Can your child learn more at a nontraditional school?

Michael Strong is co-founder of the Kọ School + Incubator, an Austin school serving students of middle and high school age. He is also author of the book The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice, a frequent speaker on TEDx stages, founder or co-founder of several successful schools, and an advocate for nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit as a force for social good. In this follow-up to an earlier guest post, Michael addresses, in an interesting new way, a question I hear often in consultation sessions with parents considering alternative forms of schooling for their kids: Will they be prepared to do well on the SAT and other college entrance requirements?

Two years ago, I wrote an article for Alt Ed Austin titled “Preparing for the SAT by Means of Alternative Education.” In that article, I explained how I had gotten high SAT scores that helped to get me into several Ivy League universities (Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth) by means of extensive reading and chess playing. At the time, Khotso Khabele and I were just launching the Khabele Strong Incubator, which is now known as the Kọ School + Incubator (KSI).

It has long been my belief that if students engage in serious intellectual work that they love, it is possible for them to develop high SAT scores while also enjoying school. Because traditional schools often force academics on students in ways that are disempowering, many traditionally educated adults find it hard to imagine teens enjoying learning while also developing high SAT scores.

Because of my belief that our program develops SAT scores, we have administered the SAT several times per year at the high school. Although we don’t have data for all KSI students, for those for whom we do have comparable data, the results are remarkable.

  • Average SAT gains for KSI high school students for 2015–2016: 140 points (80 points verbal, 60 points math)
  • Average SAT gains for KSI high school students who have been with us for two full academic years, 2014–2016: 313 points (173 verbal, 140 math)

We only have two-year data for students who were with us for grades 9 and 10 and who were present at SAT administrations for both September 2014 and May 2016.

For comparison purposes, analysis of three large-scale evaluations of SAT coaching concludes that the average student enrolled in an SAT prep course gains 30 points (5–10 points verbal, 10–20 points math).

Students who have attended KSI for two years are averaging gains more than 10 times those of students enrolled in the average SAT prep course.

Yet KSI students do very little explicit SAT prep. Instead, we have a daily Socratic discussion in which students discuss complex texts while relating them to their personal lives along with weekly math problem-solving sessions that are often like brain teasers. How can such a program outperform SAT prep courses by such a large margin?

1. The College Board has always maintained that “SAT measures reasoning abilities that are developed gradually over the years of primary and secondary schooling that precede college.” That is, insofar as the SAT measures reasoning abilities that take years to develop, it is not surprising that two years of a cognitively demanding program would outperform short SAT prep courses.

2. Very little in conventional education is designed to develop reasoning abilities. KSI Socratic discussions and math problem-solving activities are far more cognitively demanding than is a conventional curriculum.

With respect to reading, the texts studied in Socratic are almost all college-level prose, whereas all conventional high school textbooks are necessarily written at grade level or below. Many students at conventional schools are never exposed to the sophisticated prose that is the essence of the SAT critical reading section. Moreover, the “new SAT” is even more focused on high-level reading than was the earlier version.

Our math problem-solving sessions, developed by Jeff Wood, our lead STEM guide, are a critical element that goes beyond the linear math curriculum that is standard at most schools. It is designed to train students to think mathematically rather than simply moving through the traditional sequence of topics in math. SAT math requires that students think mathematically.

3. There is a large literature on the activity of practice proving the age-old maxim “Practice makes perfect.” When human beings deliberately attempt to improve their skills by means of practice, they improve. Our students don’t merely practice the SAT test itself; they practice thinking verbally and mathematically.

4. There is a great deal of evidence that a lack of engagement is one of the most severe problems in secondary education. In essence, most students find the academic component of school boring and meaningless. Many students love the social life, and some may love extracurricular programs, but the substance of schooling is not interesting or relevant to them.

Gallup surveys show student engagement as high in elementary school, much lower in middle school, and even lower in high school. Not coincidentally, American students score fairly well on international exams in elementary school, worse in middle school, and most poorly in high school.

