Full PreFrontal

Ep. 90: Prof. Suniya Luthar - When Having It All Doesn’t Translate Into Having It Easy

October 07, 2019 Sucheta Kamath Season 1 Episode 90
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 90: Prof. Suniya Luthar - When Having It All Doesn’t Translate Into Having It Easy
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 90: Prof. Suniya Luthar - When Having It All Doesn’t Translate Into Having It Easy
Oct 07, 2019 Season 1 Episode 90
Sucheta Kamath

Americans were never that concerned about the issues of educating children until it dawned on everybody that children are in fact “economically useless, but emotionally priceless” as described by Viviana A. Zelizer. Since then, being over-consumed by current competition and future career success, well-educated upper-middle class affluent families, schools and communities are caught up in ensuring their children’s success, rather than preparing them for life.

On today’s podcast, our guest Suniya S. Luthar, Foundation Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University and Professor Emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College returns to obliterate the counterintuitive notion that privilege wipes away any liability. Her focus in this episode is school culture and how it can bring awareness to the social, psychological, and emotional risks that exist in these communities.

About Professor Suniya Luthar
Suniya S. Luthar is Foundation Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University, and Professor Emerita, Columbia University’s Teachers College.  Her research has involved understanding pathways to resilience in diverse populations, and developing interventions to address these.


Support the show (https://mailchi.mp/7c848462e96f/full-prefrontal-sign-up)

Show Notes Transcript

Americans were never that concerned about the issues of educating children until it dawned on everybody that children are in fact “economically useless, but emotionally priceless” as described by Viviana A. Zelizer. Since then, being over-consumed by current competition and future career success, well-educated upper-middle class affluent families, schools and communities are caught up in ensuring their children’s success, rather than preparing them for life.

On today’s podcast, our guest Suniya S. Luthar, Foundation Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University and Professor Emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College returns to obliterate the counterintuitive notion that privilege wipes away any liability. Her focus in this episode is school culture and how it can bring awareness to the social, psychological, and emotional risks that exist in these communities.

About Professor Suniya Luthar
Suniya S. Luthar is Foundation Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University, and Professor Emerita, Columbia University’s Teachers College.  Her research has involved understanding pathways to resilience in diverse populations, and developing interventions to address these.


Support the show (https://mailchi.mp/7c848462e96f/full-prefrontal-sign-up)

Producer: Alright, welcome back to Full PreFrontal where we are exposing the mysteries of executive functioning. I am here again with our host, Sucheta Kamath.

Good morning, my friend. We had the distinct pleasure of chatting with our next guest last week, and I’m so, so looking forward to your follow-up conversation today.

Sucheta Kamath: Yes, indeed! We have done this before, but lately, we were having our guests at once in one interview, but this conversation just turned out to be so exceptional in terms of the scope and the depth that we need to touch upon that she graciously has accepted. That is Dr. Suniya Luthar.

So, before we get started with the conversation, I was just thinking about Viviana Zelizar who is a professor of Sociology at Princeton University and she wrote a remarkable book called Pricing the Priceless Child: the Changing Social Value of Children. It’s a fascinating book, a little bit of a thick read, but I enjoyed it and it just reminded me as we are talking about this, in this book, she describes that when children who once worked as laborers and contributed to the economy were removed from that space, their value in the marketplace shifted radically and they became the focus of everybody’s attention, and she coined this phrase which is brilliant, which is “economically useless but emotionally priceless,” which captures this phenomenon really well, and now, almost close to 100 years when that began to happen in American economy, particularly, this economically useless, emotionally fragile and priceless only up to a point until their achievement is tested is what today’s conversation is.

So, the reason to have Dr. Luthar back to continue our conversation is last time, we ended up with this idea that the current student growing up in affluence is enduring a lot of pressure: pressure from parents, schools, coaches, peers, eventually from self. This high pressure to take the most challenging classes, to do activities that express their [2:34], to pad up their resume, achieve the highest grade, and eventually, ultimately, to get admitted into the best colleges which seems to be the MO of most parents which results in this kind of pressure, but the question really we didn’t get into was, what is the role of schools and what roles and responsibilities do they have in this growing epidemic of socioemotional and behavioral disturbances that a lot of students are experiencing?

