees a problem he has no idea how to solve.

Armando Rodriguez graduated last spring from Bright Star Secondary Charter Academy in Los Angeles, but he is waiting until next fall to start college. He is not taking a gap year to figure out what he wants to do with his life. He’s recuperating from knee surgery for a bone condition, spending his days in physical therapy. And what does he miss about being out of school? Competing.

“It’s an adrenaline rush — like no other thing.” He misses being happy when he wins. He even misses losing. “At least it was a feeling you got,” he said. “It made you want to be better, the next time.” Without a competitive goal, he feels a little adrift. He finds himself mentally competing with other physical-therapy patients.

Rodriguez recorded a 3.86 G.P.A. his senior year of high school and was a defender for the school soccer team. The knee injury happened during a stint on the school’s football team: his doctor had warned that it was too risky to play, but “I just had to try,” he said. He used to constantly challenge his friends on quiz grades; it’s how they made schoolwork fun.

But when he took the SAT last year, he experienced a different sensation. “My heart was racing,” he said. “I had butterflies.” Occasionally, he’d look up from his exam to see everyone else working on their own tests: they seemed to be concentrating so hard and answering questions faster than he was. “What if they’re doing way better than me?” immediately led to the thought, “These people are smarter than me. All the good schools are going to want them, and not me.” Within seconds, he arrived at the worst possible outcome: his hopes of a good college would be gone.

It might seem surprising that the same student can experience competition in such different ways. But this points to what researchers think is the difference between competition that challenges and competition that threatens.

Taking a standardized test is a competition in which the only thing anyone cares about is the final score. No one says, “I didn’t do that well, but it was still worth doing, because I learned so much math from all the months of studying.” Nobody has ever come out of an SAT test saying, “Well, I won’t get into the college I wanted, but that’s O.K. because I made a lot of new friends at the Kaplan center.” Standardized tests lack the side benefits of competing that normally buffer children’s anxiety. When you sign your child up for the swim team, he may really want to finish first, but there are many other reasons to be in the pool, even if he finishes last.

High-stakes academic testing isn’t going away. Nor should competition among students. In fact several scholars have concluded that what students need is more academic competition, but modeled on the kinds children enjoy.

David and Christi Bergin, professors of educational and developmental psychology at the University of Missouri, have begun a pilot study of junior high school students participating in math competitions. They have observed that, within a few weeks, students were tackling more complex problems than they would even at the end of a yearlong class. Some were even doing college-level math. That was true even for students who didn’t like math before joining the team and were forced into it by their parents. Knowing they were going up against other teams in front of an audience, the children took ownership over the material. They became excited about discovering ever more advanced concepts, having realized each new fact was another weapon in their intellectual arsenal.

In-class spelling bees. Science fairs. Chess teams. “The performance is highly motivating,” David Bergin says. Even if a child knows her science project won’t win the science fair, she still gets that moment to perform. That moment can be stressful and invigorating and scary, but if the child handles it well, it feels like a victory.

“Children benefit from competition they have prepared for intensely, especially when viewed as an opportunity to gain recognition for their efforts and improve for the next time,” says Rena Subotnik, a psychologist at the American Psychological Association. Subotnik notes that scholastic competitions can raise the social status of academic work as well as that of the contestants. Competitions like these are certainly not without stress, but the pressure comes in predictable ebbs and flows, broken up by moments of fun and excitement.

Maybe the best thing about academic competitions is that they benefit both Warriors and Worriers equally. The Warriors get the thrilling intensity their minds are suited for, where they can shine. The Worriers get the gradual stress inoculation they need, so that one day they can do more than just tolerate stress — they can embrace it. And through the cycle of preparation, performance and recovery, what they learn becomes ingrained.

It may be difficult to believe, as Jamieson advises, that stress can benefit your performance. We can read it, and we can talk about it, but it’s the sort of thing that needs to be practiced, perhaps for years, before it can become a deeply held conviction.

It turns out that Armando Rodriguez was accepted at five colleges. He rallied that day on the SAT. It wasn’t his best score — he did better the second time around — but it was not as bad as he feared. Rodriguez had never heard of Jeremy Jamieson. He had never read, or ever been told, that intense stress could be harnessed to perform his best. But he understood it and drew strength from it. In the middle of his downward spiral of panic, he realized something: “I’m in a competition. This is a competition. I’ve got to beat them.”

