Testing creating crisis in student mental health

standardized-testsI am sharing this letter from Joyce Feilke, a school counselor in Austin,Texas. Joyce reached out to PURE with this powerful letter, which she has sent to two Texas state legislators. Joyce has a Masters in Counseling and Psychology from the University of North Texas, and has been a school counselor since 1980.

We are asking other mental health professionals to speak out similarly on behalf of our children whose mental, social and emotional health is at serious risk due to the corporate reform scourges of school closings, high-stakes testing, and other so-called reforms.  Please share Joyce’s letter, and help us reach out to more child development and mental health professionals for more testimony, letters, research, and other resources. Parents especially need to know more about what is being done to our children in the name of school reform.



Dear Senator Kirk Watson, Educators, & Medical Professionals,

I am writing to request your help in changing our current school obsession with testing. I believe the impact it is having on the mental health of the younger children in Texas has reached a level of crisis. I think we need an Education Task Force for crisis intervention.

For the past 30 years, I have worked as a counselor in some of the best schools in Texas, most recently in Austin ISD and in Lewisville ISD prior to that. I have had ongoing professional development in all areas of childhood mental health issues. I have also served as 504 Coordinator and Gifted & Talented Advocate in AISD. I have many years of expertise in recognizing early symptoms of childhood social/emotional disorders. Counselors are in the schools for that purpose, to identify needs early and help get intervention in place before it progresses. Most mental illnesses have their roots in childhood before the age of 14.

What I have observed in the schools over the past 30 years has led me to write this letter and advocate for a Texas Task Force for Education. I believe we have reached a level of crisis.

The gradual changes that I have observed during my 30 year career could be compared to the science experiment of putting a frog in tepid water, then gradually turning up the heat: we have now reached the critical level, and we recognize that the frog is not going to jump out.

My professional opinion of the overall school environment throughout Texas is that it has reached a level of Institutional abuse that is harmful to our children’s mental health. I believe we can call it psychological abuse and neglect.

These are some of my observations:

The current test obsessed environment in Texas schools has become rigid, boring, inflexible, data driven, and unemotional. There is a deficit of empathy and compassion for children’s social/emotional needs. There is professional ignorance about the impact this is having on young children’s mental health.

The primary emphasis is on PERFORMANCE and intellectual development, with a total lack of social/emotional development.

The Testing Obsession creates ongoing stress that diminishes the creative and imaginative spirit of the teachers. Teachers and administrators have become robotic and scripted. They have lost spontaneity and imagination and creativity just as the children have.

Administrators have become narcissistic and obsessive. They measure their personal success on their school’s test performance, while the children’s distress and soaring diagnosis of anxiety related disorders and depression either goes totally unnoticed, or is blamed on a dysfunctional family.

Administrators have learned to play the “504” game, where any student who performs below acceptable on practice tests is recommended to see their physician for ADHD evaluation and medication, then the medicated child can FOCUS better and get into the 504 Program.

FOCUS means sitting in a desk for 6 hours a day without physical activity except for a 30 minute lunch and 15 minute recess. This often includes after school tutoring until 4:30 for more test drill as well as boring homework. Another name for FOCUS is TORTURE.

TORTURE: In addition to sitting still at a desk for 6 hours, it includes eating bad processed food in the cafeteria, breathing poor quality, stale, germ-infested air in a closed up building, and shutting down any inspirational thoughts of imagination, creativity or humor. It means becoming a robot: loss of spontaneity and imaginative play, depersonalization, dissociation are our obvious clues. These symptoms, which are now so apparent to those of us who recognize mental illness early, are sending up the red flags of distress.

Diagnosed disorders in young children are increasing at alarming rates, and not just in Texas. One school district has reported a 260% increase in the number of young children diagnosed with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). ADHD, Anxiety Disorders, Depression, Mood Disorders, Conduct Disorders, and learning disorders all fall under that umbrella as well.

An ADHD diagnosis will allow a child to have special 504 accommodations and extended time on the STAAR test. I have observed that many of the clinics in east Austin that cater to the lower socio economic families will give a diagnosis of ADHD upon parent request. Many administrators think ADHD medications are steroids for the brain. They do not see that children as young as kindergarten 5 year olds being unnecessarily medicated may contribute to a life long dependency or addiction.

The current system is not preparing our children to be socially and emotionally healthy. Those are the two primary areas of development that will determine their future success more than any thing else, including performance on tests and ability to sit for long hours bubbling answer sheets as objects for data collection.

Young children’s bodies are supposed to be moving more than sitting. They need time for imaginative play and sensory activities. They need unstructured time to allow their curiosity and creativity to blossom and their imagination to develop. They need opportunities to sing, and dance, and play a musical instrument, and laugh, and have fun with learning. They need to be inspired. However, the school environment for young children has become a paradox. We are doing the exact opposite of everything that research tells us is healthy for young children !

What is now taking place in our schools is a form of PSYCHOLOGICAL EROSION.

It diminishes the spirit of a child.

