Easing the stress at pressure-cooker schools 

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Requiring students to conform to a narrow definition of success increases stress without improving learning. 

 

“I could add counselors all day, but it’s like adding lanes to a freeway. We need to know why there’s so much traffic.”
– A high school principal working with Challenge Success 

 

After analyzing five years of district records showing dramatic increases in the numbers of students requesting independent study due to medical needs, the principal at a suburban public high school shared his dismay with us:  

We have noticed that our students’ rate of chronic sadness, hopelessness, and seriously considering suicide on the California Healthy Kids Survey was increasing every year. Not only was it increasing but the rates were unacceptably high. We did internal surveys and determined that 75% of our students feel unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety. We have record numbers of students (needing independent study) for anxiety. We are interested in finding successful strategies to help our school, parents, and community address these issues. 

The principal came to us seeking help from our research and intervention program, Challenge Success, a nonprofit organization that partners with schools and communities to implement research-based strategies for school change that promote a broad definition of success that includes student well-being and engagement with learning. This principal’s sentiments are not unique. Rates of adolescent stress, anxiety, and self-harm are on the rise (Damour, 2019; Twenge et al., 2019), and the consequences have significant implications for how youth engage (or disengage) in school. Research into the adolescent student experience reveals numerous areas for policy and practice solutions that can lead to healthier outcomes. 

Surveying students 

In 2001, Denise Clark Pope shadowed five high-achieving high school students who willingly compromised their well-being and academic integrity to get ahead in school without putting much value on learning, a phenomenon she termed “doing school.” Her findings — presented in her 2001 book, Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Kids — resonated widely with educators, mental health professionals, and parents, who began to clamor for solutions. A small group of Stanford University faculty, staff, and graduate students came together to consider how to address these issues, and the result was the formation of Challenge Success. 

One resource developed by the organization is the Challenge Success-Stanford Student Survey, designed to help schools make decisions informed by research and data collected from students to improve student well-being and engagement with learning. The survey measures middle and high school students’ perspectives on homework, extracurricular activities and free time, sleep, physical health, school-related stress, parent expectations, academic engagement, academic integrity, and support and belonging at school. More than 175,000 middle and high school students from more than 200 mostly high-performing schools have taken the survey since 2007. 

The 8,223 middle and 35,596 high school students surveyed in fall 2018 and winter/spring 2019 confirm high rates of stress as well as adverse consequences in these high-pressure school contexts: Almost one-third (33%) of the middle school students missed school in the past month for a health or emotional problem, and the percentage was even higher (39%) for high school students. Almost half of middle school students (48%) and more than two-thirds (70%) of high school students reported experiencing exhaustion in the past month.  

Survey findings confirm also that, on average, the middle and high school students in our sample are not getting the recommended amount of sleep: The average for middle school students is 7.8 hours and for high school students 6.7 hours, well short of the 9-10 hours recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control, and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Many students (42% of students in middle school and 58% in high school) indicate that a lack of sleep is a major source of stress. 

The data speak to the ubiquity of student stress among the high-performing schools that seek out the Challenge Success interventions. During the 2018-19 school year, 29% to 72% of middle school students and 68% to 88% of high school students in each of the 54 schools that participated in the survey reported that they were often or always stressed by their schoolwork. While only 10% of middle school and 18% of high school students felt often or always stressed by their extracurricular activities, almost half (49%) of middle school students and three-quarters (75%) of high school students felt that way about their academics. In fact, when asked at the outset of the survey to describe their school, high school students were twice as likely to write a word or phrase coded as difficult or stressful than any other adjective. On average, we find that academic worry peaks in 11th grade. Adding to the concerning statistics are the numbers of students who report having little or no confidence in their ability to cope with stress — about 24% of middle school students and 30% of high school students. 

Causes and consequences of stress 

The nature and extent of the stress that students in our sample report is certainly different from the stress experienced by students in less well-resourced or high-performing school contexts; however, it remains concerning that such a large share of students in our sample are suffering, given the fact that their schools are often looked to as exemplars because of their students’ academic performance. Certainly, periodic stress can be healthy and even a sign of motivation. But chronic, unrelenting stress is a matter of serious concern. Consistent with earlier research (Conner, Pope, & Galloway, 2009; Conner & Pope, 2014; Galloway, Conner, & Pope, 2013), our data show that the more a student experiences school-related stress, the more often they report health problems. Across our survey, 68% of middle school and 83% of high school students report experiencing a health problem in the past month as a result of stress. 

As if health difficulties were not sufficient cause for alarm, we also find that the majority of students are “doing school,” working hard but rarely enjoying or finding value in their schoolwork, going through the motions in much the same way as the students in Pope’s original study. In our most recent sample from fall 2018 and spring 2019, about one-third (34%) of middle school students and almost half (49%) of high school students fit this category. And stress appears to be related to these low levels of student engagement in that students who are “doing school” report higher levels of academic stress than their more engaged counterparts. Because engagement is well established as a critical antecedent to learning (Early et al., 2016; Fredricks, Filsecker, & Lawson, 2016), these results raise questions about the extent to which students retain the information and ideas they are exposed to at school, even when they’re earning good grades. Taken together, these results paint a grim picture of adolescent well-being in some of our nation’s top-performing schools. 