By contrast, most KSI students are intellectually engaged most of the time. Subjectively speaking, it does seem to me that on average those who are more consistently intellectually engaged showed larger gains than those who were less engaged. For me, our most successful classes are not those in which teachers are talking much. Our most successful classes are those in which the students are leading the conversations or problem-solving sessions, thinking, talking, questioning, joking, laughing, and being teens—all while actively engaging their minds.

Simply by focusing seriously on developing students’ abilities to think verbally and mathematically, day in, day out, while engaging them successfully, we can achieve extraordinary results—in most cases with very little homework.

From a scientific perspective, because of our small numbers, these results should be regarded as suggestive rather than conclusive evidence of the power of our program to improve cognitive performance and increase SAT scores.

That said, as we live in a world with so many teens disengaged from learning, with so many teens suffering emotionally and socially, with so many families frustrated with traditional homework loads, it is valuable to be reminded that when a school creates a healthy, engaging intellectual culture, high-level learning takes place spontaneously. The suffering and frustration of traditional schooling is entirely unnecessary to produce extraordinary results. For some students, breaking free from the structure of traditional schooling itself may be the most important step in achieving what they were meant to achieve.

Michael Strong

Media Monday: Writers explore the transformation of America’s public schools

We’re always so pleased when we can highlight a public school with an alt ed soul. Last week Dawn Johnson wrote about Cunningham Elementary as a visionary public school in South Austin on our blog, and it’s a terrific, inspiring read. Recognizing that public schools across the country are in a period of new challenges and changes, Slate magazine is featuring a five-part series, “Tomorrow’s Test,” right now that’s also a must-read. The series is produced in cooperation with the Columbia Journalism School’s Teacher Project.

The focus of the series is one that’s not news to anyone interested in education in Texas, California, or other parts of the country that have seen many new immigrants in the past couple of decades. Changing demographics have a wide range of consequences for our public schools. As writer Sarah Carr explains in the series introduction:

Over the last 20 years, the number of Hispanic public schoolchildren has more than doubled, and the number of Asians has swelled by 56 percent. The number of black students and American Indians grew far more modestly—but the number of white students fell by about 15 percent.
The majority-minority milestone has arrived in our public schools early—a consequence of white children’s overrepresentation in private schools and the relative youth of America’s black and Hispanic populations. It is not a fluke. It is a preview of a transforming country. 

One of the things Carr points out that we may not think much about is the lack of diversity among our public school teachers and how that can sometimes affect their ability to connect with and mentor students of color and students from less affluent backgrounds. At a time when half our public school students are students of color, more than half are low-income, and almost a quarter are foreign-born or have a foreign-born parent, about 80 percent of our teachers are white.

This week, the Tomorrow’s Test series will visit 11 schools across the country, starting in Alaska and New Orleans. The articles will look at questions of diversity, immigration, segregation, and poverty, and will chronicle kids, families, and schools all looking for better education alternatives in this time of change.

Let us know if you’re reading the series and what you find inspiring, surprising, and relevant to our schools in Austin.

Shelley Sperry

A way outside of the box

Zach Hurdle is director of math education at Skybridge Academy in Dripping Springs and a PhD candidate in mathematics education at Texas State University. He joins us on the blog to share some of his own journey as a learner and educator, as well as his thoughts on how students really feel about math and learn it best. He also invites Austin-area teens and tweens to a unique summer camp he’s co-leading with Skybridge social studies director Tyler Merwin.

I grew up in a traditional public school system in north Dallas. I was thrown into a competitive blender full of students I sometimes knew, but mostly didn’t, and was one of hundreds in what would end up being a graduating class of 1,167. I didn’t have relationships with most of my teachers. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure if they remembered my first name. But then, that’s just what school is for everyone, correct?

Clearly not.

I didn’t know there were places in education like Skybridge Academy. Sure, alternative education is alive and thriving in Austin, but it wasn’t until I got an opportunity to teach mathematics at this private school that I realized we could make a place for those kids who think outside of the box and want learning to be an experience rather than a chore. That’s part of how I have created my teaching strategy: it’s formed as a direct result of the job. I’ve learned as my students have learned.