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman are the authors of ‘‘Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing.’’

Editor: Vera Titunik

Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail

A new study explores what happens to students who aren’t allowed to suffer through setbacks.

fail2-top.jpgMatthew Benoit/Shutterstock

Thirteen years ago, when I was a relatively new teacher, stumbling around my classroom on wobbly legs, I had to call a students’ mother to inform her that I would be initiating disciplinary proceedings against her daughter for plagiarism, and that furthermore, her daughter would receive a zero for the plagiarized paper.

“You can’t do that. She didn’t do anything wrong,” the mother informed me, enraged.

“But she did. I was able to find entire paragraphs lifted off of web sites,” I stammered.

“No, I mean she didn’t do it. I did. I wrote her paper.”

I don’t remember what I said in response, but I’m fairly confident I had to take a moment to digest what I had just heard. And what would I do, anyway? Suspend the mother? Keep her in for lunch detention and make her write “I will not write my daughter’s papers using articles plagiarized from the Internet” one hundred times on the board? In all fairness, the mother submitted a defense: her daughter had been stressed out, and she did not want her to get sick or overwhelmed.

In the end, my student received a zero and I made sure she re-wrote the paper. Herself. Sure, I didn’t have the authority to discipline the student’s mother, but I have done so many times in my dreams.

While I am not sure what the mother gained from the experience, the daughter gained an understanding of consequences, and I gained a war story. I don’t even bother with the old reliables anymore: the mother who “helps” a bit too much with the child’s math homework, the father who builds the student’s science project. Please. Don’t waste my time.

The stories teachers exchange these days reveal a whole new level of overprotectiveness: parents who raise their children in a state of helplessness and powerlessness, children destined to an anxious adulthood, lacking the emotional resources they will need to cope with inevitable setback and failure.

I believed my accumulated compendium of teacher war stories were pretty good — until I read a study out of Queensland University of Technology, by Judith Locke, et. al., a self-described “examination by parenting professionals of the concept of overparenting.”

Overparenting is characterized in the study as parents’ “misguided attempt to improve their child’s current and future personal and academic success.” In an attempt to understand such behaviors, the authors surveyed psychologists, guidance counselors, and teachers. The authors asked these professionals if they had witnessed examples of overparenting, and left space for descriptions of said examples. While the relatively small sample size and questionable method of subjective self-reporting cast a shadow on the study’s statistical significance, the examples cited in the report provide enough ammunition for a year of dinner parties.

Some of the examples are the usual fare: a child isn’t allowed to go to camp or learn to drive, a parent cuts up a 10 year-old’s food or brings separate plates to parties for a 16 year-old because he’s a picky eater. Yawn. These barely rank a “Tsk, tsk” among my colleagues. And while I pity those kids, I’m not that worried. They will go out on their own someday and recover from their overprotective childhoods.

What worry me most are the examples of overparenting that have the potential to ruin a child’s confidence and undermine an education in independence. According to the the authors, parents guilty of this kind of overparenting “take their child’s perception as truth, regardless of the facts,” and are “quick to believe their child over the adult and deny the possibility that their child was at fault or would even do something of that nature.”

This is what we teachers see most often: what the authors term “high responsiveness and low demandingness” parents.” These parents are highly responsive to the perceived needs and issues of their children, and don’t give their children the chance to solve their own problems. These parents “rush to school at the whim of a phone call from their child to deliver items such as forgotten lunches, forgotten assignments, forgotten uniforms” and “demand better grades on the final semester reports or threaten withdrawal from school.” One study participant described the problem this way:

I have worked with quite a number of parents who are so overprotective of their children that the children do not learn to take responsibility (and the natural consequences) of their actions. The children may develop a sense of entitlement and the parents then find it difficult to work with the school in a trusting, cooperative and solution focused manner, which would benefit both child and school.

These are the parents who worry me the most — parents who won’t let their child learn. You see, teachers don’t just teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. We teach responsibility, organization, manners, restraint, and foresight. These skills may not get assessed on standardized testing, but as children plot their journey into adulthood, they are, by far, the most important life skills I teach.

I’m not suggesting that parents place blind trust in their children’s teachers; I would never do such a thing myself. But children make mistakes, and when they do, it’s vital that parents remember that the educational benefits of consequences are a gift, not a dereliction of duty. Year after year, my “best” students — the ones who are happiest and successful in their lives — are the students who were allowed to fail, held responsible for missteps, and challenged to be the best people they could be in the face of their mistakes.

