Interview: JoAnn Deak on Academic Stress
Published in Daughters Newsletter
If your daughter feels stressed about schoolwork, she is not alone. Across the country, academic pressure has become a sort of status symbol-an indicator that a girl or her school is of a certain caliber. According to JoAnn Deak, author of How Girls Thrive: An Essential Guide for Educators (and Parents), (NAIS, 1998), conditions in your daughter’s school make a difference in how she deals with this growing pressure. But so does your unshakable faith in what she can achieve.
Open Doors, Anxious Girls
“When we were growing up, many doors weren’t open for girls. But now all the doors are open, and girls can absolutely walk through. You’d think that would simplify everything, but it doesn’t. There’s still a lot of social pressure. Girls from elementary school on up will tell you that they walk a tightrope of appearing smart, but not too smart, so they’ll fit in. At the same time, schools everywhere have gotten tougher. Girls who are still playing with dolls worry about standardized tests and college admission.
“We’ve also learned that girls’ brains register emotions differently than boys’ brains. This may mean that girls feel anxiety more keenly or react to it more readily. Let’s say there’s a math teacher who is known to be very tough. Every individual is different, but on the whole, girls are more likely than boys to dread having that teacher. And whenever a girl worries enough to predict failure for herself, failure becomes more likely.”
Strong After the Fact
“Take a look at the challenges your daughter faces. Are those challenges difficult but doable? Outward Bound courses are a good example. A girl looks at the rock wall she is going to climb and she thinks, ‘There’s no way.’ But she works hard, does it and feels triumphant. That’s what your daughter needs at school, too-challenges that stretch her but don’t stop her.
“Not long ago I was working with Molly, a 4th-grader who goes to a school where each student in the class has to stand up in an assembly and read an original poem. Her mother called me and said, ‘Molly won’t go to school tomorrow because she gets too nervous in front of a group.’ So I met with Molly that afternoon. ‘You’re not going to school tomorrow?’ I asked. ‘Nope, I’d get sick standing up in front of an assembly,’ she said. I thought for a minute about Molly’s real limits (I had seen her come through tight spots before), and I said, ‘So?’ She looked at me as if I were nuts. But I told her, ‘You didn’t say you couldn’t do it. You said you’d get sick. There’s a difference.’ We talked a while, and finally I said, ‘Trust me on this. If you don’t do this, then the next thing that comes up will make you feel even more nervous, and the next thing will, too. It will become a pattern. But if you stand up and read this poem tomorrow, you’ll go a different way-toward confidence.” She promised to think about it.
Every time the bar is a tad
higher than a girl would prefer
and she clears it anyway, she
feels strong after the fact.
“I went to the assembly the next day. It started, but Molly wasn’t there. I sank down into my seat, thinking that maybe I wasn’t such a great psychologist after all. But then the auditorium door opened, and Molly slithered in looking sort of pale. She walked to the stage and opened her mouth. Nothing came out. But then she tried again and read her poem. She even got a standing ovation. At that point, Molly flashed us all this huge grin of relief. The pressure had pushed at her, but she had pushed back, and she had won.
“When girls come up against academic challenges, our encouragement is essential. Be careful not to ignore or discount a girl’s anxiety-it’s very real. But be clear that you expect her to move ahead, anxiety and all, and do the job. I know that’s easier said than done. It’s hard to watch the Mollys in our lives struggle to achieve. But every time the bar is a tad higher than a girl would prefer and she clears it anyway, she feels strong after the fact.”
What If She’s Overwhelmed?
“But what if, unlike Molly, a girl is overwhelmed and cannot clear that bar? Let’s say she develops a pattern of headaches, depression, insomnia, exhaustion, lack of appetite or anger. Short-term stress over a specific event is not a bad thing, but long-term anxiety is terribly unhealthy. You’ll need to intervene.
“Homework is often the first area in which a girl gets overwhelmed-and for good reason. The average homework load has tripled since 1981. If your daughter isn’t finishing her homework, find out what’s going on by observing. How does she organize her work? Which tasks take a very long time? Once you know that, talk with her teachers. Ask specific questions such as, ‘It takes an hour for her to look up all the vocabulary words. How can we reduce the time it takes?’ As you implement the teacher’s suggestions, consider your daughter’s style. Does she dislike your supervision, or does she welcome give-and-take? Does her work get done more quickly in the kitchen or in her room? Does she need help organizing up front, or does she benefit more if you look over her work when she’s done? At some point, you may have to decide whether this is an issue with the school or with your daughter. Perhaps a school-wide homework policy needs to be established, or an existing one revised.
“Another thing you can do is help your daughter make choices about what courses she takes. She may be afraid that if she does not take advanced-placement algebra in 9th grade, she’ll never get into a good college. But if that course is making her anxious all the time, urge her to take it next year. If her teachers give her grief, go in as the parent and explain why you made this family decision. Your daughter may need tutoring, or you may want to think about changing schools. Do whatever you must to assure that your daughter is challenged but not overcome.”
“I call this approach teeter-totter parenting. If your daughter holds back or isn’t pushed at school, you might say, ‘Get into that advanced class.’ But if her school is demanding or she is a perfectionist, take the other side, helping her reduce anxiety by saying things like ‘Bs are fine.’ So much depends on who your daughter is. Some girls feel the pressure of school every hour of the day. Others shrug it off. As a parent, you ride the teeter-totter, providing balance for your daughter. That way, she gets what she needs from you-notice of her triumphs and distress, and assurance that you’ll be there for her no matter what.”