And that’s why we are having Dr. Suniya Luthar. She is a foundation professor of psychology at Arizona State University and professor emeritus of Columbia University’s Teachers College. Her research has involved understanding pathways to resilience in diverse population and developing interventions to address these, a mother of two grown children herself. As she mentioned to us last time, her recent scientific study focus has been on motherhood, studies aim to eliminate what best helps women negotiate the challenges of this life-transforming role and to apply these insights into interventions toward fostering their resilience.

So, Dr. Luthar, welcome to the podcast again.

Dr. Suniya Luthar: Thank you so much, thank you for having me.

Sucheta: So, let’s start by understanding the school culture and school performance. How do you define high-achieving schools?

Suniya: So, high-achieving schools are those with good standardized test scores, let’s say in the 75th – perhaps 75th percentile upwards, rich extracurricular offerings, a lot of honors and advanced academic offerings, and students head into some of the most selective colleges and universities, so it’s the kind of schools that white-collar professional educated parents pretty much all aspire to have their children go to.

Sucheta: Got it, so when you talk about this particular group, are they achieving so well because they have some special gifts or the way the program is, what is making the schools attain this high success?

Suniya: I would say that – we mentioned this demographic of relatively well-educated white-collar professional parents, just by virtue of their socioeconomic status, they are able to choose – they have some level of choice about where their kids go to school, so what tends to happen is that these parents do tend to self-select around schools known to have a good trajectory or record, so that it perpetuate itself, and so segregation of the relatively talented and high-performing kids in a particular community, whether that is in an independent private school or in a public school in a suburb, for example.

Sucheta: And as you mentioned, I think highly educated parents have the linguistic competence and their environments in which the kids grow up is rich with exposure and often practices that promote highly academic skill sets that then allow you to learn even faster and better, I guess.

Suniya: Well, that’s absolutely correct, it’s not just what’s happening at school but it’s very much what’s happening at home, both in terms of the conversations that happen and I would imagine to some degree, the role models that parents are in terms of in many instances, working very, very hard at jobs that may be high-paying in lucrative but at the same time quite demanding.

Sucheta: You have done incredible work or research in this area. What evidence did you gather about these high-achieving schools and what does it show us about the student body at this school and are girls and boys equally or identically affected by this cultural exposure?

Suniya: So, one of the things that in the last maybe three or four years we’ve moved towards, Sucheta, is not using the term “affluence” or at least avoiding it as far as possible in referring to the kids who we study and instead talking about high-achieving schools, so over the last 20 years, the schools we had been in are all in this high-achieving range. That does not mean that every child who is at every one of these schools is necessarily affluent.

So, the common denominator really is being at a school where this is a community norm; children are expected to reach a certain level of academic accomplishments and extracurricular accomplishments, and so on. So, what have we learned? That being at this kind of school tends to be associated with significantly higher levels of symptoms, especially anxiety, depression, and substance use as compared to kids in, let’s say in the American population, generally, let’s say more middle-class, less wealthy families, and sometimes, these kids who are in these very high-achieving schools even report higher levels of symptoms as compared to their counterparts in inner-city settings and in poverty.

So, you have this odd juxtaposition where you see a table of 14 schools and you list their mean SAT scores and the percentiles along with them, you see them, as I said, ranging from 75 to 98th percentile, and then next to that, you see, alright, what are the grades of [7:55] significant anxiety, for example, as compared to norms and you will see numbers ranging from two and three times national norms to as much as 14 times national norms. So, the data are now converging to the point that we have last month, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine issued a report called Vibrant and Healthy Kids. It’s about trying to ensure equity and maximizing the well-being of kids of all backgrounds. High-achieving schools are now listed in that category of kids about whom we should be most concerned, included with children who have been separated from their parents in foster care or incarcerated parents are now kids in high-achieving schools, so the acronym is now being used as a real thing, it’s a group that is officially at risk.

Sucheta: That is terrifying, my God, to say the least because when you talk about at-high risk, that means it’s not the immediate consequences of next to one or two years, it’s a trajectory of lifetime progression of well-being, correct?

Suniya: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So, one of the studies that is cited in the National Academies’ report is a longitudinal study that spans several decades, so in this report from the National Academies, there is a study cited that spans several decades, I think it’s about a 50-year longitudinal study and the results of this study were that kids who are from high-achieving schools actually did more poorly many, many years, decades later as compared to kids who are also affluent but from middle achieving schools. This raises a very interesting question for parents, say if you do have the means to send your child to a school where pretty much everybody is achieving at high levels, is that where you choose to go or according to at least this one longitudinal study, the authors ask this question: might it make more sense to be at a school where there is a greater range – not everybody is a top performer? And if you stop and think about it, there is some logic to at least raising this question. The authors talk about, so why would this happen? Why would the high-achieving schools [10:18] this kind of unhappiness or poor performance? And the answer lies in social comparisons. So, essentially, what the kids are faced with is trying to be as good as or better than a group where everybody is outstanding which naturally puts everybody in a state of some doubt over how am I going to keep up with this race? As opposed to a setting where some are outstanding, some are middle, and some are not so great on X or Y front and it’s okay, there’s room for everybody here.

