Monday, June 6, 2011

Why Students should NOT place primary importance on Academic Achievement

Sci-fi movie fans and others may be able to recall Keanu Reeves plugging-in and learning martial arts or how to fly a helicopter in the movie The Matrix. Such a learning system would alleviate nearly every problem we have in our modern institutional education system and provide children with much greater opportunities for sports, general play, leisure time and a less stressful life. But such is not reality. So, instead, it is best that we strike a tenable balance between those.

In May I participated in the 500 Festival Mini-Marathon in Indianapolis. Later that month was a marathon mediation session in a very high conflict relationship where the parents have easily spent combined attorney fees in excess of $200,000. For the first time these parents were now engaged in meaningful dialogue and coming to agreement on what is best for their son.

The parties' child, an intelligent and academically successful young man, is now failing in school after last year being an honor roll student. I observed these embattled parents come to realize that they are causing the harm to their child. I offered suggestions about how they can see each other in a new perspective and how each of them had wishes contrary to what is best for their child.

Just when I think we are going to make it through every issue with some give and take the mother unloads the bombshell on me: the child cannot participate in any sports until he maintains a "B" average. When I said failing I meant failing. He must pass a course in Summer School just to stay at grade level.

Immediately I and her attorney both strongly objected to her ultimatum. My basis for my objection was that necessary balance that I had mentioned. Her attorney had also referred to the positive outcomes of organized school sports programs. Mother conceded that some type of sports should be allowed pending a return to the normal academic successes her child had enjoyed but nothing that would be a priority to his classroom performance. Still she protested that she didn't understand why athletics should be allowed when their son has more important things to concentrate on like academics and getting counseling for his mood and behaviour issies.

So, I have been prompted to delve further into what I instinctively know and to coherently provide the basis for my conclusion; that the focus on academic achievement is to the detriment of children.

There are a number of health–related factors that can contribute to a student’s academic performance, and therefore have an effect on his or her GPA. The amount of exercise, nutritional routines, and also the amount of social support the student perceives all can contribute to how a student academically performs (Hammer et al, 1998). Although I do not make the specific comparison here I do contend that institutional education is now based more on mastery of standardized achievement measures than learning, which is to the detriment of our children specifically and society as a whole.

So, what is the ultimate importance?

If you have seen the movie Mr Woodcock staring Billy Bob Thornton then you are familiar with this opening monologue to his primary school gym class.
"To survive outside these walls you need more than just math and science. The world does not stop for people who can spell fancy words or tell you the capital of Montana. The only thing that matters in this world, ladies, is strength. Strength of body and strength of mind. Now if you're not strong enough by the time you leave these doors you may as well give up and go home to your mommas."

I have spent some time around Riley's Hospital for Children, I have known doctors who worked there and also the children and their parents. The wishes I heard from these people were in stark contrast to those seeking an academic path to the top.

While the parents who attempt to live vicariously through their children have made it their mission to be the project manager of their child's ascent to the most prestigious academic institutions others seem to have a different calling. I have never heard the parent of a child who is suffering through an illness exclaim that they wish there child was more educated.

In fact, I can extend this to well beyond people of the typical institutional educational period. Neither have I heard the adults who are well educated but suffering the ill-effects of a lifestyle that did not value physical health say such a thing as -- at least I have my knowledge. In fact, the saying, "At least I have my health" is about as common as houseflies when disaster strikes while "At least I have my knowledge" is not part of our common vernacular.

I will stop short of calling one class of parents better than the other for my aim here is not to create a divide among parents, but rather, to offer a perspective on what is best for children that differs from that perpetuated by those who most profit from the classical viewpoint.

Ultimately, I believe that the impediments to academic achievement are the very things that lead to academic achievement and overall success in life, or rather -- living. However, when properly prioritized and balanced there is no reason why students cannot maintain positive whole health, learning and academic achievement.

In a study in 2000 Trockel, Barnes, and Egget found “That students who exercised seven or more hours a week obtained significantly lower grades than students who exercised six or fewer hours weekly or not at all ”. Other studies have found the opposite to be true which leads to confusion for parents and policy makers. It is then necessary to determine if the relationship between exercise and lower academic achievement in some students is a correlation or causation effect.

