Anxiety & Engagement

This year at RSI we all read the book The Price of Privilege.  I know from follow up conversations with many of you that we see some of the issues that were described by Dr. Levine.  I don’t want to go through everything that she shared once again, but one of the things that jumps out at me from that book has to do with the level of anxiety in our kids.

Recently I also read a paper written by Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University.  In the study she looks at the mental health of kids just like those you would find in just about any school in the country.

In her paper, Twenge looks at four studies covering 7 million people ranging from teens to young adults in the US.  Among her finding: high school students in the 2010s were twice as likely to see a professional for mental health issues than those in the 1980s; more teens struggled to remember things in 2010-2012 compared to the earlier period; and 73% more reported trouble sleeping compared to their peers in the 1980s.  These so-called “somatic” or “of-the-body” symptoms strongly predict depression (for more on this study, click here)

In fact, the growth in mental health support in the form of services or medication in the 6-18 age group is somewhat shocking:

I think the writing of Peter Gray, a psychologist and professor at Boston College, sums it up this way:

We would like to think of history as progress, but if progress is measured in the mental health and happiness of our young people, then we have been going backward at least since the early 1950s. (to see the whole article, click here)

I know that mental health is something that we have been talking a lot about in our community and our school.  In further reading of the research from both articles, there are differing opinions of the why, but you may notice some similarities.

Twenge has seen a noticeable shift away from internal, or intrinsic goals, which one can control, toward extrinsic ones, which are set by the world and are increasingly unforgiving.  On the other hand, Gray believes kids aren’t learning critical life-coping skills because they never get to play anymore.

We have all had the students who had to have the right clothes, the right phone, the right video game in order to feel as though they could fit in.  We have also seen students who cannot, without adult mediation, play a game at recess that doesn’t end in a fight.

The increase in anxiety and mental health support for our students is one concerning piece, but let’s add to that another issue.  As students grow older, the general trend for all students is towards a lower level of engagement.  In a recent post on the blog Dangerously Irrelevant by Scott Mcleod, the following data from the annual Gallup poll of middle and high school students was shared:

I’m going to let those charts sink in for a bit, and leave you here with 3 thoughts.  Next week we’ll come back to this topic:

  1. Mental health concerns in our students are rising.
  2. Levels of engagement decline as our students grow older.
  3. Even with increased focus on standards, performance on standardized testing has remained stagnant.

What have you noticed in your classroom?  Is there a connection between anxiety and engagement?  What strategies have you tried to help students feel less anxious or more engaged in your classroom?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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