So, it’s a fascinating question and I think parents are going to start to have to grapple with the more we see that these levels of anxiety, depression and substance use, addiction are consistently elevated across these schools, whether they are they schools or boarding schools, independent or public, suburbs, cities, different parts of the country – every school we have been in, pretty much, we’ve seen elevations in one or more areas of adolescence adjustment.

Sucheta: This is so fascinating to me, and thank you for doing this kind of work because all our lives, we are striving to offer our children the best opportunities and any parent and every parent will agree with that statement, right? And then, when we talk about this particular group who has now taken this job so seriously that the opportunities they consider are really important and critical for the future are really the reason that can create such personal well-being crises. Do you mind commenting a little bit – you hit upon this which social comparison is at the heart of it, but why only these types of socioemotional problems? They are only specifically narrowed down with anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. It doesn’t talk about other types of mental disturbances. Any wisdom, any observations about that?

Suniya: Actually, there are other types as well, Sucheta. There are delinquency, rule breaking, cheating – these are also areas in which our kids, and I use that term as advice [12:21] because these are kinds of schools that certainly, my children went to and I imagine yours were, so it is not restricted just to anxiety. These are the areas – anxiety, depression, because these are the most directly linked to feeling a sense of stress and pressure all the time, but this pressure and stress also sometimes comes out as acting out behaviors, and we work hard, we play hard, and that is the ecstasy and [12:47] in addition to binge drinking and smoking weed, and vaping. So, it really does span the gamut. I use those as examples, but it really does span the gamut, the kinds of areas of disturbance in which our children are vulnerable.

Sucheta: So, when did this really become such a problem for all of us? When did culture become this way? Do you have any theory about its relationship to capitalism?

Suniya: Yes, so capitalism may be one thing, Sucheta, but two things have happened in the last 20 years, which is we started this work in the late 1990s and have just seen this problem escalated – if anything, it’s not getting better in terms of rates of problems, so two things have happened. Probably, the biggest one is social media and Snapchat and Facebook, so that makes the opportunities to compare yourself pretty much nonstop, right? And the second thing is globalization which has resulted again in more competition for positions for jobs than used to be the case, and even if you look at something like college applications, this skyrocketed, the numbers to the most competitive schools as compared to when certainly, I applied to graduate school.

So, the competition is truly that much higher, maintaining your parents’ standard of living is in fact going to be a lot more difficult for children this generation than it was for us. So, the reality is, between social media, globalization and what people call the squeeze of the middle class, I think parents and therefore, children and therefore, parents, families are experiencing this sense of great worry, sometimes panic – unless you are at that very top level, you still are going to be left behind.

Sucheta: So, capitalism in terms of consumerism, like why do you want this wealth? Why do you want this position and power? Why do parents want their child to go to the best schools which last time we talked about is to get the best jobs but eventually, isn’t that because the best job will give you the most financial freedom to choose to do whatever you want?

Sucheta: Once again, an interesting question. See, you and I might think of it as you have enough money but when you talk to young people these days or even parents, the notion of what is enough is very much in question. I even talk to my students and say, “Unless I get to X and Y which is pretty much the top ranks of making money, I’m not sure I’ll be able to support a family.” I’ll give you an example. Someone said to me that, “If I were working as a schoolteacher, I don’t know that I could live in this neighborhood and send my kids to college – whatever college.” So, this mindset lies not by being rich; it’s really about saying that if I want to have a good middle-class lifestyle, good health insurance, send my kids to college, we are going to need two salaries and they have to be pretty high-paying. Otherwise, this is not going to happen.

Now, I don’t know the degree to which this is actually true, but what I can tell you is, especially among college-educated parents, parents who want their kids to go to college, this is a mindset that unless you get into these more selective places, this is not going to happen, so just like we used to say that you need a college degree – a high school degree is not going to be enough – to make it in life. The stakes have gone up, the standards have gone up.