We focus on relationships in the classroom. Relationships among students, relationships between myself and the students, relationships with mathematics. Strangely enough, math doesn’t have to be some terrible ordeal, created solely to make kids’ lives harder. Once the pressure to understand everything the teacher is telling them is lifted, students realize that they can achieve goals greater than themselves. At Skybridge, we don’t put the pressure of grades on kids. How can they value the process of learning cohesively if there is an underlying need to outscore each other on tests?

What really makes school hard for thinkers is not just that teachers say so much that doesn't make sense, but that they say it in exactly the way they say things that are sensible, so that the child comes to feel—as he is intended to—that when he doesn't understand it is his fault.
—John Holt

Part of what makes the math experience at Skybridge different from others is that students make their way through the curriculum at their own pace. Of course some ideas may be more difficult than others; this is only natural. That’s how life works, and it’s how mathematics works as well. Why should a student struggling with a problem set have to be pushed forward despite minimal understanding for the sake of moving the class forward? Why should students who are excelling at a topic have to pause their process for others to catch up before continuing? Students will learn, as teachers should highly expect, but they will learn from internalizing, self-actualization, confidence, and practice.

Allied to imagination is the notion of engagement. Exercising imagination is inherently engaging, so a classroom in which students use their imaginations to study content, play with ideas, and imagine new possibilities should be an engaging one.
—Alison James & Stephen Brookfield

With this kind of education comes freedom. I don’t experience this freedom alone in lesson planning; the students feel less pressure, too, and can leap to meet high expectations. While we cover material that students throughout the country are expected to learn, we do it in engaging ways: building polyhedrons, evaluating percentages on field trips to stores or restaurants, evaluating the importance of ratios in actual cooking scenarios, to name a few. But at the same time, students also recognize the value in repetition and exercise. They don’t typically hate math, they just hate the system that comes with math. Students hate not knowing how to do something and being expected to grasp it immediately. Wouldn’t you?

Math, Cooking, Reading, Playing: A Summer Camp

I have teamed up with Tyler Merwin, head of social studies at Skybridge, to offer a summer camp because we’ve found that our students miss school over the break! Further, we feel that students outside of the Skybridge community could benefit from taking a glimpse into the culture we share at this school, to test the waters of a different way of learning, so we have opened this camp up to the public as well. The idea started as a math camp, but gradually morphed. It will include group dialogues about social issues, mathematics exercises and activities, and time set aside for reading, cooking practice, outdoor play, video games, and general socialization.

If you (or a young person you know) would like to join in for academic and social rejuvenation over the summer, here are the details:

Dates: July 11–July 15, 2016 (8:30am–4pm)
Ages: 11–18 (middle and high school)
Location: Skybridge Academy, 26450 Ranch Rd 12, Dripping Springs, TX
Cost: $450 (includes lunches)
What to bring: A laptop, snacks, water bottle, reading book
How to sign up: Contact Tyler Merwin, 608-751-2947, or Zach Hurdle, 469-556-9617,

Zach Hurdle

The “write” way

Melissa “Missy” Menzes is an occupational therapist and founder of Extra Credit! LLC. She is passionate about and highly successful at serving children in our community who have “fallen through the cracks” at school. Today she returns as our guest to give parents some insight and practical advice on supporting children with handwriting difficulties.

Handwriting help is, by far, the most common reason for referral at Extra Credit! LLC. I thought it might be helpful to address some of the most frequent questions we get with some developmental background and quick tips. The summer is a great time to work on these issues. For more specific help, a free handwriting screening, or formal assessment, contact

Hand Use

Developmental Background: Bilaterality, or alternating hand use, occurs at 2–3 years. Lateral preference, or being able to use one side of the body more proficiently than the other, is usually achieved by age 3–4. Between 4 and 6 years, children develop more unilateral abilities. Developing a preference assists with directional concepts, brain hemisphere specialization, and refinement of manual skills. Hand dominance, or a strong consistency to use one hand during task-oriented activities, typically occurs between 6 and 7 years of age. By age 7–8 children should know left and right sides of their bodies well. Well-integrated dominance does not always occur until 8–9 years in many children. “Mixed Use/Dominance” is often due to lack of proximal stability or endurance, poor bilateral integration, and problems in manual dexterity. It is quite common with children who have learning disorders. True biological-based ambidexterity is quite rare and often has a genetic basis.

