Trouble In Paradise?

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A recent New York Times article reported that “International Schools Boom as More Seek Education in English” (April 29, 2013).  In that piece, Joyce Lau notes that “a century ago, International schools were small, elite replicas of Western schools for the generally white, rich children of parents posted in ‘exotic’ locales.”  However, Lau reports that “as developed nations have become wealthier and as the world has become more multicultural, international schools have boomed. According to ISC Research in Britain, there are now 6,400 international schools all over the globe. In a decade, that number is expected to almost double.”

In a similar New York Times article in January, 2013, “International Schools in China Point Students to the West,” Lucy Hornby-Reuters reported that “upwardly mobile Chinese parents are willing to pay as much as 260,000 renminbi, or about $42,000, a year for a Western-style education and a possible ticket to a college overseas for their children.”  Further, Hornby-Reuters noted that “the number of international schools registered in mainland China has soared in the past 12 years, to 338 from 22,” and that “enrollment has risen 25 times in the same period, to 184,073 students.”  Essentially, “parents who can afford the international schools say it is a passport to a better life for their children, despite much higher costs.”

The current trend in privileged education is not new. Twenty six years ago, in their book, Preparing for Power: America’s Elite Boarding Schools, Cookson & Hodges-Percell (1987) described similarly “elite” American boarding schools that were modeled deliberately after English “public schools” such as Eton College and Harrow School.  Cookson and Hodges-Percell wrote that “the aesthetic surroundings, exceptional facilities and the committed faculty make these schools seem like island paradises.”

While these paradise-like schools are often considered “passports” to the best colleges and to a privileged life, for some students they can also feel like pressure cookers.  Specifically, as Cookson and Hodges-Percell wrote in 1987, “students who cannot excel feel caught between the external expectations of school and family and their inner need to find self-worth.” Over the past 20 years, as a clinical psychologist working almost exclusively in these paradise-like schools, I have encountered many, many students who have, indeed, been “caught between the external expectations of school and family and their inner need to find self-worth.” For a variety of reasons, these students have presented with a continuum of psychological and behavioral concerns, while some have exhibited severe problems with chronic anxiety, major depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, self-mutilation and even suicide. Over time, I’ve referred to these conditions as “trouble in paradise.” In that context, I have been speaking at various paradise-like schools and at international schools conferences in an effort to raise awareness about these troubled students and about our collective responsibility to help them.

In a workshop I presented recently at an international schools educators’ conference, I was struck by the participants’ immediate responses to a few questions I posed about the students they encounter in their paradise-like schools. These break-out sessions occupied about thirty minutes of my four-hour workshop entitled, “Trouble In Paradise:  Counseling Vulnerable Adolescents.” My questions and the participants’ responses – verbatim – are listed below.

Question:  “Given the privileged nature of these “paradise-like” schools, how do YOU account for why some of your students experience so much emotional and/or academic “trouble?” How do YOU explain this?”

Participants’ Responses: Higher and unrealistic expectations; students are not taught to deal with stress.  They feel guilty and ashamed to be feeling stress because they perceive that it’s not allowed – that they are supposed to be able to manage these suddenly increased expectations:  More intense focus on academic achievement…with a serious eye toward gaining admission to elite colleges and universities. Amid these pressures, students are working to gain acceptance by peers [and] understanding and managing parents’ pressures [and] pressure to fit in to the “Uber Culture,” characterized by a perception of being elite, superior, dominant, best…etc.   Minimal time spent trying to identify and share feelings about their experience – these would be “validation” experiences that could lead to new social connections.

[Students are] overscheduled, and expected to manage it without negative effects.  Expectations are too high.  [For students there is a] whole new lineup–more intense comparison among students than in previous schools; conflict between expectations and performance/ability.

Pressure from parents who seem to have a misconception of what it means to provide for their kids: put them in demanding environments vs. keep them home/support.  Lack of parental involvement = loss of a primary support that got them there in the first place. Are they READY for that? What’s the rush?

Question:  In his book, The Hurried Child (1981), psychologist David Elkind wrote about “the crippling effects of hurrying our children through life.” What does it mean to be “hurried” in 2013?

Participants’ Responses: No time for the present – always thinking of, and preparing for, 3-4 years from now…for college; pressure to be successful all the time…in everything; trying to manage adult-like demands before they’re ready.  Schools reflect the pressures of the parents. Schools are businesses, after all, so they must appeal to what their clientele want.

[Students face] societal pressures (media, etc.) to be more mature, more sophisticated (physically, socially, sexually, academically) before they’re ready; early responsibility for things that are more typical of adults.

Demands to prepare a career path [are made] too early…kids seem too serious, too early. Pressure to succeed; tutoring schools in math/science/physics for several hours on Saturdays and Sundays instead of relaxing or being with friends. Over-scheduled and over-controlled [students have] less play/less spontaneity, increased competition.

Question: Who are the “troubled”students in YOUR school? Who comes to mind for you? What are the specific manifestations of their “trouble?”

Participants’ Responses: Lack of motivation – “out of gas” quickly; Chronic sleep deprivation; Not fitting in socially…and academically; Attention seekers; Manifestations of family troubles (parents’ divorce, death in a family, etc); Bullies; Self-harming; Perfectionism, trying to bind anxiety; Helplessness; Social isolation; Anxiety; Depression; Decreased motivation, focus and organization; Overwhelmed by the simultaneous bombardment of demands; Emergence of substance use/abuse; Significant underachievement…and associated confusion and despair; Home culture vs. school culture mismatch; Sexting.

Feeling guilty, ashamed, stressed and pressured, feeling over-scheduled, over-controlled and overwhelmed due to intense pressure to succeed is not what these students – or their parents – had in mind when they enrolled in their “paradise-like” schools.  Further, these students’ indirect expressions of pressure via chronic sleep deprivation, anxiety, helplessness and depression, and by self-harming, and at times, suicidal behaviors are extremely troubling.  Finally, and perhaps most alarming, these “troubling” experiences often have long-term negative repercussions for these students’ emerging self-image and their overall academic, social and emotional development. Without a doubt, these are the students who feel “caught between the external expectations of school and family and their inner need to find self-worth.” For these students, school does not “seem like an island paradise.”

Where do we go from here? Prescott College president, Dr. Daniel Garvey, states, “We are responsible for the cultures we create.”  Sadly, however, too often, when students exhibit the kind of “trouble in paradise” described above, it is the students – not the schools – who are expected to adapt or change.  Why don’t we expect the schools to change?  While most schools are willing to accommodate, in varying degrees, for some of their “troubled” students’ difficulties, on the whole, most schools expect the students to either adapt or withdraw.  Ultimately, this “sink or swim” outlook seems to reflect a common adult reality:  for troubling situations in our professional and personal lives, we are expected to adapt or change by our own means, otherwise we fail.  It is one thing for adults to manage these troubles – they have more resources at their disposal – but it is quite another thing to expect developing adolescents to do the same.

To be sure, “the aesthetic surroundings, exceptional facilities and the committed faculty make these schools seem like island paradises.” For some students, however, things aren’t always what they seem.