Sucheta: That makes complete sense. It is such a complicated matter but you really brought this big picture into focus. Your idea of the globalization also adding some crisis there reminded me of Jonathan Friedman’s book, The World Is Flat where he says, “When I was growing up, my mother used to say, ‘Eat your broccoli, a child in Africa is going hungry,’ ” but he said, “Now, I say to my children, ‘Do your homework, a kid in India will take your job.’ ”

Suniya: That’s true, now, we have to [16:36].

Sucheta: Exactly! No, no, you’re absolutely right. Thank you for zooming into discuss that because I, coming up from India, I was really concerned about this sense of satisfaction, and it was hilarious, I recently saw this Netflix documentary, it’s called Happiness, and then they interviewed this young man on the streets of New York City and they asked, “What are you looking for in life?” And he says, “Happiness,” and right followed by that, he said, “And lots of money.” So, yes, I think you’re right. I think it’s not clear as to what really will be adequate to survive, it’s not even people trying to live a very lavish life. That makes complete sense.

Suniya: Right, I think there is a related thing that comes to mind as you are speaking, Sucheta, which is that all parents want the best they can possibly provide for their kids. Is that a fair statement? We all want to do the best we can, absolutely, so now for those of us who had the very good fortune of having good education – I mean, I was very fortunate to go to Yale University, I had a wonderful mentor, Edward Zigler, that, I learn skills that I would not have gotten had I remained where I was. So, there is an understandable, I believe, desire among parents to say at the very least, I would love this my children could have the kind of educational opportunities that I did. So, it’s not all about money necessarily. There’s also, I think, as I said, very reasonable and understandable desire that it’s not excessive necessarily, there is a hope but it’s not [18:06] necessarily, I guess, is what I’m saying.

Sucheta: Yes, yes. So then, what are the challenges of children growing up in lower socioeconomic strata and are their struggles bigger, equal, different?

Suniya: So, kids in rural social economic stratas, in poverty conditions or relative poverty, obviously, for them, the whole issue of just plain survival is large, whether it’s because of violence on the streets or lack of healthcare or adequate housing, so just physical survival is such a huge thing. Getting into a community college or a local college or finishing high school, the level of panic around that, I think, may be a little less. In fact, there’s a lot of research that has suggested that sometimes, kids in these inner-city cities believe that what they are learning in school may not affect their overall life trajectories, may not be the ticket to doing well in life because of many other things, like oppression and discrimination, what have you.

So, there are the very real challenges on that end of the socioeconomic spectrum which is about survival and interestingly, when you come up to the opposite end, the feelings are again akin to survival of the fittest where kids who are in the same class are looking at each other and saying, “Well, there’s only one or two or three of us who’s going to make it to X or Y college. Which one of us is it going to be? Who’s going to be [19:38]?”

Sucheta: So, this is a little unrelated question but do we have any data that talks about the dropouts and their life trajectory, whether they come from one socioeconomic strata or the other, like in a sense, people cannot keep up with the pressure or do not have the skill set to manage to keep up with the learning, and then they eventually become dropouts, are they experiencing greater crisis of survival or managing their life? It’s a weird question.

Suniya: It’s not a weird question, it’s a very reasonable question and there are – I’m not sure [20:13] but there are very compelling and disturbing data on the incidence of serious mental health problems on college campuses. So, kids are able to make that huge hurdle and jump and get into college but then what happens? At home, you have this infrastructure of your parents and your health and perhaps even mental health care, and you are in this new environment where you wanted to be where academic expectations are pretty high, courses are tough, but now, you are on your own to manage your life, and I think it can be pretty frightening, intimidating, and if you come in already feeling pressured and burned out, that is not a good place to start your ostensive college.

So, dropout is one way of thinking about that, but just looking at study after study after study talking about serious mental health issues in college campuses, overuse of counseling centers, not to mention what does not get reported which is the levels of serious drug addiction and yes, dropouts, and yes, unfortunately and tragically, self-harm.

Sucheta: So, when does this – again, I’m going slightly on a tangent, but is there any policy? I think what you’re really here to talk about is what can schools do, but ultimately, I think this can only be effective if it’s also a policy, right, or not really?