Quick Tips: Encourage awareness of both sides of the body and of directions by playing games like Hokey Pokey, Twister, Hop Scotch, and Simon Says. Have child pick the hand they want to use during a task and do not allow switching in the middle of the task. Place objects to either side of the body midline and spread out to encourage rotation of the trunk to help reaching across with the opposite hand. Sit on varying sides of a child and have them move around so that there is not unintended positional bias toward the child using one hand over the other. Put a watch or bracelet on the writing hand as a tactile cue, and use cognitive-recall strategies such as “I write with my right hand.” (Note: Left-handedness can bring a lot more challenges. I would recommend contacting us for support if you have a left-handed writer who is struggling and needs assistance.)

Pencil Grasp

Developmental Background: A fisted grasp is typical from 1–1.5 years. From age 2–3 a brush-style grasp is common; here, the arm is in the air and the pointer finger is extended toward the tip of the writing utensil. Next, typically a static (moving wrist, stationary fingers) pattern in opposition to the thumb is common and then a dynamic (moving fingers, stationary wrist) pattern with four fingers resting against the tool (quadropod). By 3.5 to 4 years, three fingers of stability are more common (tripod). A mature, efficient dynamic tripod grip is expected by 4.5 to 6 years of development. The dynamic tripod offers the best mechanical advantage for writing small and controlled letters for a long time. If a child has joint hypermobility or poor proximal stability, he or she will seek positions of best stability for comfort and endurance, but problems arise when this method causes pain, discomfort, fatigue, or joint deformity. Several specific developmental skills are needed before a mature grasp can be achieved. Research has proven that there are four grasp patterns that are considered functional for writing (static and dynamic tripod and quadropod grips). After around second grade or age 7, research says that a grasp pattern is locked in and cannot usually be successfully changed without external remedial supports (such as an adaptive pencil grip or tool).

Quick Tips: Using small pieces of crayons or chalk often encourages a three-finger grasp pattern. Drawing at vertical surfaces facilitates a wrist action called tenodesis that mimics the tripod grasp and improves wrist and shoulder proximal stability necessary for better distal fine motor control. Golf-sized pencils are better for kindergarten-sized hands. Squirt bottles, scissors, and climbing/hanging encourage opposition of the thumb and strengthen the hand arches. Fine motor activities with beads, bands, lacing, pinching, twisting, tool use, and manipulatives all improve strength and coordination useful in maturing grasp patterns. (Note: There are many commercial grips and a few tools that can help improve efficiency in an older child, but I would suggest working with an occupational therapist for best success with grip accommodation strategies. These options usually don’t work well unless done right, and sometimes a developmental hand program is needed before remedial options should be introduced.)


Developmental Background: It’s not unusual or uncommon for preschoolers and kindergarteners to reverse several letters and numbers. By age 6, children should write capital and lowercase letters and numbers 1–9 with 85 percent correct orientation. By age 7, symbol accuracy should be 90 percent, and by age 8–9, 100 percent correct orientation is a suggested target. In many cases, reversals are either due to problems with spatial orientation, laterality, start, or sequencing of symbols. Children age 5–6 should identify their own left/right limbs with 75 percent accuracy. Children 7 and above should begin to identify what side objects are in relationship to each other, and typically by age 9 kids can understand lateral concepts on other people. When shown a mixture of reversed and correctly oriented symbols, children age 5 will typically make numerous mistakes identifying what is correct, but by ages 9–10 such recognition errors should be highly accurate.

Quick Tips: To reduce symbol reversals, teach correct start and sequence with a multisensory program (hear, see, feel, do big) and provide a visual letter template so that kids can compare work for editing. Worksheets and free writing without close facilitation are never encouraged because this is where young kids develop so many bad habits that go “unseen.” Kids often draw symbols in incorrect sequences or with inconsistent patterns and never get an appropriate motor memory of the correct formation, which is a necessary foundation to advancements in writing. Handwriting Without Tears uses several methods that help reduce reversals. Play “Mystery Letter” by drawing on the back or in the air or on something textured with the finger. Kids will recognize mistakes more quickly in these ways than in small works or in words. (Note: Sometimes reversals may indicate the need for additional screening. They can be symptoms of a visual or neuro-based condition.)


