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Fall 2016

Too Much on Their Plates

In her new book, Overloaded and Underprepared, Denise Pope, Ed.M.’89, and her colleagues at the Challenge Success project at Stanford University, spell out something that seems especially important these days: Our fast-paced, high-pressure culture is working against kids being able to develop in a healthy, happy way. Just reading the sample high school student’s breakneck schedule, printed on page 1 of the book’s introduction, is enough to cause stress. This is especially true with teens from elite high schools, as Pope noticed after writing her first book on stressed-out kids. These kids, she says, “were getting in to high-achieving universities, and they didn’t have the coping skills to handle the workload and the stress of the transition to college. The health centers were struggling to keep up with the large number of kids suffering from depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation.”

But as Pope and her co-authors show in this new book, there are many simple strategies that can be taken to combat this. One example is making sure that all stakeholders in any student’s life — teachers, coaches, parents, even the student — know the importance of something Pope calls pdf: playtime, downtime, and family time.

“We looked at the research for protective factors for kids — those things that every kid needs in order to thrive physically, mentally, and academically — and we boiled them down to three main categories for well-being,” the authors write, which led to their mantra: “Every kid needs PDF every day.”

What is PDF?


Play, they write, is the work of kids. It’s not just running around and yelling. Play helps kids solve problems, negotiate with others, and develop self-regulation skills. It can include unstructured activities like digging holes in the backyard or structured activities like joining a soccer team. For older kids, it can even include time hanging out with friends.

HOW TO HELP: Parents shouldn’t overschedule their kids (or let high school students spend more than 15–20 hours a week on extracurriculars) and should let kids have more choice in their activities. Schools should build in more play time for all ages, especially just before intense moments, such as midterms.


Running from activity to activity can be exhausting. Kids need downtime — time not focused on structured play or academics, but time to do basically nothing. This includes listening to music, watching television, or taking a walk. It also includes sleep, something kids, especially older kids, don’t get enough of.

HOW TO HELP: Parents should enforce bedtimes and remove social media lures like smartphones from bedrooms at night. They should resist telling kids to “do something” when they’re lounging, seemingly doing nothing. This time allows kids to unwind and in turn become more productive. Schools should add in longer break periods and set aside classtime for reflection.


It’s important for students and the adults in their lives to know that family time is a “significant protective factor,” the authors point out, and results in positive mental health and fewer at-risk behaviors for young people.

HOW TO HELP: Parents can make even simple things like family dinners a priority. Family rituals and traditions, like Friday night pizza or regular walks in the neighborhood with the dog, are also important to develop and keep up. Teachers should limit homework assignments over vacations and holidays and assign a few family-based projects over the course of the year like researching your family tree.


Illustrations by Laurent Cilluffo