I’m done fantasizing about ways to make that mom from 13 years ago see the light. That ship has sailed, and I did the best I could for her daughter. Every year, I reassure some parent, “This setback will be the best thing that ever happened to your child,” and I’ve long since accepted that most parents won’t believe me. That’s fine. I’m patient. The lessons I teach in middle school don’t typically pay off for years, and I don’t expect thank-you cards.

I have learned to enjoy and find satisfaction in these day-to-day lessons, and in the time I get to spend with children in need of an education. But I fantasize about the day I will be trusted to teach my students how to roll with the punches, find their way through the gauntlet of adolescence, and stand firm in the face of the challenges — challenges that have the power to transform today’s children into resourceful, competent, and confident adults.

Original article

New Research Helps Explain Why Girls Do Better in School

From: Science Daily

Jan. 2, 2013 — Why do girls get better grades in elementary school than boys-even when they perform worse on standardized tests?

New research from the University of Georgia and Columbia University published in the current issue of Journal of Human Resources suggests that it’s because of their classroom behavior, which may lead teachers to assign girls higher grades than their male counterparts.

“The skill that matters the most in regards to how teachers graded their students is what we refer to as ‘approaches toward learning,'” said Christopher Cornwell, head of economics in the UGA Terry College of Business and one of the study’s authors. “You can think of ‘approaches to learning’ as a rough measure of what a child’s attitude toward school is: It includes six items that rate the child’s attentiveness, task persistence, eagerness to learn, learning independence, flexibility and organization. I think that anybody who’s a parent of boys and girls can tell you that girls are more of all of that.”

The study, co-authored by Cornwell and David Mustard at UGA and Jessica Van Parys at Columbia, analyzed data on more than 5,800 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. It examined students’ performance on standardized tests in three categories¬¬-reading, math and science-linking test scores to teachers’ assessments of their students’ progress, both academically and more broadly.

The data show, for the first time, that gender disparities in teacher grades start early and uniformly favor girls. In every subject area, boys are represented in grade distributions below where their test scores would predict.

The authors attribute this misalignment to what they called non-cognitive skills, or “how well each child was engaged in the classroom, how often the child externalized or internalized problems, how often the child lost control and how well the child developed interpersonal skills.” They even report evidence of a grade bonus for boys with test scores and behavior like their girl counterparts.

This difference can have long-reaching effects, Cornwell said.

“The trajectory at which kids move through school is often influenced by a teacher’s assessment of their performance, their grades. This affects their ability to enter into advanced classes and other kinds of academic opportunities, even post-secondary opportunities,” he said. “It’s also typically the grades you earn in school that are weighted the most heavily in college admissions. So if grade disparities emerge this early on, it’s not surprising that by the time these children are ready to go to college, girls will be better positioned.”

Research about gender differences in the classroom and beyond has grabbed headlines recently. Titles like Hannah Rosin’s “The End of Men and the Rise of Women” and Kay Hymowitz’s “Manning Up” have spent months on best-seller lists and inspired countless discussions in the media.

“We seem to have gotten to a point in the popular consciousness where people are recognizing the story in these data: Men are falling behind relative to women. Economists have looked at this from a number of different angles, but it’s in educational assessments that you make your mark for the labor market,” Cornwell said. “Men’s rate of college going has slowed in recent years whereas women’s has not, but if you roll the story back far enough, to the 60s and 70s, women were going to college in much fewer numbers. It’s at a point now where you’ve got women earning upward of 60 percent of the bachelors’ degrees awarded every year.”

But despite changing college demographics, the new data may not be reflecting anything fundamentally new.

“My argument is that this has always been true about boys and girls. Girls didn’t all of a sudden become more engaged and boys didn’t suddenly become more rambunctious,” Cornwell said. “Their attitudes toward learning were always this way. But it didn’t show up in educational attainment like it does today because of all the factors that previously discouraged women’s participation in the labor force, such as a lack of access to reliable birth control.”

What remains unclear, however, is how to combat this discrepancy.

“The most common question we’ve gotten is whether or not the gender of the teacher matters in regards to grading students,” Cornwell said. “But that’s a question we can’t answer because there’s just not enough data available. As you can probably guess, the great majority of elementary school teachers are women.”