Suniya: No, no, no. I think it can be effective as a policy. I think I may have said this to you last time, when people ask me, so where is this pressure coming from for these kids? The answer really is, it’s coming from everywhere. It’s coming from parents, coaches, teachers – and you mentioned that, but when you look at universities at the top level and what kids believe it really makes a difference in terms of them getting accepted or not is not really true. What I mean by that is the sheer number of very talented outstanding applicants has become so large that after a point, it really is a bit random who gets in and who does not. It could be something like oh, we need more people from a certain state or we need a goalie in soccer or someone with the debate team. So, kids don’t understand that. They tend to feel like if I can make a difference of 0.02% in my GPA, then that will make the difference in my getting in.

Where am I going with this? My colleague Barry Schwartz who is a [22:38] wrote this brilliant essay a while ago and he still stands by it, as do I and a couple of other people including Natasha White who is saying that after a certain level of excellence has been reached by your applicants to a lottery system, pick out from a hat, so what you’re saying is essentially what actually tends to happen in most admissions committees where you have about 15 to 20, 30 times the number of applications, of good applications, right? So, if you say take a cut off, say we want the top 5% and from that, you pick and let it be known that we are all at universities, we are all doing this lottery, if everybody did that, that I think kids would feel a lot less pressured and a lot less pushed to do that constant striving to make that 0.02% whether it’s not a particular course or in the next extracurricular activity,

Sucheta: But I’m afraid that the endowment economy, there may be an incredible amount of pressure from the board to take those who provide money. Have you seen any success or do you know of any success that people have, colleges have adopted this suggestion?

Suniya: No. Unfortunately, put in thought more than once, but the truth of the matter is until we as a society become aware of the extent and degree towards which this is taking a toll on our kids, if the adults don’t get it, the universities are not going to change or the impetus is not there. Stated differently, the more data we accumulate in these schools about these kids and about the very frightening levels of serious problems among them, parents, I do believe, are beginning to say, “We would rather focus on being at a school, at least the kids with [24:31] where there is a real investment in the psychosocial well-being of kids, not just ticking the box, but a real investment in that on top of, in addition to the very high academic and extracurricular standards.

So, it may not have started happening at the university level, probably has not, but at least, we are beginning to see a sensitization among parents and among educators in these schools saying, “This could no longer go ignored.” Responsibly, we need to pay attention as much to how our kids are doing on these dimensions of anxiety, depression, substance use, rule breaking, and feelings of belongingness at school. We have to pay attention to that, and there are parents who are, as I said, are very [25:16]. It’s like yeah, if it’s one outstanding academic record versus a very promising but not quite as outstanding, but they do have this attention to the whole child. Yes, we are going to go to the whole child’s perspective.

Sucheta: Got it, got it. Wow, so much work lies ahead of us, but at least you have set the stage with your research, so that is a great start.

So, going back to this idea of high-achieving schools, is there a timeframe in the development of these young learners from these high-achieving schools when they begin to demonstrate adjustment difficulties, and when do the schools truly begin to acknowledge that this is a serious problem and it needs some serious intervention?

 Suniya: Yeah, so when we first started doing this work, the impression was that these problems didn’t start emerging until kids reached adolescence or puberty and started questioning their identity and where am I going in life? That does not seem to be the case anymore. When I go to schools and talk about the findings of our research, commonly, I will have parents and educators say, “Well, we are seeing this among our second graders and third graders.” A crippling level of anxiety.

So, how do you stop this? The way we work with the schools is, go and assess the students of a school, and then come back with data on that school to that community. You see, what happens is if you and I are talking and saying, Sucheta, this is generally true of the high-achieving schools and this is probably true of the schools that your kids attended, yeah, yeah, it does not hit home in quite the same way as it does when I say, “Alright, that slide up there is on kids who are at your school right now,” and here, we are seeing that four out of 10 of those kids are saying that they are feeling depressed to the point of serious clinical concern.

Having data like that, these are kids sitting around my kitchen table, this hits home, and that is when communities really start to take notice, to try and make a difference, and then start not just at the high school level and the middle school level, but taking it all the way down to elementary school. As an example, we worked with Wilton, Connecticut a year or so ago, and based on our results, there has been all kinds of changes. I was actually on NPR’s Morning Edition with Allison Aubrey, a little feature.

Sucheta: I heard you.

Suniya: So, the wonderful thing is that as scary as all these data are, they have the potential to initiate this kind of change, and because this is a very discerning audience, right? These parents, most of them are educated and say, “Well, how do I know this is true?”  You need that level of scientific rigor to say, yup, this is how the research is done, here is how it’s analyzed, here is how I can tell you these are the top three issues you need to be worrying about in Wilton, Connecticut as opposed to any other town or suburbs, or a city of a similar demographic.