Our 2nd graders have two consecutive days of 4 hour tests to help build “test stamina” for the 3rd grade test. This is in addition to year long daily timed drills in math which only seem to increase the anxiety and stress, and help with the dumbing down process and the fear of failure which now hangs over each child like impending doom.

This is what is happening throughout our schools. Instead of social and emotional growth, we are seeing emotional regression, dissociation and constriction. Their social/emotional health is being sacrificed for exclusive intellectual development which is being measured obsessively.

Harvard Health predicts that by the year 2020, the greatest challenge to the health care system in America will be Depression. They are shining a light on our current crop of elementary school age children.

We could almost make a flow chart to show the process of psychological erosion in our schools:

As in all cases of abuse, it begins and continues with CONTROL:

K-1: Children are over controlled with rigid scheduling and curriculum.

2-3: Children are bored and become anxious and fearful and signs of ADHD.

4-5: Children become more bored, anxious, fearful, angry, depressed and/or aggressive (most serious bullying starts here).

By middle school, these early onset symptoms increase into more destructive or self destructive behaviors along with their hormone changes and peer pressure.

Our young children are exhibiting signs of emotional abuse and neglect. Their symptoms are universally ignored. They are not being inspired to use their imagination and develop their true self. They have lost spontaneity, imaginative play, and humor.

Continued boredom progresses to frustration, continued frustration progresses to repressed anger, continued repressed anger progresses to depression (inward) or aggression (outward). The most frustrated and anxiety disordered children are those with higher intelligence. They are unconsciously suffering ongoing grief for the tragic loss of their gifts which diminish with each passing day. Their anger has the potential to reach a Sandy Hook or Columbine level of aggression.

Could we speculate and ask some questions?

Why has there been such a dramatic increase in ASD (formerly Asperger)? 1 out of 54 boys and 1 out of 88 girls and 50% undiagnosed.

Why has there been such an increase among young children in all the related secondary disorders that go with ASD? Anxiety, Depression, ADHD, eating disorders, Mood Disorders/Bipolar, Learning disorders, self harming behaviors.

Why do we have ongoing increase in childhood obesity and diabetes?

Why do school crisis such as Columbine and Sandy Hook seem to result from intelligent students whose social/emotional needs were neglected? If it is torture for an average student to sit through 6 hours of boring, rigid, test obsessed curriculum, consider the frustration of an intellectually gifted student.

The schools might argue and say, “We have programs for social/emotional learning. We have programs for Gifted & Talented.” That is simply window dressing.

Our children are being used for collecting data, for enhancing the financial gains of testing companies, for STAAR trophy banners hanging on school buildings. Our children are smart. They know they are being used, abused, and neglected, and they have a right to be angry.

They are NOT being given a safe haven, a place where their social and emotional development can be nurtured, and where they can be inspired to love learning, to develop their imagination and their own great ideas, and be accepted and valued for their unique self instead of a test score.

While families have been more stressed as a result of the ongoing economic woes and social stress in general, our schools should have been there to provide even more emotional support for the children. It has been the opposite: More stress at home, more stress at school.

Several years ago when I was a counselor at Marcus High School in Flower Mound, we had regional meetings with Plano ISD to study the high suicide rate. At that time Plano was called the “teenage suicide capitol of the world”. The most significant facts that came from those meetings, other than the sensationalism, was that the a large percentage of students in that region were trying to live up to high expectations (school & family), but were lacking in emotional support (high mobility, professional working parents, large school population, lack of extended family and social isolation and other emotional support networks were not there for them). That same depersonalization is epidemic among our young school population now.

I believe our elementary school environment is helping to create the perfect storm to bring about Harvard Health’s dire prediction for 2020: Depression will be our greatest challenge to health.

When a child’s mental health becomes secondary to an institutional need for performance recognition, academic rigor, politics, professional ignorance, professional narcissism, and denial, then it has failed in its most critical mission. Our most precious resource, our children’s health, is rapidly becoming an ecological nightmare in Texas, and probably across the nation. .

Our “industrial schools” have become to education the equivalent of what “industrial chicken or pig farms” have to food. Money, politics, greed, ignorance, and denial will continue to diminish the health of our children until we make some dramatic changes.

We need Crisis Intervention now! We need an Education Task Force made up of people who understand the problem and have the means to make changes. We need to look at the model from Emilo Reggio Village in Italy after WWII when their children had suffered trauma from the war. They realized that in order to preserve their most precious resource, they needed to create schools that nurtured the children’s social and emotional health. Our young children are exhibiting the those same symptoms of PTSD, but it is more damaging because it is betrayal trauma from authorities they should be able to trust. It is ongoing traumatic grief from the loss of their greatest childhood gifts: spontaneity, imagination, humor, and security.

For young children, this feels hopeless.


Joyce Murdock Feilke, Counselor
Blackshear Elementary School
1712 E.11th St
Austin, Texas 78702


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About the PURE Thoughts blogger
Julie Woestehoff is PURE's executive director. Julie's work has earned her a Ford Foundation award and recognition as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Chicago.