At Challenge Success, we believe that narrow definitions of success underlie the stress students feel in pressure-cooker schools across the country, which, in turn, fuels mental health issues, self-harm, and cheating, among other unhealthy behaviors. When students believe that success depends on getting the grades and scores needed to get into the best colleges, students tend to focus on how well they perform, rather than how much they learn — and our student survey data confirm that assessments are a major source of stress. More than two-thirds (69%) of middle school students and more than three-quarters of high school students (79%) named grades, quizzes, tests, exams, and other assessments as the main reason for their stress. “Overall workload and homework” represent the next most commonly cited sources of stress, named by 58% of middle schoolers and 69% of high school respondents. Other top stressors include a lack of sleep (58% of high school students) and college or their future (58%) followed closely by college admissions. In fact, even at the middle school level, 29% of students report high school and college admissions or their future as a major cause of stress.  

As the recent “Operation Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal made clear, many parents and students will go to extreme lengths to gain admission to the most prestigious schools. In essence, childhoods are being mortgaged for a chance at attending particular colleges. Yet, research shows that where one attends college matters far less for future success than what one does in college (Challenge Success, 2018).  

What about other stressors? Peer and family relationships are conventionally understood as central sources of stress for adolescents, but family relationships and difficulties at home were flagged by only 14% of middle school and 23% of high school respondents in our survey, and peer relationships were flagged by 27% of middle school and 31% of high school respondents. Academic stressors seem to be affecting youth from high-performing schools at a higher rate than these relationships. As one student explains: “Our grades are what make up our future, and if you don’t get good grades you won’t get into a good college, and you won’t get a good job, and (you) will lead a miserable life.”  

Although it is unclear to what extent these findings are unique to the kinds of schools that work with Challenge Success, other research shows that students across the board see school as a source of stress. For example, in the American Psychological Association’s (2014) Stress in America Survey, teen stress rivals that of adults, and teens responding to that survey reported that their top sources of stress are school (83%), getting into a good college or deciding what to do after high school (69%), and financial concerns for their family (65%).  

Addressing student stress 

Fortunately, student stress and its corollaries are neither inevitable nor intractable. Schools can change their practices, policies, and cultures to reduce student stress and promote engagement, integrity, and well-being. The Challenge Success School Program, for example, brings together multi-stakeholder teams of administrators, teachers, students, counselors, and parents at a fall conference to identify what is happening in their school community. Teams learn to distinguish between a worrisome symptom (e.g., cheating) and what may be its root cause (e.g., excessive workload). From there, teams create a vision for change that reflects what they want for their school community and informs their action plan for revising practices and policies. Back on campus, the team meets throughout the year with the support of a Challenge Success coach to gather and disseminate information about student stress and well-being. Activities selected to suit the particular school context might include professional development to engage faculty in assessment and pedagogy, parent education to more fully include parents in the work, and efforts to collect data about the student experience. 

All group members’ voices and perspectives are vital to understanding the landscape, but it is especially important for teams to ground their inquiry in the students’ experience. To better understand how students feel, school teams are guided to implement a host of listening activities, such as fishbowl dialogue sessions in which students discuss particular issues in a circle while parents and educators observe from the outside without comment. In a fishbowl, students are able to communicate about their lives while adults learn how school and home policies and practices may affect the students. As one school administrator reported after a fishbowl, “The student energy was so positive. I’m not sure we’ve ever given students the power to have their voice heard. This is the first time we provided a safe, comfortable way.”  

Another popular data-gathering strategy is Shadow Days, in which faculty or administrators follow a student throughout the entire school day and receive students’ reports on their before- and after-school activities. A principal at one school expressed surprise at how exhausting it was to shift attention so dramatically between classes, while also managing social demands. He was stunned to learn that the student he shadowed started her day at 5:00 a.m. and ended at close to midnight. The educators at this school completed reflection logs that included questions such as, “What surprised you during the day?” and “Was it possible to go through the day and not have anyone talk to you?” (This last question related to social-emotional learning [SEL] work the school was doing.) Participants were surprised at how easy it was to go through a whole school day without having an adult acknowledge you. They also noted the low levels of engagement in some classes, the number of tests a student might have on the same day, and how much time students spend sitting each day. The team used this information as they contemplated schedule changes, including revising an advisory program and encouraging faculty to create a common exam calendar. 

Many Challenge Success schools ask students to anonymously complete the sentence “I wish my parents knew . . . ” or “I wish my teachers knew . . .” This prompt often produces profound insights into students’ experiences and hopes. Responses to one such campaign for 9th graders included expressions of exhaustion, stress, pressure, the need for downtime, the need to be appreciated, and the recognition of how different school is for them compared to their parents (see sidebar on opposite page).  

