A study shows that the separation into different types of secondary school puts great pressure on German students, who are no more than 10 years old at the time of the decision. And that's an especially vulnerable age.
A patient is telling her therapist about her problem: she can't fall asleep at night. And that's a big problem, because if she can't go to sleep by 10 pm at the latest, she knows she won't be able to perform the next day. This might not sound unusual for a young professional with a lot of expectations riding on her or for a manager with a boatload of responsibilities. But the patient in this case is a six-year-old girl.
Elena Grumann, stress management coach and relaxation expert, says that while the six-year-old is her youngest patient, she sees many children at elementary-school age.
"Elementary school students all over Germany are very stressed," Grumann said to DW. "That mustn't be underestimated - children might not be able to put a label on what they're feeling, but they're struggling with anger, fear, headaches, or with not being able to sleep."
A new study from the University of Würzburg has found that an alarming number of young students are experiencing high levels of stress toward the end of the four-year elementary school. In Germany, that's when a crucial decision for their further career path is made: which type of secondary school they will attend.
The three-tier school system
The school system in Germany is a state-run affair. That means each of the 16 German states can make its own decision on how they want to run things. What almost all of them have in common is the fact that after grade four, the students are separated into three different types of secondary school, based on their academic achievements.
There's the "Gymnasium," which in Germany isn't a place to lift weights or run laps, but to put your mind to work. Students who attend this equivalent of high school graduate after 12 years with a diploma that allows them to go on to university.
In Germany, the decision of which school to go and whether or not the path to university remains open comes very early in a student's life.
The "Realschule" is the middle way. Students here graduate after ten years. Classes often include fewer academic options, for example book-keeping instead of a second foreign language. The diploma students receive at this school grants them access to traineeships for many jobs that don't require a university degree.
The third school, which does not exist in all 16 states anymore, is the "Hauptschule" or "Mittelschule." Students there take more practical and vocational classes and graduate after either nine or 10 years. Some states decided to do away with this type, since graduates have a harder time finding a job.
Binding GPA vs. teacher recommendation
The researchers at the University of Würzburg have found that almost 50 percent of fourth-graders in the German state of Bavaria display heightened stress levels. In Bavaria, the binding decision of which secondary school a child will attend is based solely on the grade point average. In other states, teachers give non-binding recommendations based on a child's achievement, but the parents make the final decision.
"If the system is recommendation-based, like in the state of Hesse for example, the stress families experience is less pronounced," Heinz Reinders, professor of empirical education research and co-author of the study, told DW. "But if there is a binding GPA for the distribution to different types of secondary schools like in Bavaria, children and parents experience significantly higher levels of stress."
This sounds abstract, but it's important to remember what the findings of Reinders and his colleagues actually mean: Nine and ten-year-old children are worried or even scared about their performance in school in a phase of their lives when they should really be given room to develop freely.
Stressful vicious circle
"Stress and especially chronic stress puts a strain on children's development, especially at that age," Reinders said. "Ten-year-olds are in a vulnerable phase when it comes to their identity."
The researcher emphasized that continuous stress over the entire school year leading up to the secondary school decision could be really harmful to children. It's a vicious circle, said Reinders:
"Stress leads to negative emotions and negative emotions impair the ability to soak up knowledge and to learn things. And if that gets worse, the pressure increases, because the grades deteriorate."
Marlou Hundertmark, an elementary school teacher in northern Germany, is in favor of unconventional methods to break the stress cycle and to help take pressure off young students.
"You have many ways to help as a teacher," Hundertmark said to DW. "You can help these kids feel safer, for example by giving them vocabulary sheets before a test. Some would call that professional cheating, but if this is what the child needs, if otherwise, he feels like he's alone and failing, it's a good way to help. It's showing human empathy."
Move the separation back?
Another solution to the issue could be to move the decision on secondary school by two years. That's how it already works in Berlin and a number of other countries: children stay together until grade six. Heinz Reinders believes this is the right way to go.
"In other parts of the world, people shake their heads about the idea of separating students as early as grade four," the education researcher said. "In countries, like Finland and France, that only happens after the ninth or tenth grade. And the separation after grade four makes no sense, neither from the point of view of learning theory, nor in developmental psychology. For me, the case is clear: postpone the decision," says Reinders.