When I first started teaching 8 years ago, I started the year excited to meet all my students. One student was curiously absent, however, and remained so for a long time. Eventually, her counselor told me that she would be slowly returning to school — coming in a day here and there and taking some time off due to an anxiety disorder she developed over the summer. This anxiety disorder had to do specifically with school and the pressures she faced. She was afraid to go back to school and face the pressures, thus making the work pile up and making her even more anxious about her impending return to school. As teachers, of course, we worked with her until she felt capable of staying the whole day and doing all of her work, but it was a lengthy process.
Since that first year, I have had at least one student each year, sometimes more, who suffers from severe anxiety or depression. This isn’t a surprise, either. Anxiety rates are on the rise in teenagers, and a new poll done by NPR shows that a lot of that anxiety has to do stressors at school. Here are five examples of stressors that are negatively affecting students’ health, and some tips on how to deal with them.
The Need To Do Everything Perfectly
Students, especially those who are in higher level classes and involved in many extracurricular activities, often end up thinking that if they give anything less than their very best all of the time then they are a failure. As teachers and parents, we drill into their heads that we expect our students to do their best all of the time, and some students really take that to heart.
While that may not seem like a bad thing — of course we want our students putting forth their best effort — asking a teenager to “do their best” can often translate into “be the best.” This means that, in every subject, even ones they know they will not study after high school, they must rise to the top rather than selecting a few things to focus on and be good at.
We can help students with this by encouraging them to explore classes that interest them and will benefit them in their future careers rather than telling them that no college will want them unless they ace four years of every core subject. That’s simply not true!
The Quest for Valedictorian
As part of their poll, NPR interviewed several students who were experiencing high-stress situations in school. One of them was Nora Huynh, who collapsed in a mess of sobbing when she got her report card and found that she didn’t have a perfect 4.0 GPA. With all of her friends taking high-level classes, many of which offer students the opportunity to earn 5 points on a 4-point scale for their extra effort, and earning above a 4.0 GPA, she felt like she had failed in some way.
While her mother was surprised at her reaction, Nora’s sobs are not uncommon among high-achieving students. As stated above, they want to be the best of the best, and that means having the highest GPA. Parents and teachers need to continually remind students that having a high GPA is nice, but being the valedictorian means very little in the world after high school. It’s certainly not something worth sacrificing your mental health for.
An Overload of High-Level Classes
Most students who are in one honors or Advanced Placement class are often in others. Many schools design this on purpose. AP English, for example, often works cross-curricularly with AP History. This helps students make connections and, ultimately, do better on their AP exams at the end of the school year, which can help them earn college credit. However, since these are two high-demand classes, (and since students in those two classes are probably in other higher level classes, as well) the workload can be very stressful for teenagers.
In fact, according to NPR, 24% of parents said that homework stress was a major issue for their students. This can add another layer of stress to high schoolers’ loads. Parents and teachers in this situation should focus on helping students prioritize and organize their schedules. If they know a paper is due in a week but they have the night off of their sport practice tonight, they should work on that paper while they have the chance instead of waiting until the last minute. Time management is a great skill that can reduce a student’s stress level quite a bit.
Social Pressure and Bullying
The stereotype of the glasses-clad nerd on the playground getting picked on by the cool guys and being told to do their homework for them is a stereotype for a reason. Often times, it’s true. By the time these so-called “nerds” get to high school, then, they are sick of the social isolation that comes with being the smart kid at school. This means that, often, they will succumb to social pressures.
When they find like-minded students in their classes in high school, the lure of friendship is so strong that students will often prioritize their friends over their schoolwork. Granted, time with friends can be a great stress release for students, and we should encourage it, but when that time with friends encroaches on studying that should be done and students are up until all hours of the night (or morning) texting their friends or studying after hanging out with their friends for too long, that can add more stress.
Parents and teachers, while they should encourage students to foster their newfound friendships, should also continually remind students of time management skills and help students work together when appropriate.
Over-Committed and Over-Extended
Students who put a lot of pressure on themselves are also often over-committed and over-extended when it comes to their lives outside of the classroom. Aside from fostering friendships, these students are also dating, volunteering, playing sports, acting in the school plays, serving as a teacher’s aid, and doing any number of other things. They do this because they want these things to look good on their college applications, but also because they have many interests they want to foster.
Parents and teachers should encourage students to participate in extracurricular activities, but should also help students cut back during their sports seasons. When they are playing their sport, for example, they might have to give up another club. This can help them reduce the amount of stress they have every day.
Photo Credit: Steven S.