Centering conversations on students’ experiences can go a long way toward addressing the rising stress levels reported by adolescents. Another important way to improve student well-being is to actively promote students themselves as change makers. Empowering students to share the work through assemblies, student clubs, and as participants with equal voice on school change teams helps to ensure more meaningful and effective shifts in school culture. During the 2018-19 school year, teams with strong student leaders moved further in their action plans than those merely paying lip service to including students. At one Challenge Success school, for example, the student members of the team organized the Shadow Days and then presented the results to the entire faculty as they considered piloting changes to the homework policy. After hearing from students and seeing data from their colleagues who shadowed students, the faculty unanimously voted to institute the new homework policy instead of the more cautious piloted version. 

Schools also incorporate data from the Challenge Success Student Survey to develop responsive action plans and to implement changes. In one section of the survey, students evaluate a list of possible changes their school could make, rating each on how effectively it would reduce stress and improve student engagement and well-being. Although the level of support for particular reforms varies from school to school, some changes consistently receive widespread endorsement from students, and we believe these will reduce unhealthy levels of stress and its consequences in most schools. These include establishing more opportunities to interact with teachers or receive academic support, eliminating homework on weekends and over breaks, reducing the homework load, having teachers coordinate due dates for major projects and assessments, creating more time in school for students to work on homework and projects, and instituting a later school start time. Many of the recommendations discussed here are further outlined in the book Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids (Pope, Brown, & Miles, 2015).  

A call to action 

Certainly, each school needs to go through its own process to determine the solutions that will best address its unique concerns; however, we believe students themselves have important ideas about how their schools could better support them. We need only to ask them about what is and isn’t working in their school and how the learning environment could better support their optimal learning and development.  

While some of the data from the surveys and activities at Challenge Success schools paint a worrisome picture of rising student stress and disengagement, we have strong evidence to suggest that when schools and families listen to the voices and concerns of youth, and when they partner with them to bring about change, they can counter these trends and help students live more balanced and academically fulfilling lives.  

References 

American Psychological Association. (2014). Stress in America: Are teens adopting adults’ stress habits? Washington, DC: Author. 

Challenge Success. (2018). A “fit” over rankings: Why college engagement matters more than selectivity. Stanford, CA: Author. 

Conner, J.O. & Pope, D.C. (2014). Student engagement in high-performing schools: Relationships to mental and physical health. In D. Shernoff & J. Bempenchat (Eds.), NSSE yearbook: Engaging youth in schools: Evidence-based models to guide future innovations. New York, NY: Teachers College Record. 

Conner, J.O., Pope, D.C., & Galloway, M.K. (2009). Success with less stress. Educational Leadership, 67 (4), 54-58.  

Damour, L. (2019). Under pressure: Confronting the epidemic of stress and anxiety in girls. New York, NY: Penguin Random House. 

Early, D.M., Berg, J.K., Alicea, S., Si, Y., Aber, J.L., Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2016). The impact of every classroom, every day on high school student achievement: Results from a school-randomized trial. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 9 (1), 3-29. 

Fredricks, J.A., Filsecker, M., & Lawson, M.A. (2016). Student engagement, context, and adjustment: Addressing definitional, measurement, and methodological issues. Learning and Instruction, 43, 1-4. 

Galloway, M.K., Conner, J.O., & Pope D.C. (2013). Nonacademic effects of homework in privileged, high-performing high schools. Journal of Experimental Education, 81, 490-510. 

Pope, D.C. (2001). Doing school: How we are creating a generation of stressed-out, materialistic, and mis-educated kids. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 

Pope, D.C., Brown, M., & Miles, S. (2015). Overloaded and underprepared: Strategies for stronger schools and healthy, successful kids. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

Twenge, J., Cooper, A.B., Joiner, T.E., & Binau, S. (2019). Age, period, and cohort trends in mood disorder indicators and suicide-related outcomes in a nationally representative dataset, 2005–2017. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 128 (3), 185-199. 

 

Citation: Villeneuve, J.C., Conner, J.O., Selby, S., and Pope, D.C. (2019, Oct. 28). Easing the stress at pressure-cooker schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 101 (3), 15-19.

JENNIFER CURRY VILLENEUVE (Jvilleneuve@challengesuccess.org) is a senior research and evaluation associate at Challenge Success, Stanford, CA. 
JERUSHA O. CONNER (jerusha.conner@villanova.edu) is an associate professor of education, Villanova University, Villanova, PA, and the author of the forthcoming book The New Student Activists (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020). 
SAMANTHA SELBY (Sselby@challengesuccess.org ) is a research associate at Challenge Success.
DENISE CLARK POPE (DPope@stanford.edu) is cofounder of Challenge Success and senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.  

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