Town Uses Rocks to Bring Balance to Pressured Teens

Rocks made by high school students support peers with anxiety. One town in Massachusetts is working to give childhood back to its teens, inspiring families to focus on more than college applications.

It’s no secret that pressure to achieve is debilitating to many of our teens. More and more, we are seeing anxiety disorders, bullying, hospitalizations and even suicides due to the inappropriate pressure many teens have when it comes to performance in school and entrance into college.

Related: No Lesson Plan, No Homework: “Why I Unschool” My Kids

Gone are the days where a 4.0 grade point average is valuable. Now, teens who don’t have college courses under their belt before they ever get into college are behind the curve, and the depression and detrimental effects seen in family dynamics are being seen all over the country.

A small town, Lexington, Massachusetts, wants to change the crying bouts and inappropriate anxiety disorders in their teens, and they started with a group of students who were worried about anxiety and depression in their peers.

In a time where a ‘B’ on a paper can literally send some to hospitals for anxiety attacks, these students began painting rocks with messages such as, “Mistakes are O.K.” and “Be happy!” and leaving them in unexpected places for their peers to find them. They seem to have a magical quality, and have led to something pretty amazing.

Senior Gili Grunfeld who helped start the efforts said that it started small, but then overwhelmingly grew.

Students in Lexington, MA work to reduce high pressure stress and anxiety

Grunfeld’s initial peer group transformed a small storage area into a peaceful, tranquil place for peers to relax and paint rocks, which were given to favorite teachers and friends. The room was aptly named the Rock Room, and people flocked to it.

The movement grew so large that it became a community-wide project to defeat the performance anxiety so many of its teens suffered from. Anxiety that sadly has killed the joy of being a teen, and even gone so far as to lead over-pressured and overwhelmed teens to suicide.

Moved by the suicide death of one of their own, the tight-knit community said enough was enough and has taken action to turn this horrible tide of oppression on its teens.

District Superintendent Mary Czajkowski tackles the serious problem head-on, with elementary school students learning mindfulness in breathing techniques and how stress can affect our brains.

The high school has a homework limit, doing away with students staying up all hours just to finish unreasonable amounts of work. In an effort to diminish competition, and the resulting stress that comes from extreme competition for top spots, there are no class rankings and no valedictorians or salutatorians.

More regular workshops on teen anxiety are held, and college forums are given in an effort to assure parents that their child’s world is not over if they don’t get into Harvard.

School board member Jessie Steigerwald says her community wants to serve as a model that tells parents and students that success is not incumbent on what college one goes to, and there is more to life than the day-to-day pressure that is literally taking away our children’s childhood.

Related: What Teens Need from Us

Some are not convinced, though, as they say they’d moved to the area because of its rigorous school expectations, and believe that the culture of the town as a stepping stone to Ivy League education is being lost. The town is widely known as a high-performing one in local, state and national competitions, and some parents don’t want that to change.

District representative Ms. Lasa says that they are trying to change the deeply rooted culture, though, so that students take time to unwind. Lasa grew up there and was educated in the area, and has seen the mild, laid back community turn into the uber competitive one it is now.

She has instituted 45-minute free periods for high school students. This time allows (or forces) students to simply slow down, though many still use it as a time to get head starts on homework.

Still, the tide does seem to be moving toward a more positive one for the town’s teens, with the formation of a suicide prevention group, and banners all over that motivate students to, “Be a part of happiness!” Classes work on emotions and how things we do and eat can affect our happiness, and students are even practicing laughter yoga in an effort to see how laughter positively affects overall health and well-being.

Lasa says the key to their community success will be balance, and in this moves-too-fast-world where childhood is over in an eye-blink, we applaud their efforts!

 Photos: Gretchen Ertl/New York Times

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