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The Flip-Side Of Academic Acceleration: Why I Started The Sycamore School

By Karyn Ewart, PhD.

Stressed out, overwhelmed, anxious. Sound familiar?

I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about your kids!

As families prepare to take a much needed spring break next week, now is a good time to talk about why our kids are more burnt out than some corporate executives, and how parents can help their kids chill out on spring break, and even when they return to school.

Middle and high school students are under pressure:

  • Social pressure is high and social acceptance can now be measured by social media stats. Worse yet, kids never get a break from the social pressure, even after their school day is over. The Sycamore School is addressing social issues by giving students a place to talk about socialization as well as adolescent development and explicitly teaching students skills to increase self-awareness, self-regulation and effective communication skills.
  • Extracurricular pressure is mounting. Particularly in our highly competitive region, our kids are pushed to do more, do better and distinguish themselves. Kids are expected to not only be on teams, in clubs, service organizations, or enrichment, but if they want to get into a good college, they need to demonstrate leadership now.
  • Academic pressure is intense. Northern Virginia and the greater D.C. region are home to amazing schools — but with them comes expectations of high performance. From a very young age, our kids are grouped, labeled and tracked; if our students aren’t on the accelerated learning track, we feel they are falling behind. Our middle schoolers are pushed to start preparing for college starting in sixth grade; by eighth grade our kids are getting high school credit; by 10th grade they are earning college credits. For many kids, earning average grades triggers tutoring or supplemental instruction (god forbid a C!) while with others, they fall through the cracks, get lost in large classes and are unable to get the help they need to reach their potential. As a community, we don’t accept average, and that creates incredible stress for our children. The Sycamore School’s small classes coupled with experiential learning and student choice of assignments and assessments will support students at all levels of their academic journey, and allow students to recognize how they learn best. By providing a supportive environment, students can advance at their own pace, without the pressure of a standardized system.

Our culture of more-better-faster has created an academic environment that is unhealthy for children’s development; kids are not able to be kids. The impact of stress on adolescents can be seen in the rise of depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug use and abuse.

So what is the alternative? Parents have choices, but first they have to own that it is a choice to perpetuate the culture of pressure that is suffocating our kids.

  1. Let kids make their own choices — it’s ok if they don’t want to take 4 AP classes, or to take accelerated English, or join the science team. Let your kids develop their own interests: that is what will spark a love of learning.
  2. Lay off the “if you don’t do this now you’ll be shutting doors for later” language. That is your own anxiety talking and it’s not fair to put that pressure on your kids.
  3. Explore alternative education options. I founded The Sycamore School for the purpose of flipping education priorities upside down to let kids be kids, and develop learners who are problem solvers, independent thinkers and team players.
  4. Say “no” to our culture of acceleration. If you let your kid be the age they are and the developmental level they are, they will experience NOW instead of living for a maybe-one-day future.
  5. Be present for your kids. Slow down your own frenetic drive and take time to listen, observe and enjoy the moments you have with your children now.
  6. Play for the sake of playing. It’s OK if the game is silly and doesn’t reinforce a skill or developmental milestone. Laugh.

You can learn more about how The Sycamore School is turning education upside down in Arlington by attending an interactive open house, or subscribe to our newsletter for more insights into education and adolescent development.

Karyn Ewart, PhD. is Founder and Head of School at The Sycamore School in Arlington and is a licensed clinical psychologist who has worked in public and private schools for over 15 years. Dr. Ewart has a doctorate in clinical psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology. She has extensive experience working with adolescents in schools, including students with learning differences. She believes that engaging students to be active members of a community, within a school setting, serves as a catalyst for developing positive relationships, facilitating growth and effecting change.

The preceding was sponsored by The Sycamore School.

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