Taking action to help kids under stress

schandler@newsobserver.comDecember 15, 2012 

  • See the film “Race to Nowhere” will be shown Jan. 16 at North Raleigh United Methodist Church, 8501 Honeycutt Road, and Jan. 24 at the Rialto Theatre, 1620 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh, with each screening followed by a panel discussion. For show times and ticket information, visit racetonowhere.com. Click on “Join the Conversation” and then on the screening you want to attend. On that same website, you can buy the film on DVD for $29.95, which includes an online “House Party Tool Kit and Activist Guide.”
  • More information Healthy homework The makers of “Race to Nowhere” created a “Healthy Homework Tool Kit” that includes tips for students, parents, teachers and principals. Here are the recommended guidelines: • Homework should advance a spirit of learning (providing a learning opportunity that cannot be had within the school setting or school day). • Homework should be student-directed (for example, reading or a project chosen by the student). • Homework should promote a balanced schedule. Source: racetonowhere.com

If you’ve ever met a kid who stays up past midnight doing homework or who frets that a B+ might keep her out of the Ivy League, you’ve seen the problem explored in “Race to Nowhere.”

Filmmaker Vicki Abeles made “Race to Nowhere” after taking one of her daughters to the emergency room for a severe stomachache brought on by stress. Her daughter was in seventh grade at the time.

“I was determined to find out how we had gotten to a place where our family had so little time together (and) where our kids were physically sick because of the pressures they were under,” she says in the film.

The film pinpoints many causes of student stress, including educational policies that value test scores over other measures of learning, overdependence on homework as a teaching tool and social pressure to reach for top-tier colleges and top-paying careers. But what’s kept it screening in communities nationwide since its 2009 debut is its focus on finding a solution.

Each screening, including two next month in Raleigh, is followed by a discussion between the audience and a panel of experts that might include educators, pediatricians, school guidance counselors, college admissions officials or others who are familiar with the pressures on students and who can offer ways to help.

That there is, in fact, a way out of the “race to nowhere” (a phrase coined by a student interviewed for the film), is a message “that really needs to get out there,” said Kari Lenox, a psychologist with Silber Psychological Services in Raleigh, which will sponsor a screening at the Rialto Theater Jan. 24.

The short answer on what to do, at least from a parent’s perspective, Lenox said, is “back off.” Set reasonable limits on how much time your child will spend on homework each night, and communicate those limits to his or her teachers. Don’t overload on extracurricular activities. And if you’re worried about whether your kid will make it into an Ivy League college, take a deep breath and relax.

As children get older, parents focus on success, “but they have forgotten something,” said psychologist Linda Silber. “And that is when they took the baby home from the hospital, they just wanted them to be healthy and happy.”

Somewhere along the way, well-intentioned parents can lose sight of that goal.

“We want the best for them,” California parent Nick Vleisides says in the film, “but that, in the end, is causing us to put pressure on them to be whatever we think they ought to be.”

That pressure takes a toll on children’s health and happiness, Silber said.

“We are seeing, over the last 10 to 15 years, a huge increase in anxiety, depression, somatic problems, sleep disorders, among others,” she said.

Among all the contributors to the stress students experience, parents may be where positive change can most easily begin, which is why North Raleigh United Methodist Church chose to screen “Race to Nowhere” as part of a parenting series it will present early next year.

“Parents are going to really relate to it, and I think they’re going to see that their kids are under a lot of pressure and that they, as parents, have a big role played in that pressure, whether that’s creating more of it or helping alleviate it,” said associate youth minister Samantha Locke.

“You’re hearing perspectives of students, parents and teachers, and I think that’s going to hit home to a lot of parents,” Locke said. “Knowing that it’s not just the kids that are feeling the pressure – it’s the teachers, it’s other parents. So I hope that they can see that this is relatable, that they’re not alone.”

And knowledge, in this case, is more than just comfort. It’s power.

“We’re not expecting this movie to be the ultimate answer or the ultimate solution to this problem of stress,” Locke said. “But once you have information about something, then you’re able to move forward and create the solution, whether that’s the parents stepping in and being a vital part of eliminating stress or kind of coming alongside their child and saying, ‘Hey, how can I help?’”

Chandler: 919-829-4830

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