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Dear therapist, 

Q. Do you think there’s something wrong with our lifestyle? I see a huge difference in our kids in the summer. They are so relaxed and happy. During the rest of the year they are very stressed out and often have a hard time falling asleep. Is the school day too long? Too much work? There’s not much I can do – I don’t plan to homeschool! – but I wonder why ten months of the year have to be so full of pressure on our kids.

A. Thanks for the question. I think this question is being asked more and more particularly with the increase of kids at risk and/or those engaging in unhealthy behaviors.  As a community we are searching for answers and trying to look at every possible contributing factor. As you are suggesting, perhaps the pressure that comes with the packed school schedule is another factor we need to consider. For the purpose of the column I would like to keep the focus on boys Yeshivas where the schedule is typically more intensive.

If we are willing to take an honest look at this, we will need to address a number of factors. Firstly, it appears that there are 2 components to the question that need to be addressed. One is the long hours/schedules of the schools and the second is the amount of pressure placed on students in the schools and/or home. Let’s see if we can tackle both. 

 With regards to the hours, when considering making a significant change in a system that has been standard for so long there typically tends to be a backlash from some Rabbonim. This was once explained to me that the opposition to change is born from how so much of Judaism relies on mesorah and how previous generations have done things. Of course, this doesn’t exclude making necessary changes when they are called for, but it can explain the hesitancy we often see. There needs to be a delicate balance between adjusting to the times we live in without compromising our religion in any way and those decisions  needs to come from our leaders.  

Another angle is that we need to ask ourselves how much of the current schedule is also this is driven by parents who prefer things this way and would reject attempts at reducing the hours. This can be for a multitude of reasons including when both parents working and not able to provide childcare to accommodate reduced hours. Sometimes though it might come from parents that just want more time to themselves during the day. Again, we need to be honest about what drives our preferences. 

Additionally, part of the rationale in eliminating as much free time as possible is the belief that by doing that we are preventing our children from getting involved in unhealthy behaviors. Whether this is effective or not and what choices children and families would make with how to use the time is debatable but certainly another important angle to consider. 

If we aren’t looking to reduce hours and just to reduce overall pressure perhaps schools can integrate other forms of learning (relationship skills, general life skills, or trades) into the current schedule. Perhaps subjects without the pressure of tests will help reduce the stress on our children. I have heard of a number of schools recently that  are working with this model but many are not considered “mainstream” and therefore may be looked down upon. Maybe as a community we need to embrace this more wholeheartedly and acknowledge that not all children will excel in the classic model we use as perhaps it is geared towards a very specific skills set. There is a great Ted talk online where an educator really addresses the issue of how the typical school model may contribute to reduced creativity in our youth and only ideally cater towards those with specific types of intelligence, better memories, and study habits. I think it is worth watching for those that feel comfortable doing so*. But as parents we need to ask ourselves how much of the pressure is coming from us vs the school. Who is demanding excellence sometimes to the point of it being detrimental to the child. While we all talk about the importance of effort over results does that actually translate in the feedback given to our children from the people they look up to? 

I understand that there is no easy answer to this question and perhaps for different children the solution may look completely different. I hope though that we had a chance to illuminate some of the components to help getting us to think in the right direction towards bettering our schools, communities and selves. 

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