August 2, 2023
Jennifer Wallace, author of Never Enough, shares her thoughts on the culture of mattering and achievement culture in our schools. Join us for the 2023 SAIS Annual Conference in Atlanta to hear Jennifer deliver the Tuesday keynote address, Mattering: The Key to Protecting Mental Health & Wellbeing.
As an introduction, how did you come to write this book and why is this work important to you?
In 2019, I wrote an article for The Washington Post citing two national policy reports that found students attending what researchers call “high-achieving schools” — public and private schools with high standardized test scores and rich extracurricular and academic offerings— are experiencing higher rates of behavioral and mental health problems compared with national norms.
A report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine added youths in “high achieving schools” to their list of “at-risk” groups, along with kids living in poverty and foster care, recent immigrants, and those with incarcerated parents. A separate report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation came to a similar conclusion when it named the top environmental conditions harming adolescent wellness — among them were poverty, trauma, discrimination and “excessive pressure to excel.”
As a journalist and parent of three teenagers, I felt compelled to find out more. So, for three years, I traveled to communities across the country – meeting families, educators, researchers, economists, psychologists, and sociologists to understand why achievement culture is more prominent and toxic than ever. I also found educators, parents, and communities that were fighting back with grassroots approaches to protecting student mental health.
You conducted years of research in writing this book. Can you tell us a little about what you found?
In my exploration, I went in search of kids who were thriving despite the pressures of our achievement culture. What buffers do they have in their lives to cope with stress? What did their parents focus on at home? What was school like for them? What if anything do these healthy strivers have in common?
It turns out, they have a lot in common. I detail it all in my book. But, in short, it boils down to this:
The kids I met who were thriving emotionally and academically had a deep sense that they were valued by their parents, schools, and larger community. They felt like they mattered.
What is your definition of mattering? What does this look like in our schools?
Mattering is the deep human need we all have to feel significant, seen, and valued by those around us. Since the 1980s, a growing body of research finds that mattering – the feeling that we are valued and have an opportunity to add value to others – is key to positive mental health and thriving in adolescence and beyond. On the other hand, a lack of mattering uniquely predicts depression, suicidal thoughts, and other mental ills, while high levels of mattering predict good mental health and resilience.
Mattering was first conceptualized in the 1980s by the legendary Morris Rosenberg, who developed the concept of self-esteem. When adolescents know that they are loved and valued for who they are at their core, they enjoy a kind of protective shield that buffers against the stress and anxiety in their environment.
When we feel like we matter at school, we are more likely to participate in positive, healthy ways. We are more likely to be kind and empathic to peers. We are also more likely to achieve and less likely to fear failure. For my research, I visited schools that focused on mattering: they celebrated hidden talents so that every student felt seen; they matched students’ strengths with genuine needs in their school communities; they made sure each and every student had an adult at the school who they knew they mattered to. These schools put mattering front and center and their students’ mental health benefited.
What is oversimplified about this issue?
People are quick to blame parents for this pressure. But achievement pressure is bigger than any one family, any one school, and any one community.
While parents have always been responsible for launching the next generation, this responsibility has never felt so fraught. Parents sense fewer and fewer guarantees for their children. They have absorbed macroeconomic pressures in our environment (steep inequality, crush of the middle class, globalization) and have become “social conduits,” as researchers call it, socializing our kids for the extreme inequality and hypercompetition that awaits them in adulthood.
When do we start seeing the effects of achievement culture in our children and what can schools do to combat this?
Researchers who study this population find that signs begin to emerge around 7th grade, when children may become excessively focused on status, success, and social comparisons. In my travels to schools around the country, I met educators who pushed back against our culture’s hypercompetition and zero-sum thinking – that idea that someone else’s gain is your loss.
These adults – be they parents, coaches, or teachers – encouraged kids to root for their classmates, to sacrifice for the greater good of the team, to help their friends, and learn how to ask for help in return, and to confront and manage the uncomfortable feelings, like envy, that arise from competing with peers. Instead of encouraging a competitive, independent mindset, these adults fostered in children a healthy, interdependent mindset – one that encourages kids to rely on others in healthy ways and allow others to rely on them.
How can schools better educate both students and families in understanding and creating a culture of mattering?
Educators understand how important psychological safety is for students’ mental health and ability to learn. Mattering – feeling valued for who you are at your core – is the basis of psychological safety. A school culture that puts mattering front and center, that delivers on mattering for each and every student, offers both a protective shield and also a kind of healthy fuel that enables students to learn deeply, to contribute meaningfully, and to have the sturdy confidence to go out into the world and make it a better place.
What makes the concept of “mattering” so compelling is how modifiable and amenable to change it is. For tools on how to bring mattering to your school and families, please visit TheMatteringMovement.com, a nonprofit I co-founded with colleagues and leading researchers in the field to give parents and educators the tools they need to build cultures of mattering.
Lastly, what’s the question that nobody’s asking right now?
We know about the mental health struggles of our youth, but what about the adults in their lives: their parents, teachers, coaches? How does the mental health and wellbeing of a students’ community impact their mental health?
Jennifer Wallace is an award-winning journalist and author of the book Never Enough: When Achievement Pressure Becomes Toxic – and What We Can Do About It. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post and appears on national television to discuss her articles and relevant topics in the news. After graduating from Harvard College, Jennifer began her journalism career at CBS 60 Minutes where she was part of a team that won The Robert F. Kennedy Awards for Excellence in Journalism. She is a journalism fellow at The Center for Parent and Teen Communication at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.