Writing has a lot of important benefits, and no matter how much our society advances toward communicating with digital technology, the importance of legible and functional writing skills should never be overlooked. Kids should learn print and cursive and then focus on the one that suits his/her best before adding “flair.” I think it makes the most sense to begin with a solid foundation in print and then to add cursive. Some children do best with a vertical style, while a few others do better with a slanted one. Each child is different; there is no one way that is best for everyone.

When it comes to recommending a specific curriculum, I prefer Handwriting Without Tears because of its heavy emphasis on multisensory, kinesthetic, and developmentally appropriate instruction. I also like that the print, cursive, and keyboarding programs all reinforce each other. If done correctly, the kids should be working with fine motor manipulatives, grip, and learning formation through fun songs and games before even doing pencil-paper lessons. The double-lined paper is excellent for kids with visual-spatial-organization difficulties, and the workbooks reinforce early literacy and are not biased to the right-handed child.

I have been trained in several great programs and am certified in handwriting. As an occupational therapist, I naturally combine the best of all and give it my own spin. I always find success when something is fun, active, repetitive, meaningful, individualized, and the “just right” challenge.

Another major helper, as weird as it may sound, is music. More than anything else, I and my clients have truly been amazed by what sound therapy (even if purely home-based) can do for legibility. I’m not a sound engineer, but I have been trained in five different sound therapy approaches, and while they are each unique, the concepts and results are basically the same. Some programs are just a little more accessible or appropriate than others.

Lastly, when all else fails, I like to encourage exploration of assistive technology. With a few simple and modern supports, I have seen kids go from failing to passing homework assignments. Others have transitioned from hating writing to loving it. Who knows, maybe like one of my last kiddos, yours will be the next great author! The point is, sometimes a little support can go a long way, and it’s not about giving up; it’s about emphasizing strengths and leveling the playing field.

Melissa “Missy” Menzes, OTR

Cunningham Elementary: A Changemaker School in the heart of South Austin

The PEAS garden shed at Cunningham Elementary School. Mural painted by artist JJ Muzacz. (Photo by Dawn Johnson.)

The PEAS garden shed at Cunningham Elementary School. Mural painted by artist JJ Muzacz. (Photo by Dawn Johnson.)

Although alternative private schools are the main focus at Alt Ed Austin, we often work with families to choose the best public school options for their kids. Cunningham Elementary in South Austin is one of the most creative and visionary of these, as you’ll learn in this heartfelt guest post from Dawn Johnson, an artist, teacher, community activist, and Cunningham PTA member. You can enjoy more of Dawn’s work by visiting her studio online.              

On a recent sunny morning in south Austin, PEAS Community Farm and Urban Orchard is abuzz with activity. Children are running through the garden rows. Parents, caregivers, friends, and community organizers are weeding and planting and digging in the dirt. Crops are thriving, recently planted fruit trees are soaking up the sun, and conversations about the next set of seedlings are circling through the group. A local colony of bright green monk parakeets flies overhead, landing in the oak trees and calling to one another in parrot-song.

PEAS Farm is located at Mary Ellen Cunningham Elementary, a beautiful little gem of a school nestled in the heart of 78745. Cunningham is an AISD elementary school, and Principal Amy Lloyd, along with her active and innovative teachers and staff, are turning the old ideas of public education upside down.

Principal Lloyd emphasizes “Social Emotional Learning as the foundation in education, with peace paths, and peace areas in all classrooms, outdoor gardens, and throughout the playground! Empathy is a focus, and Cunningham will go deeper with that topic every year. Students are respected as 'Changemakers' for the future and are developing their lens for seeing changemakers in our society.”

Cunningham Elementary is a designated Ashoka Changemaker School, one of a select number of schools throughout the United States. Changemaker Schools are chosen based on “a global community of leading elementary, middle and high schools that prioritize empathy, teamwork, leadership, problem-solving and changemaking as student outcomes. These schools are leading a transformation in education that supports children as changemakers.”

