Why kids at “high-achieving schools” are now an “at risk” group and what we should be doing about it

by Bill McMahon, Director

The research is in: students at “high achieving schools” are now an “at risk” group. A Washington Post article from this past fall states that: “…studies have found that adolescents in high-achieving schools can suffer significantly higher rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and delinquent behaviors, at least two to three times the national average.” And, these schools are the public and private institutions parents are all trying to get their kids into because of the quality of the programming and the positive testing and placement outcomes.

I would hope that we can all agree with the author when she writes how “counter intuitive, even perverse” it is “to put relatively affluent kids in the same category as our country’s most vulnerable youth.” However, I would posit that if we are honest with ourselves, we probably are not that surprised by the findings because we all have a sense that the pressure on young people today to achieve is higher than it has ever been. And this drive to achieve at all costs—which can be seen even in middle school students—is creating the chronic stress that is at the heart of the lack of well-being and negative behaviors cited.

In the article, Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, is quoted as saying: “When parents ask me where all of this pressure is coming from, I ask them: Where is it not?” The article goes on to state: “The unrelenting pressure on students in high-achieving schools comes from every direction, from overly invested parents who want A’s, coaches who want wins for their own personal reputations, and school administrators who feel pressured to get high standardized scores in their school, which then prop up real estate values in the area.”

If there is a silver lining in the article it comes from the fact that there is a clear and somewhat simple solution to this whole mess. The author highlights that a 2017 study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence found: “Adolescents who believed that both of their parents valued character traits as much as or more than achievement exhibited better outcomes at school, greater mental health and less rule-breaking behavior than peers who believed their parents were primarily achievement-minded, the researchers found.” Luthar summarizes the key point by stating: “Our job as parents is to help our children feel unconditionally loved so their self-esteem doesn’t rest on the splendor of their accomplishments.”

Another reason to be hopeful is that there are powerful partners parents can join forces with in an effort to help their kids develop confidence, resilience, and happiness. A great overnight summer camp like Moosilauke is one such partner.

We believe Moose is uniquely suited to helping young people develop character because of the following:

  • The trick is that boys will avoid activities they are not good at because they want to look “cool.” This is especially true in typical boy cultures (in schools and on sports teams) where teasing and cliques are the norm. At Moosilauke, we take great pride in fostering a nurturing, authentic, and supportive culture where boys are willing to step out, try new things, and risk and experience some failure before they find success.  
  • Our program is rooted in the notion that: performance character (grit, resilience, self-esteem) is the key to well-being (and success); character cannot be given, it has to be earned; and, it is earned via positive risk taking that involves leaving one’s comfort zone and encountering and overcoming failure. In summary, to be your best self you can’t just do what you are already good at.
  • We don’t leave positive risk taking to chance. At Moosilauke, our unique program combines structure and choice in the daily schedule, and relative to participation on athletic teams and in outdoor adventures, so that every camper has a chance to go deep (doing the things they already love and are good at) and broad (trying new things). The research is clear that breadth is the ally of depth.
  • All our interaction with campers focus on helping them develop a growth mindset. Whenever Moosilauke staff work with kids, instead of focusing on innate talents (e.g. “You are good at soccer!”) or outcomes (e.g. “Way to score the goal!”) they praise process—working hard, smart, and with integrity.
  • Moosilauke helps young people develop the three things self determination theory tells us they need to have in balance in order to develop internal motivation and well-being—competence, autonomy, and a sense of relatedness.  In so many children’s daily lives the primary focus at home and at school is on competence (skills and outcomes) and it comes at the expense of autonomy and relatedness. And, this leads to chronic stress. Click here to read about how Moose helps campers develop all three. 

Finally, you can also click here for a blog that provides an overview of the research on what boys need to become their best selves.

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