So, what happened in Wilton was, they got their data, they came together and they’ve got a series of initiatives going in their community, one of which is about playing in elementary school and ensuring that kids have their recess time that is appropriate time in the day.

Sucheta: Amazing.

Suniya: So, you see the problems at the high school level and middle school level, bring it back to communities in their own schools, and then you get the engagement even off the little pre-k and the kindergarten parents saying, “Alright, we are seeing what’s going on, what lies ahead, and we would like to get engaged early on.”

Sucheta: So, I want to back up slightly so that people get a clearer picture about this, so when you talk about children as young as that second and third graders, what you are describing is it is not an academic difficulty necessarily yet because the academic demand is not that high, but the demand of performance is insidious in the air, so to speak. So, what I see often is these are the kids who are unwilling to take learning risks. They become withdrawn, they hold back their engagement, they often appear disengaged or inattentive, but they don’t have ADHD. Do you mean that kind of disengagement you begin to see?

Suniya: Well, it’s beyond disengagement. Actual stress and anxiety and this is what people are describing, that kids are anxious at that age – how old is a second grader? Seven, eight? At that age, these kids are talking about will this affect my record to get into college? Which is just outrageous. It just boggles my mind. It’s not just academics. We go to the [29:51], we talked about play in Wilton, think about what play means for these kids now. It is so structured after school activities, athletics, you go have travel teams of age 8 and nine and the whole community shows up to watch, and then say, “Oh, he really wasn’t on his game so she didn’t do so well today,” so what you and I had was leisure, things that we played, ride our bikes and played in the cul-de-sacs, nobody watching except for kids. Here, this is a huge audience.

Sucheta: Yes.

Suniya: That’s a lot of pressure.

Sucheta: It’s so funny you said that. I went to a little gathering two weeks ago and I know this family and they have two daughters and the older daughter was about to enter ninth grade, so she was telling me that the parents had switched her from public school to a private school, and of course, a highly reputable private school, I’m very familiar with the school, and in the five minutes, Suniya, that I spent with her, she told me how she has kind of pinpointed one person in the class who is potentially going to be a valedictorian in 12th grade and he is the real competition, and then she said, the other person who is also a competition but really not because he sucks in math. I mean, I couldn’t believe. The school has not even started and the parents have laid out this expectation that we are looking at a valedictorian type of behavior and we are sending you to private school. I mean, when does this conversation begin, somewhere way earlier, right? It didn’t start the summer of high school.

Suniya: Absolutely. One more thing, Sucheta, the example you gave that is so disturbing to me. It’s disturbing at so many levels, but I do want to get back to the notion of competition among these kids. If you and I are competing for the same grant, right, or the same honorific whatever, we are not going to be able to be best friends, right? It’s going to be between us. Now, think about it, adolescence is a time when closeness of friends is very, very important as kids are beginning to separate from their parents individually from the families, somewhat. Put that on the one side, this is a development stage but the closeness of friends is important and along with this, you’re competing with the people with whom you need to be close. So, this jeopardizing of a factor of a set of processes which is intimacy, closeness, support, and peer relationships, this is jeopardizing even all that in the way the system has been set up right now. It is very disturbing, this competition, and then to answer your question about where does this start, it does go back, right, to the early years and unconscious even in myself when my son, he was in – I guess when he was at priSuniya school, elementary school, and you know how they have reading tracks, the advanced reading and those not-so-advanced reading, the normal – I forget what they call it, and I wasn’t sure. I think he came and said, “I’m not sure if I’m on the advanced reading track,” and I said, “That’s fine,” but there was something about my tone of voice or how I said it that had stayed with me. I said, “I don’t think I really meant that’s fine, son.” I mean, there was some hint of how come? If I’m really going to be honest with myself.

Now, the fact that I checked myself, and then when he was seven and with my daughter too all along and I have checked myself all the way a lot because I know these issues, I study them, I understand them, I think to the degree that we can be attached with this and be watchful for what messages we are conveying to our parents, certainly and directly, that can go along way, especially when you start early on. You know what, high expectations are good. High standards are good, high aspirations are good, but know when to back off, know when that is walking into a feeling of pressure that is unsustainable, it cannot be lived with, and above all, know that your child must know that he or she is loved for the person, not for the splendor of their accomplishments. That above all, we need to be inculcating in our children all the way along.

