Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Easing the Stress at Pressure-Cooker Schools: Requiring Students to Conform to a Narrow Definition of Success Increases Stress without Improving Learning

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Easing the Stress at Pressure-Cooker Schools: Requiring Students to Conform to a Narrow Definition of Success Increases Stress without Improving Learning

Article excerpt

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. …

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