Sources of Stress for Students in High School College Preparatory and General Education Programs: Group Differences and Associations with Adjustment

By Suldo, Shannon M.; Shaunessy, Elizabeth et al. | Adolescence, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Sources of Stress for Students in High School College Preparatory and General Education Programs: Group Differences and Associations with Adjustment


Suldo, Shannon M., Shaunessy, Elizabeth, Thalji, Amanda, Michalowski, Jessica, Shaffer, Emily, Adolescence


Early adolescence is considered a tumultuous developmental period due to the psychological, social, and physical changes that adolescents experience as they go through puberty and increase independent living skills (Steinberg & Sheffield Morris, 2001). The transition to high school requires them to interact with a new and larger peer group and manage greater academic expectations. For students enrolled in rigorous academic programs, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) High School Diploma Program, the amount of stress perceived during adolescence may be even greater compared to that of students enrolled in general education programs (Suldo, Shaunessy, & Hardesty, 2008). What is unknown is (a) the particular environmental stressors experienced at a greater level by IB students, and (b) the extent to which elevated experiences of stressors are related to diminished functioning. This study intends to identify IB students' primary sources of stress and specific categories of stressors that may be particularly related to adjustment.

Relationship between Stress and Psychological Adjustment During Adolescence

During the adolescent period children may be particularly vulnerable to stress, especially when exacerbated by the use of ineffective coping strategies, which may ultimately result in mental health problems (Compas, Orosan, & Grant, 1993; Edgar, Arlett, & Groves, 2003). Stress has been explained from a variety of frameworks, including medical, psychological, and environmental models (McNamara, 2000). The medical model defines stress as an individual's state of distress in response to an environmental factor that threatens homeostasis. Increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and the presence of hormones and neurotransmitters within the body are associated as physiological responses to stress (Goldstein & Kopin, 2007). The psychological model offers a transactional or ecological view, which includes interactions between environmental stressors, one's cognitive appraisal of stressors, and internal physiological responses to events. The environmental model focuses exclusively on the first of these three components; this model describes stress as external "to an organism, and includes threats of immediate harm or aversive environmental conditions. Checklists of events associated with putting strain on the individual (i.e., stress inventories) assess this type of stress.

Specific environments, such as rigorous college preparatory high school academic programs, may be perceived as particularly stressful. One increasingly popular college preparatory curriculum is the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program, which is currently established in approximately 2,217 schools in 125 countries (International Baccalaureate Organization, 2008). Throughout high school, students enrolled in the IB curriculum are engaged in community service, research, and challenging courses. Research comparing students in IB programs to students in general education programs identified differences in mean levels of stress between these groups, such that students in IB reported higher levels of perceived stress (i.e., psychological stress) compared to students in the general education curriculum (Suldo et al., 2008). One purpose of the current study is to determine the specific stressors that IB students experience at a higher level than typical high school students.

Sources of Stress in High School

Adolescents experience normative stressors, non-normative stressors, and daily hassles as sources of stress. Normative stressors include developmental challenges of adolescence, including puberty, school transition, and increased academic pressure (Isakson & Jarvis, 1999). Non-normative stressful life events include divorce and deaths. Lastly, daily hassles include minor events that are chronic, such as parent-child conflict and academic requirements (Sim, 2000), that when accumulated, are strong predictors of poor psychological outcomes (Compas, 1987). …

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