So, being a valedictorian [34:05] that happens, I’m so happy for you, I’m so proud of you, but it’s you that I love, it’s you that I love.

Sucheta: I love it. I hope you write a book about that. I know you have written a textbook which I have and I am waiting for your Who’s Your Mother’s Mommy? I’m waiting for that book. That’s coming, right, soon?

Suniya: Yeah, it’s sort of the beginning in the works, yeah, yeah.

Sucheta: Please, but you need to really write a book for serious considerations about education. What are you calling education and what are you really preparing when you send your children to school? I think this message, oh, it’s so serious, and I know your plate is full, but I’m hoping you’ll get to it. Again, people’s attention span is so short that they kind of understand but they really don’t want to dive deep because it’s painful but also requires a lot of reflection.

Suniya: You’re right, Sucheta, I mean, one way of doing it is writing a book which I hope I will get to, but the other [35:03] which was something that I’m very much entrenched in is continuing to work collaboratively with these schools, so for example, the National Association of Independent Schools, last year, we had a collaborative project with them where they subsidized eight private schools essentially to do the survey with us and basically, when I went back and presented the data and identified the areas of more trouble and where they were doing well, and above all, the top three areas are parent-child relationships, peer relationships, school climate where each school individually would be to pay attention. I started this with one school in the northeast community and gradually, it’s gone to a point where it is at a level – well, this National Association of Independent Schools has said yes, we get it and this needs to be done with scientific rigor. So –

Sucheta: Sorry, can you trackback a little bit and tell everybody about the survey that you have created and your foundation as well, and how is it delivered and how is it conducted?

Suniya: So, we have what’s called the high-achieving school survey. It’s basically a survey that is based on 25 years of research that I mentioned before that I started and have continued over the years. What we do is, a core set of questions about areas of adjustment and mental health and well-being, it’s a well-being index. In addition to that, there are measures of children’s feelings about different aspects of those relationships which resilience research has sent. It’s the single most important thing with kids doing well, is having close relationships, so we have measures of relationships of a mom and dad, with peers at school, with teachers, and overall feelings about school climate. Then, what we do, Sucheta, we have those data and we analyze them, what’s called regressions, to pinpoint within each of these the top one or two things. You see, the top one and two things at each school – so, I could give you 25 things, and we measured 25, 30 things, so when you look at all of this, I could come back and say it’s important that there is closeness to mom or low alienation from dad, or criticism or more. I could give you any of 25 things, but we need to do and what we do in our work is for each school, is tail it to that data. We look at the data and look at where their kids are, saying, “Alright, here are your [37:27].”

Sucheta: Fantastic.

Suniya: “Here are your topics.” Think about it, when you go to see a position and you know that there is a risk or something, there’s no generic piece of advice that you did today. [37:36] exercise, eat well. You want something more focused and pinpointed and that’s what we do with our survey. It’s that authentic connectionsgroups.org and there is a page there for the high-achieving school survey, but that describes how we do this and communicate it in a very user-friendly way to the school, so there’s a dashboard where they can basically pick endpoint and see is it the ninth graders who are [38:04] for both or even ninth-grade goals, or is that the foreign students in the 11th grade? So, that level of specificity, they are able to see based on the data, these are the subgroups about whom we should be the most concerned that we should be the most attentive, and these are the issues, and guess what, they are all changeable. It does not have to tell you, well, X and Y thing that is out of your control, so for example, discrimination in society. These are things that are aspects of parent-child relationships, peer relationships, school that are under the potential control or at least can be moved by school administrators and parent communities working together.

Sucheta: Fabulous! So, that brings us to the end question which is, you just kind of touched up on these interventions which are tailored and personalized based on the entire school as an entity and how it behaves, and how safe or secure, or ready to learn that children feel in this context, what you are suggesting is the problem is certainly complex, but one needs a dual approach, one needs to work on reducing the pressure without lowering expectations, and sounds like the second thing is to heighten, which you talked last time, is connectivity which is socioemotional connection that one feels which elevates well-being, right? So, can you just take these three points that you talked about and give us some how-tos about that, like overall feeling about the school climate, parent-child relationship, and then peer relationship, is the third one, right?

