September 22, 2015 by

Improving Schools: Avoiding Student Burnout

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Slade Avoiding Burnout 300x300There is a school of thought in American sport today that “more is better.” Parents and coaches, perhaps dreaming of the spoils of athletic success, are encouraging kids at increasingly younger ages to specialize in a particular sport and to commit to year-round training in it. Cutting-edge physical training programs frequently require overloading athletes to obtain maximum training gains. The pressures to do and achieve more keep growing, and far too rarely is consideration given to the costs of operating in this non-stop fashion. In reality, however, the human body needs recovery to thrive. Without it, performance can begin to suffer and/or an athlete can start breaking down. The state of burnout is often regarded as the endpoint of this breakdown process and is characterized by the absence of motivation as well as complete mental and physical exhaustion.

—Keith A. Kauffman, Understanding Student-Athlete Burnout, NCAA

Living in the sports-obsessed area of Northern Virginia, the topic of burnout comes up a lot in parental and community discussions. Kids are being asked to train daily, play two or three times each weekend, and participate in longer and longer seasons. The outcome for those who are committed is improved skills and an increased understanding of the sport. The outcome, however, for those who aren’t immediately committed or engrossed can be dire: too much stress, too much grind, not enough positive experiences, not enough fun.

“Attrition from organized youth sport is alarmingly high. In fact, one-third of participants drop out annually and as many as 70% drop out by adolescence. . . . To a large extent, the lack of positive experiences associated with sport can explain the exodus from organized athletics at such a critical juncture in childhood.”

The Fun Integration Theory, Journal of Physical Activity and Health

But this piece isn’t meant to place a magnifying glass over organized sports. Rather, it is intended to help us pose the same question towards education. Take the first quote in this piece and change a few of the key words. Does it still make sense? Does it still resonate?

There is a school of thought in American schools today that “more is better.” Parents and teachers, perhaps dreaming of the spoils of academic success, are encouraging kids at increasingly younger ages to focus on particular subject areas and to commit to year-round study. Cutting-edge tutoring programs frequently require overloading students to obtain maximum test score gains. The pressures to do and achieve more keep growing, and far too rarely is consideration given to the costs of operating in this non-stop fashion. In reality, however, the human body needs recovery to thrive. Without it, performance can begin to suffer and/or a student can start breaking down. The state of burnout is often regarded as the endpoint of this breakdown process and is characterized by the absence of motivation as well as complete mental and physical exhaustion.

I’m not the first person to look at the issue of burnout and stress that comes with an overfocus on academics for our youth. A few years ago, Race to Nowhere brought the issue to the big screen and raised a debate in many of our schools. The issue has also been discussed in the New York Times, on National Public Radio, and even on Sesame Street.

But if we are open to discussions around athlete burnout, and if we nod in agreement as we chat with other parents, should we not be prepared to tackle the issue as it relates to education and the hyperfocus on test scores?

Our students are being asked to perform more frequently and consistently than many of us ever were. We are seeing youth anxiety levels rise and mental health issues being reported at younger and younger ages. What was expected in middle school is now expected in elementary, and what was expected in first grade is now expected before children enter preschool.

Just as the world of sports can and does look reflectively in the mirror, perhaps we in the world of education should also be reflecting more on the unintended outcomes of our system—before students burnout and before they quit. And taking advice from the sports world, this is what they know they must focus on the keep kids from quitting, taken from Why Kids Quit Sports, Change the Game Project.

  1. It’s no longer fun.
  2. They have lost ownership of the experience.
  3. They don’t get playing time.
  4. They are afraid to make mistakes.
  5. They feel disrespected.

So let’s translate that to our schools and work toward these goals:

  1. Keep learning fun.
  2. Give students ownership of their experience.
  3. Allow them to play.
  4. Let them make mistakes.
  5. Give them the respect they deserve.

This list is more than just an antidote to relieve stress—it’s a list of good pedagogical practices.

Sean Slade is Senior Director of Global Outreach. During his more than two decades in education, Slade has written extensively on topics related to the whole child and health and well-being and has been at the forefront of promoting school climate, connectedness, resilience, and a youth development focus for school improvement. He has been a teacher, head of department, educational researcher, senior education officer, and director. He has taught, trained, and directed education initiatives in Australia, Italy, Venezuela, the United Kingdom, and the United States.