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Lessons in How to Chill Out

With competition for colleges creating fierce pressure, top students and their parents are being given a new message--learn to relax.


Inside the San Marino Unified School District boardroom, a special class is in session. Eight students fit neatly into two rows of chairs. Pauline Chen looks at the floor.

Speaking in her native Mandarin, the 44-year-old housewife shyly describes how she drove her daughters Julie and Maggie to achieve so they could earn admission to University of California campuses. For her 14-year-old son Steven, she has set her sights on Stanford.

But the resulting academic pressure has made for a tense home life. Her son avoids telling her about school. They fight over how much homework he does--she does not think five hours a day is enough.

Steven recently told her he'd earned an A on a math test, when in fact he got a B-minus. "My expectations were really high," she says. "When they brought home a B, I would yell at them."

Frustrated by the fights with Steven, she enrolled in this class. She wants "to go with the flow," she says, "to have a more accepting heart."

Persuading parents not to push their children too hard is precisely the point of this six-week course. In fact, the class--attended by six mothers and two fathers of San Marino students--is part of a wave of such initiatives that target high-achievers and their parents nationwide.

In California, for example, the Arcadia school district sponsors a course like the one Chen attends. School districts in Ventura and San Diego counties have passed new guidelines to cut down on homework. Seven public schools in San Francisco have added yoga to the curriculum, in part as a stress reliever. The Palos Verdes district has used state funding to provide counselors who keep a close eye on bright troubled students. San Gabriel High has launched a "Resiliency Week" during which students take workshops on physical and emotional health. And the private school powerhouse Harvard-Westlake has started a committee to examine the workload (although its first chairman, a teacher, had to beg off--he had too much work).

"We have meetings with parents all the time to try and notch it down," says Jack Rose, the San Marino superintendent. "We talk about . . . having children succeed at their own particular pace."

Nationally, the New England Assn. of Schools and Colleges, in accreditation visits to some top U.S. boarding schools, has begun asking those campuses to reduce the frenzied pace on campus. As a result, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., has launched a study with the aim of simplifying its schedule. In New Jersey, suburban communities have established "Ready, Set, Relax!" nights, when no homework is assigned and extracurricular commitments are canceled. In a suburb of Minneapolis, a new group called Family Life First has taken to bestowing "seals of approval" on schools and programs that take measures to "balance priorities" and reduce stresses on young people.

For most high school students, research suggests, pressure is not a problem. A recent survey by Public Agenda, a New York-based nonprofit that does public opinion research, found that most students reported they were not pushed hard enough. But in the narrow realm of bright students who apply to the nation's most selective colleges, educators, parents and psychologists perceive an ever-mounting set of stresses.

The most selective universities are becoming even more so. Admission rates to Ivy League colleges and top University of California campuses have declined. UC Berkeley, for example, admitted 29% of applicants in 2000, down from 39.9% five years earlier. Hoping to stand out, high-achieving students have swelled the enrollments of advanced classes, summer schools, and college programs that are open to high schoolers.

"To go to school and do well enough to get into a top college--it's become like a job," says Anne Foster-Keddie, the student body president at El Segundo High. "Except the hours are longer than most jobs."

In California, the state's soaring immigrant population is sometimes identified as a source of further anxiety, as upwardly mobile parents push their children to take advantage of the state's educational bounty. Says Alhambra High Principal Russell Lee-Sung: "There's an incredibly high expectation with some immigrant families: You are going to the very best college. End of discussion."

Fears are surfacing of fragile and burned out high achievers. Bright college freshmen arrive on campus as either "teacups"--sophisticated but overprotected; or "crispies"--superstars who cannot sustain their high school pace any longer, says Wendy Mogel, author of "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee," which is among the best-selling of a wave of new books about pressure.

"The teacups break because they literally don't know when to eat, and what to eat and when to sleep," says Mogel, a Los Angeles psychologist. "The crispies are so burned out that they've lost their intrinsic pleasure in learning."

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