"We now have evidence to support the claim that exercise is related to positive mental health as indicated by relief in symptoms of depression and anxiety." - The Influence of Exercise on Mental Health by Dr. Daniel M. Landers, Arizona State University. There is also the more cautious “physical activity appears to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve mood” - Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health (PCPFS Research Digest, 1996).

Depression is a prevalent problem in today’s society. Clinical depression affects 2–5% of Americans each year (Kessler et al., 1994). Exercise has been proposed as an alternative or adjunct to more traditional approaches for treating depression (Hales & Travis, 1987; Martinsen, 1987, 1990). Across five meta-analytic reviews, the results consistently show that both acute and chronic exercise are related to a significant reduction in depression. The findings indicate that the antidepressant effect of exercise begins as early as the first session of exercise and persists beyond the end of the exercise program (Craft, 1997; North et al., 1990). These effects are also consistent across age, gender, exercise group size, and type of depression inventory.

Exercise may be a positive adjunct for the treatment of depression since exercise provides additional health benefits (e.g., increase in muscle tone and decreased incidence of heart disease and obesity) that behavioral interventions do not.

The psychological benefit of exercise, especially the release of Dopamine during aerobic workouts, may become an overwhelming drive for an already depressed student who may then become susceptible to compulsive workouts. This may account for the lower academic success rate of some students who report engaging in more exercise.

Additionally, students who have lower academic success and also exercise a significant amount of time each week may be those who are not academically proficient and therefore seek out an alternative source of satisfaction for success. Others may have started an exercise routine without compensating for other time demands such as employment. It cannot be concluded that exercise and a corresponding lack of academic achievement is a causal relationship.

Keeping in mind that learning is life-long it is best for one to be positioned well to facilitate the induction of information and retention of that knowledge. While not all students are depressed and therefore in need of placing a premium on exercise over pressures to achieve academically there is still a need for regular physical exercise by everyone.

Stress is the emotional and physical strain caused by our response to pressure from the outside world. Common stress reactions include tension, irritability, inability to concentrate, and a variety of physical symptoms that include headache and a fast heartbeat. In short, stress is a killer.

The great neurologist Walter Cannon coined the term homeostasis to further define the dynamic equilibrium between stress that builds or protects the person and stress that tears the person down. Through his experiments, he demonstrated the"fight or flight" response that man and other animals share when threatened. Further, Cannon traced these reactions to the release of powerful neurotransmitters, epinephrine (also called adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline), in the response to stress. The release of these neurotransmitters leads to the physiologic effects seen in the fight or flight response, for example, a rapid heart rate, increased alertness, etc.

First among the causes of stress on students is academic pressure. A study by Diane S. Kaplan, Ruth X. Liu and Howard B. Kaplan [School related stress in early adolescence and academic performance three years later: the conditional influence of self expectations] found that early adolescent school-related stress, both independently and in interaction with high academic expectations, negatively affected academic performance 3 years later. These results suggest that for students in high stress school environments, an increase in academic expectations may serve to increase their school-related stress and impede their academic performance.

Students at either the secondary or post-secondary level of education experience stress from parental pressures. Parents pressure their children to succeed in school. They want to see good grades, but they also want to see success in life's other areas. In their attempts to guide their children, parents can become one of the major causes of stress on students by over-emphasizing academic success while neglecting physiological success.

Is the pressure to achieve academically causing stress related academic failures in our children? Modern times are seeing children treated for anxiety disorders and other stress related health problems more than at any other time. Medical appointments and taking mood-altering drugs can place an additional strain on already stressed children.

As previously noted the psychological benefit of exercise, especially the release of Dopamine during aerobic workouts, may become an overwhelming drive for an already stressed student who may then become susceptible to compulsive workouts.

The addition of medical related routines or appointments and the introduction of exercise to an already rigorous academic schedule may produce adverse effects on learning by depriving students of sleep or necessary "down time".

Our children are part of a generation that may be suffering from over-scheduling. We know they have higher incidents of anxiety and stress related illnesses, are being diagnosed and treated with drug therapies at a greater rate than previous generations and are showing significant failures in demonstrating applied learning in the workforce following the period of institutional education.