Suniya: Yeah, yeah. So, first thing is to get a health check, get an assessment of well-being, number one, so you see how you’re doing. That then points to areas within which your particular school might, as I said, have to pay more attention, and the one central message, whether it’s peers or teachers, or parents , Sucheta, this [39:58], bad is stronger than good. In other words, in general, what you want to ensure is that kids are not feeling alienated, criticized, left out, rejected by any of these significant people in their lives, so to the degree possible, minimize the bad relationships and bolster the good. Beyond that, as I said, the data gave us, in one school, it’s parent community involvement. In another, it’s an issue of vanity, use the data to tailor this intervention more precisely to the individual school communities.

Sucheta: Got it. So, this idea that bad is stronger than good, that means children who don’t feel that they have this sense of connection are likely to do worse than those who do feel connected?

Suniya: Well, I was saying that if I say unkind words to you, the power of those unkind negative words, harsh words, tend to be stronger on your well-being than the power of good words. So, things like feeling rejected or people are bullying you, or mom is mean to you or teachers are unkind to you, these are things – unkindness needs to be minimized at all cost, at all levels, that is what I’m trying to say, and beyond [41:07] unkindness, of course, trying to build a positive support of loving authentic relationships. The kids with each other, kids with the grownups, and critically, the adults with each other.

Sucheta: So, do you have any specific observation about a method or program how to get people to minimize their unkindness? Because I’m kind of, as you said, the nasty outcome of competing with those that you are with and you are learning together, but you happen to compete with them.

Suniya: There needs to be an impetus to even open this conversation up, right? And what I have found often times when we are presenting this data, just seeing how disturbing the data are about your own community allows people, grownups to have these conversations. As an example, well, one of the last schools I was at, when I was talking to the leaders of the community which included administrators and community health providers and so on and town people and council people. So, there were things that had gone on amongst them that were unkind. They were not acknowledged, and having this conversation brought it all out in the open.

Alright, there is too much at stake here. Look at how much our kids are hurting. These data allow for that conversation to be open and it has progressed to some degree. Is it hard? Yes. It’s like divorce is hard or a families fight is hard, but if kids are feeling that they are caught up in this level of tension where communities, parents and teachers, and educators are at odds with each other, that is very destructive and once again, having the data has helped in or mostly in several places, just opening up areas of profound tension where the kids are feeling among adults in their communities.

Sucheta: Wow, and I wonder how much of that is also seen on the sports at school, like on the playground or where the coaches are running their business, there’s a lot of belief that pull yourself by the bootstraps, we won’t be tolerating mediocre performance, so sometimes, harsh language is used and that creates a culture of highly demanding, non-transparent about your emotions. Do you see that, do you address them as well?

Suniya: Absolutely, and in fact, this is another very good example of a private school where the school head’s daughter was on this basketball team and the coach was one of those in-your-face yelling to the point of humiliating the girls when they didn’t do whatever was required or expected. Now, the head of the school is in an awkward position, as she said, felt awkward about confronting the coach and saying, “Could you tone it down?” because she was the boss of the college but she’s also [43:49] parent. So, on the one hand, I can understand the reluctance to say anything publicly. On the other hand, when we talked about it some more, I said, when you realize what’s happening, all these parents are saying, but the head of the school is sitting here and she’s letting the school [44:04], so it must be okay.

Sucheta: Suniya, you are incredible. Do you have any comments as we close our interview? I think you have really given us a great framework but also solutions that work, and everything that you’re talking about is backed by research which is very assuring because we know it’s reputable and it has validity. So, any closing thoughts?

Suniya: Yeah, my closing thoughts are let us look at this very seriously. This is a generation of kids that are hurting very profoundly, paradoxically, those who seem to “have it all” are now in a group that are most at-risk. Let us take a look at this, let us assess our schools, let us come together in collaborative ways, supportive ways in facing this very difficult realities. We can make a difference. We have seen it happen, we can make a difference, let’s do it.

Sucheta: Thank you for being at heart a psychologist and ending with kindness and always a message of hope. So, thank you, Suniya, for coming back and really bestowing this wisdom upon us and I look forward to your book and I am going to send a lot of links here, so people can explore particularly your nonprofit work and resources you have created for all of us. Thank you.

Suniya: I’m very grateful to have been in on your show, Sucheta, thank you so much.

Producer: Alright, well, as we suspected, Sucheta, yet another great conversation with Suniya. Unfortunately, all the time we have for today. If you know of someone who might benefit from listening to today’s conversation, we would be grateful if you would kindly forward it directly to them, so on behalf of our host Sucheta Kamath, today’s guest, Suniya Luthar, and all of us at Cerebral Matters, thanks for listening today and we look forward to seeing you again right here next week on Full PreFrontal.