Cunningham also worked closely with Compassionate Austin and local artist Calder Kamin to create an on-site Compassion Tree Sculpture. Cunningham’s Art Specialist engaged students in learning compassion through daily experiences, and the Compassion Tree grew with their collaboration.

A scene from Science Fair Week at Cunningham Elementary: compassion in action. (Photo by Dawn Johnson.)

A scene from Science Fair Week at Cunningham Elementary: compassion in action. (Photo by Dawn Johnson.)

Cunningham develops children’s spirit of entrepreneurship through its school-wide MicroSociety, which feeds into further entrepreneurship programs at Covington Middle School and Crockett High School. In addition to student-led meetings and entrepreneurial and government-themed groups throughout the year, there is a monthly Market Day when the students put their business skills to practical use.

The school is dedicated to social justice curriculum development, including diverse books and literacy in all classroom libraries. Principal Lloyd explains: “At Cunningham, there is one dual-language classroom at each grade level, with a school-wide model of inclusion that honors bi-literacy and multicultural understanding.” Teachers present academics through a fresh and engaging platform, giving the children tools to be successful in today’s increasingly technological world. Science Fair is an exciting time of year, as students hypothesize, experiment, and demonstrate their ideas, hoping to head to citywide competitions.

Cunningham students learning entrepreneurial skills during MicroSociety Market Day. (Photo by Dawn Johnson.)

Cunningham students learning entrepreneurial skills during MicroSociety Market Day. (Photo by Dawn Johnson.)

Principal Lloyd loves to talk about Cunningham’s Creative Learning Initiative, which “infuses an arts-rich curriculum into all classrooms, enhancing and building and honoring creativity and innovation.” Ballet Folklórico dance performances with students under the tutelage of Breathing Danza bring life, stories, costumes, and a magical atmosphere to the stage. The sensational art, music, and physical education departments are an integral part of the students’ day. And infused in Cunningham’s bright cultural and artistic atmosphere, Friday school assemblies are alive with dancing, drumming, singing, and laughter.  The old rigid school assemblies are nowhere to be found here; instead, the children and teachers come together each week in a spirit of music and celebration.

Cunningham Elementary thrives with a healthy living lifestyle and works closely with Go Austin, Vamos Austin (GAVA) to implement vibrant and healthy programs throughout the seasons. Brighter Bites provides abundant bags of fruits and veggies for six weeks in each fall and spring semester for every family. The campus is also host to an organic farm stand throughout the school year, working together with GAVA, The Sustainable Food Center, and Farmshare Austin. And PEAS Farm enables educators and volunteers to teach environmental sustainability to our future stewards of the earth. Programs on the farm are available to schoolchildren as well as to the community at large.

Color dash! (Photo by Dawn Johnson.)

Color dash! (Photo by Dawn Johnson.)

Cunningham hosts an annual Fine Arts and Compassion festival each spring known as ’45 Fest. The festival is open to the public and features a paint-infused color dash, live music with local artists, food trucks, and crafts for the kids. The elementary school has an excited, involved, connected, and passionate PTA that work together throughout the year to bring a multitude of events to campus.

In 2014, when looking for a school home for our son, my family and I toured many educational programs throughout Austin. We decided one afternoon to stop by Cunningham to include it in our decision-making process. Within minutes of meeting Principal Lloyd, seeing her vision for every child, and connecting with her excitement for education and learning, we felt an instant kinship with her. But ultimately what made the decision in my heart and mind that this was the school home for us was stepping into the fifth grade classroom known as The Hive Society and chatting with the fifth grade girls. They blew me away. Every girl I spoke with was composed, articulate, self-assured, excited about their school, and warm in the way they approached my family and me. That was it—I knew this was our school, and in the past two years we have fallen so in love with Cunningham and all the amazing kids and teachers and staff that make this such a unique and beautiful school. The community here continuously encourages, supports, and helps one another as we learn through our children’s eyes. Cunningham really is the heart of 78745.

Cunningham Elementary is a tuition-free public elementary school and is open for transfers. To schedule a fun and informative tour, contact Principal Amy Lloyd at (512) 414-2067. To learn more, please visit the school’s website, join the PTA online, or follow Principal Lloyd on Twitter. For information about PEAS Community Farm and Urban Orchard and how to get involved, visit the PEAS Farm website or the PEAS Community.