So, whatever happened to play for its own sake? We have serious, goal-oriented, skill-building adult-managed activities and programs instead of the freedom and carefree laughter of backyards, parks, fields and swimming holes. Many parents believe that the presence of free, unstructured, unsupervised time for their children is the equivalent of wasted time, missed meaningful opportunities and a reflection of poor parenting. They believe this in spite of recent scientific research that supports the theory that self-initiated, unstructured creative play is the single most important activity that young children can engage in to develop at all developmental levels, including neurological and cognitive growth.

In addition the rigorous scheduling of children's activities does not give them the opportunity to develop time-management skills, offer the necessary "down time" and can also interfere with restful sleep patterns. This is especially true when exercise routines or sports are scheduled within three hours of expected sleep time and the body is still experiencing a Dopamine rush.

Some past research on sleep suggests that people who sleep fewer hours a night may have psychological maladjustment. Sleeping shorter amounts of time has shown to increase factors such as anxiety and stress, which have been associated with academic performance (Kelly et al, 2001). These factors cause students problems by causing shortened attention span and also increasing the number of errors students make on tests.

Kubitz, Landers, Petruzzello, & Han (1996) found that acute and chronic exercise was related to an increase in slow wave sleep and total sleep time, but was also related to a decrease in sleep onset latency and REM sleep. Those engaging in an acute bout of exercise went to sleep more quickly, slept longer, and had a more restful sleep than subjects who did not exercise.

High school workloads, and later college workloads, are heavy for many students. For secondary students planning on tertiary studies, high school grades are important. So is the number of subjects. As a result, students may overload their schedules. In college, where a financial investment has been made, students may overwork to reach their goals and benefit from the money spent.

The adolescent years are also when biological forces drive the quest for interpersonal relationships with the opposite gender. Fighting this is a losing battle that parents may try to engage in. Instead ample free time for socializing must be afforded to the student while being balanced with other needs.

Prohibitions on socializing in lieu of other scheduled activities can have the opposite effect of that which is desired. The student may become resentful of the other activities and can also become socially outcast. Being socially ostracized can cause anxiety and depression which as previously noted can have a negative impact on academic performance.

This is an issue that I am often confronted with in mediation or litigation. I have a parent tell me "He has played soccer since he was seven and I want him to continue." The other parent may have already recognized that at age 15 he is into girl chasing now and soccer just doesn't carry the premium for him that it used to. Some of the schedules I see parents trying to maintain for their children make me dizzy.


When examining the issue of academics v athletics the evidence is clear that athletics or physical-activity in general is the most viable of the two. While there have been significant advances in medical technology brought about by the discoveries and training of those in academic institutions they still have not been able to replace or improve upon the well maintained and fit human body. While exercise has been shown to improve physical health a causal relationship between exercise and mental health has also been shown. No such evidence exists that while academics may be used to improve mental health that there is also a causal relationship between learning academics and improved physical health.

With the increase in legal and societal pressures for children to maintain top-tier academic performance there has been a corresponding increase in mental-health related illnesses. These may include anxiety, depression, general mood disorders, attentiveness/concentration issues, insomnia, stomach/intestinal issues and suicide.

The pressure to perform academically in lieu of maintaining proper physical health has produced a Catch 22. Institutional policies banning students with lower academic achievement from participating in athletic/exercise programs actually exacerbate the problem.

By removing what is sometimes the only positive factor to a child's potential academic achievement (or elevation in mood) parents and schools are creating more barriers to a child's academic performance, physical health, mental health and general satisfaction with life.

Students pressured to excel academically who are concurrently deprived of exercise are more likely to have physical ailments, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating, become overweight, have lower self-esteem and suffer from reduced learning. Additionally, children deprived of the Dopamine induced "high" produced by exercise may turn to prescription pain killers or street drugs as an alternative.

What we know to be true is what we should practice. When all else has gone awry we claim to at least have our health, not our transcript or degree.

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©2008, 2011 Stuart Showalter, LLC. Permission is granted to all non-commercial entities to reproduce this article in it's entirety with credit given.

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