Mental Health, Grade Obsession, and the American Student

When I was in high school, getting a C on something as inconsequential as a homework assignment would ensure that my lunch period would be spent crying in a bathroom stall in a panic attack over my failure of a life, eventually ending in my silent acceptance of my future as a homeless person. It wasn’t until after graduation that I learned that I was not the only one who was in that situation. From elementary school through high school, students are faced with a tremendous amount of pressure to get good grades, so much so that their mental well-being is at risk. Research has shown that there is a clear correlation between grades and suicide risk. 16-year-old students with the lowest grades are three times more likely to commit suicide than those at the top of the class. Something needs to change.

All too many adults seem to be oblivious to the issue of mental health in schools, especially in regard to grade obsession. A quick web search of “problems with the American education system” brings back pages upon pages of articles dealing with low test scores and high dropout rates.  Parents, teachers, and politicians all decry the failures of teens to stay in school. What isn’t considered is the fact that maybe the failure is in the school system, as well as in society.

At present, the entire American school system is designed around the assumption that children and teens are able to work like machines. School days start in the early hours of the morning, despite the fact that it has been proven that teens naturally sleep in late and need as much sleep as they can get. Classes are back-to-back, with little to no breaks in between, and they last for eight hours. School scheduling is harsh and rigorous, and for absolutely no reason. Their entire day is dictated to them. They are even told when to eat and when to relieve themselves. I never thought much of this until my first semester of college when I asked a professor if I could go to the restroom. I was met with a confused look, followed by an, “Of course, you don’t even have to ask!” I was also not used to the fact that there was no specified “lunch time.” I had a break around noon, but I didn’t have to eat. Some days I chose to work through my lunch hour, and on others, I went home and took a nap. The sad thing is, I was actually surprised at the freedom I was given. Most adults are used to being able to spend their lunch break as they please, or to relieve themselves when they need to. Students are not gaining any sense of time management when their days are dictated by a ringing bell.

Even after the long school day, students then have an excessive amount of homework. The National Education Association has come up with a guideline that students should be assigned homework in increments of ten minutes per grade level. So a third grader should  have 30 minutes of homework, a fourth grader should have 40, and so on. This idea becomes problematic when students reach middle school. This is when schools transition between the one-teacher, one-classroom scenario to the period system, where students move from class to class. In elementary school, it is easy for a single teacher to assign the recommended amount of homework to their pupils. But after that, teachers have no way of knowing how much homework their students have for other classes. What ends up happening is each teacher assigns the recommended amount of homework for his or her own subject — for example, eighth graders receiving 80 minutes of homework for six to eight subjects each. The ten minute homework idea is thrown out the window because the amount of homework begins to be multiplied by up to eight once children go into the sixth grade.

Moreover, teens mature emotionally as well as physically at intense rates. The time when students are attending school is also when they must most significantly deal with hormonal issues. If they don’t learn healthy strategies for coping with anger, jealousy, stress, or sadness, then they will likely not be able to deal with a constellations of other symptomatic emotions in a healthy way throughout their lives. Teens are influenced by the priorities we place on them, and we are not making mental health a priority. Most students don’t even know that mental health is a factor to be worrying about. In the mind of an “invincible” high schooler, mental health issues are only for people in padded rooms with straight jackets on, not something that an average American teen should be concerned with. It isn’t until a crisis situation — like a panic attack or a suicide attempt — when one begins to realize that sacrificing happiness for a high GPA isn’t worth it.

By advocating the notion that good grades result in a good life, society is also pushing the idea that those with all A’s are more “worthy” than those who have a few B’s or even, god-forbid, a C. Children grow up learning that their report cards lead to either reward or punishment, so in turn they believe that their report card deems whether they are bad or good people. This kind of thinking is still prevalent in the minds of adolescents, only now the threat of a horrific future of “meaningless” burger-flipping looms over their heads. To many teens, a failed exam will result in a fruitless, pointless life, and thus they attempt or even complete a suicide. These situations can be avoided if adults decide to teach children the extent of their own self-worth and the importance of mental health long before the kids embark on their first journeys into the world of Academia. It could be argued that children and teenagers should know better than to attribute their self-worth to a letter on a paper. But seeing as they are young and still learning how life works, it should be every adult’s job to teach them otherwise, rather than expecting them to be “better than that.”

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“Mental Health, Grade Obsession, and the American Student”