September 13, 2021 11:07 am
As a child, and even when I was older, I hated the busyness of school. I have no memory of ever wanting to be in class for just one day, not even once, from kindergarten to when I left college after the first year. That abandonment was like receiving pardon from the governor.
Of course I’m not that special, there are so many unhappy children at school. School is undoubtedly a good thing for most children, but unless your daughter has a bizarre passion for the social sciences, it is useless to tell her that “education stimulates subjective well-being outcomes in the long run.” . What spoils that experience for so many children, as it has been for me, is the fact that school today is a place where you feel lonely and bored.
Looking through the research on learning and happiness, we discover that children’s feelings about school do not so much have to do with age, ethnicity or socioeconomic background, but with two basic factors: friendship and interest. Fortunately, by knowing a little of both, we can improve the lives of all students who have recently returned to school dumbly or tremble at the thought of having to do it in the next few days.
When it comes to long-term well-being, few inventions increase happiness more than education. Using data from adults from 85 countries, Austrian researcher Erich Striessnig found in 2015 that people who had completed secondary education were 10 percent more likely to report being happy than those who had not completed secondary education. higher, in comparable income conditions. Having finished college, on the other hand, increased happiness by 30 percent.
One possible explanation for these conclusions is that learning stimulates a powerful underlying positive emotion: interest. Carroll Izard, a researcher in the field of emotions, defines interest as “the main motivation behind involvement in creative and constructive enterprises and the sense of well-being”. Put simply, exposing people to ideas and means of acquiring knowledge gives them the tools to produce happiness throughout their life. No wonder, then, that reading, which adults try to make children love, has been found to increase life satisfaction.
For many children, school is not only tiring, but also deeply lonely
However, the attitudes of children when they are in school do not reflect the enormous benefits in terms of happiness they will have later on. According to research conducted in 2020 on a sample of more than 21,000 high school students in the United States, the two most common feelings experienced at school are stress (79.8 percent) and boredom (69.5 percent). . Some expressed positive emotions such as pride and joy, but overall nearly 75 percent of spontaneously stated feelings about school were negative.
It would be easy to liquidate this imbalance by reading it as a version of the cicada and ant dilemma, according to which an effort that is boring at the moment leads to great results in the future. But I think there is more. For many children, school is not only tiring, but also deeply lonely. Research shows that 80 percent of children sometimes feel lonely in school. This emotion is linked to boredom, inactivity, a tendency to take refuge in fantasy and a passive attitude towards social interactions. To say that loneliness can suppress any interest in school is not an exaggeration.
Conversely, friendship at school is by far the main indicator of contentment and positive behavior. The Gallup Institute found that having a close friend at school is the best indicator of school engagement, for both fifth-graders and third-graders alike. Similarly, research from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the University of Warwick and the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that students with “mutual friendships” (in which both people involved perceive the relationship equally) are more likely to love. school and being more successful in the classroom.
A common force that foments loneliness at school has in fact always existed. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 20.2 percent of US students aged 12 to 18 report being bullied. Much research has clearly linked traditional bullying and cyberbullying with social anxiety and depression. Bullying could also lead to problems with academic achievement, children’s desire to do well in school and absenteeism.
In recent months, students have had to face another factor of isolation: the interruptions in face-to-face teaching due to the pandemic, which have had catastrophic effects on loneliness in children. A 2020 survey conducted by Common sense media found that 42 percent of teens feel “more lonely than normal.” The same study shows that “nearly one in four teenagers (24 percent) say they connect with teachers less than once a week”. Like so many other parents, I saw it myself with my own eyes. My daughter in the last year and a half of high school was bored and “alone as a cloud,” in Wordsworth’s words, and didn’t even feel like attending the graduation ceremony.
If we want to help children derive happiness from education in the short and long term, we need to invest more resources in facilitating friendship, which tends to solve both loneliness and boredom. There is a lot of research and practical resources on this to make it easier for students to make friends.
When it comes to loneliness and well-being, remote social interactions are an inadequate substitute for those in presence
Adults who want to make school a happier place can take sensible action against cliques and bullying, which destroys children’s morale. Studies show that programs to prevent bullying at school can reduce the problem by around 20 percent. Adults shouldn’t be passive, hoping that the problem will resolve itself. At the basis of all effective interventions are the awareness that the problem exists and direct intervention.
Students also need more opportunities to make friends in person. Studies show that, when it comes to loneliness and well-being, remote social interactions are a dramatically inadequate substitute for those in presence. If adults do not find a way to keep schools open as we continue to fight the pandemic, children’s suffering will worsen (as my colleague Joshua D. Coval demonstrates in his research, in many cases the reopening of schools is hampered by political reasons rather than health concerns). Even before the pandemic, however, among students, screens and smartphones – the use of which is negatively associated with the ability to make friends – took away space for in-person interactions.
Making friends can be a challenge at any age. Recent studies using new AI-based methods offer helpful advice to children (and adults) eager to get directions. The data says that social appreciation (noticing and pointing out the good things people do) and imitation (like laughing with others) are great ways to start building relationships. But a computer doesn’t need to tell us, because we can find the same lesson repeated thousands of times in all cultures. There are also many resources that explain it to us in particularly easy ways, from religious texts and rites to the 1936 classic by Dale Carnegie. How to treat others and make friends, which contains 37 common sense lessons for treating others with dignity, respect and even love. Teaching these lessons in school could help children love her more as well.
I am not saying that I have unilaterally solved the problem of children who do not like school. As long as they have to (or have to, if you’re a student) to get up early, sit for hours in a row and do their homework, school won’t be all plain sailing. Even those who love to learn will find things unpleasant.
But these are small problems compared to those that really destroy the pleasure of school. With more friendships, students will experience more joy and interest and will turn their unhappiness into a minor annoyance. Thus everyone will be ready to reap the long-term benefits of education in terms of happiness.
(Translation by Giusy Muzzopappa)
This article was published on the Atlantic website.