’Intellectual arms race’ harming students, psychologist warns

A “slow school’’ transformation of education is needed as overworked and overwhelmed students and teachers struggle with stress, a psychology expert has warned.

Nicholas Van Dam, inaugural director of Melbourne University’s Contemplative Studies Centre, said students could benefit from the same “slow’’ movement popular with food and fashion.

Schools were locked in an “intellectual arms race’’ to cram more lessons into the school day, he said. “We’re asking too much of our children and expecting them to manage adult-level stressors and navigate adult schedules.

“There’s pressure on kids to excel in maths and athletics and performance arts, so they spend the whole day at school under pressure, then are taken to after-school activities and are dragged to events on the weekend.

“Kids are very good at stopping and pausing and looking and wondering and exploring things – but we’ve taken the space to do that away from them.’’

The call comes as governments prepare to force schools to measure and improve student wellbeing amid an alarming rise in anxiety, depression and self-harm among children.

Dr Van Dam, an associate professor in the Melbourne School of Psychological Science, said teachers should not be left to manage students’ mental health.

“It’s not their job to manage mental health problems among school kids,’’ he said. “We need more qualified psychologists in schools but there just aren’t enough.’’

Children and teenagers needed time to imagine and daydream, Dr Van Dam, who has a PhD in clinical psychology and postdoctoral fellowships in psychiatry, clinical neuroscience and psychiatric neuroimaging, said.

“Not allowing the mind to wander can interfere with creative thinking, creativity and understanding abstract ideas,’’ he said. “It gives kids time to absorb what they’re being taught, and connect it to other things.’’

Some “mindfulness’’ programs used in schools could do more harm than good, as they could trigger trauma and add to an already overcrowded curriculum, he said.

A study of 8376 British students aged 11 to 14 – half of them taught mindfulness by teachers trained in the method across 84 schools – found it had little effect on student wellbeing or depression a year later.

Education Editor
Natasha Bita is a multi-award winning journalist with a focus on free speech, education, social affairs, aged care, health policy, immigration, industrial relations and consumer law.  She has won a Walkley Awar...