Girl reading a bookNot long ago, I was discussing the movie Race to Nowhere, with a pediatric colleague and mom of a local high school student. Vicki Abeles’ powerful film tells the story of children, parents, and teachers who are increasingly frustrated by an educational system pushing our kids to breaking point. My colleague and I lamented the growing number of patients we are treating for anxiety, depression, and mind-body ailments like ulcers and migraines associated with the stress of just trying to keep up. Shockingly, some of these children are in elementary school.

The film Race to Nowhere serves not only as a vehicle to tell these children’s stories but also as a wake-up call “to mobilize families, educators, and policy makers to challenge current assumptions on how to best prepare the youth of America to become healthy, bright, contributing, and leading citizens.” Along these lines, a New York Times Well column, “School Curriculum Falls Short on Bigger Lessons,” posed a provocative question: “Now that children are back in the classroom, are they really learning the lessons that will help them succeed?”

Journalist Tara Parker-Pope gets to the crux of the issue. What is the purpose of school? Are we preparing our children simply to be overworked, stressed-out adults? Child health and development specialists across the country, myself included, are worried we’ve gone off track.

“What are we really trying to do when we think about raising kids?” asked Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg, an expert in adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “We’re trying to put in place the ingredients so the child is going to be a successful 35-year-old. It’s not really about getting an A in algebra.” (The New York Times, “School Curriculum Falls Short on Bigger Lessons”; September 5, 2011).

What Is Success?

In typical American fashion, we’ve lost sight of the long-term goal. We as a society tend to take the “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately?” approach. It’s true in sports, in politics, in economics, and alas, now, in childhood. Starting early in preschool puts us ahead for elementary school, where more and more kids are tutored even if they are on grade-level. Middle school grades determine high school placements, and college prep begins in ninth grade, not eleventh as it used to be. And so on. 

We are so focused on this test that we lose sight of the whole child. What about non-academic strengths? Shouldn’t we be emphasizing “well-roundedness”? The parallels with healthcare are notable.  “Why prevent tomorrow what you can fix today?” is our mantra. We should be concentrating on creating wellness through healthy lifestyles, promoting good nutrition, fitness and sleep/relaxation instead of a pill for each ill. It is the same for our children as students. There is mounting evidence that incorporating mind-body skills training—like yoga or meditation—in schools reduces stress symptoms and problem behaviors like aggression while strengthening cognitive functioning and improving focus. Furthermore, coaching kids to develop these self-mastery skills promotes resiliency and confidence. 

Here’s what I remember. The teachers who had the greatest impact on my life were not the ones who gave me the best grades. They were the ones who connected me with the wider world and challenged me to grow as a person. Our children will not always remember their standardized test scores, but they will remember those moments when they were challenged, and struggled, and learned, and grew. Success can be defined not by the grade given but by the lessons learned. We must create a system that values those achievements.

"This article is adapted in part from Dr. Rosen's Green Pediatrician blog for Kiwi Magazine, "The Whole Child."

What are your thoughts? Do you feel your school is educating the whole child? Comment below!