Dawn Johnson

Exercise, sleep, and unplugging can help lower stress and anxieties in teens

Photo by Pabak Sarkar

Photo by Pabak Sarkar

For part 2 of our series for Mental Health Awareness Month, Shelley Sperry interviewed local psychologist Dr. Mike Brooks, who shared his insights and practical advice for reducing or preventing the stresses and anxieties so many teens are experiencing today.

Dr. Mike Brooks, a licensed psychologist and director of the Austin Psychology & Assessment Center, says that there is some alarmism around the issue of rising anxiety disorders among teens. “We haven’t dropped off a cliff,” he says, but in many schools in Austin and across the nation the academic and social pressure is intense. “A lot of pressures come to a head in high school, and kids feel the weight and react in a variety of ways.”

Teachers, school administrators, coaches, parents, and peers all have high expectations in terms of grades and extracurricular activities. “I work a lot with stressed teens who think if you have one bad semester you won’t be able to get into your top school, or if you don’t take at least 5 AP classes, you’re falling behind,” explains Dr. Brooks. “These stresses can lead to anxiety and depression.”

But, Brooks says, most kids can find new ways to deal with stress and significant relief through some common-sense behavioral changes. Others will need counseling, often in the form of more formal cognitive behavorial therapy, and a few will need the assistance of drugs along with therapy to balance brain chemistry.

Dr. Brooks believes that the most basic solutions often work well, if kids are really motivated to make some changes. Exercise, sleep, and putting some limits on technology can work wonders to destress teens’ everyday lives.

Exercise. “We are meant to be active,” Brooks explains, “so if we don’t move enough, stress sets in.” Exercise breaks are essential for teens who study long hours, because exercise improves alertness and focus. “We get all that exercise time back later in higher productivity.”

Sleep. The same thing goes for sleep. Here, the science is clear: According to the UCLA Sleep Center, teens need more sleep than adults—an average of nine hours per night. But as a result of busy schedules at home and school, social expectations, or difficulty falling and staying asleep as their bodies adjust to puberty, most teenagers don’t get enough. Lack of sleep can be both a contributor to and a symptom of mental health problems. According to Harvard Medical School’s Mental Health Letter:

The brain basis of a mutual relationship between sleep and mental health is not yet completely understood. But neuroimaging and neurochemistry studies suggest that a good night’s sleep helps foster both mental and emotional resilience, while chronic sleep disruptions set the stage for negative thinking and emotional vulnerability.

Unplugging and single-tasking. Dr. Brooks specializes in helping parents and kids navigate technology, which often increases stress levels in teens. He has one word for those who spend their study time multitasking: Don’t. Most high school students today are instant-messaging, snapchatting, texting, checking Instagram, and watching YouTube—or some combination of these distractions—while doing homework or reading. The science is still in early stages, but multiple studies show that multitasking decreases the quality of work, can actually inhibit one’s ability to filter out irrelevant information, and can diminish working memory.

As a result of the time and attention lost to multitasking, stress levels and anxiety can increase. So encourage unplugging for part of every day—taking technology breaks—so students can focus on one important task at a time.

When asked what role schools have in lowering students’ anxiety, Dr. Brooks said, “I’d like to see schools be more aware of students’ emotional state. Allow them to step back and observe, and practice mindfulness. Encourage them to check in with themselves to figure out what they want and need.”

Many schools in the Austin area are developing programs that focus on mindfulness and allow students to monitor their own anxieties and feelings of stress. We’ll take a look at some of those solutions in the next installment.

Many thanks to Dr. Mike Brooks for taking the time to discuss his work for this post. Dr. Brooks is a licensed psychologist and the director of the Austin Psychology & Assessment Center. The ApaCenter is a group of psychologists and other practitioners who provide psychological and neuropsychological assessments, therapy, consultation, and coaching to individuals, couples, and families of all ages. Dr. Brooks works with a variety of patients but specializes in helping parents raise balanced kids in a technological world. He is writing a book on this topic and can be found online at


Shelley Sperry