Courtesy of iStock by Getty Images
Homework, clubs, grades, sports, college applications, peer-to-peer competition and now the COVID-19 pandemic. All of these are factors that contribute to student stress. Whether internal or external, there are pressures for high school students to exceed in school in preparation for college and adult life. High expectations and stress can be a motivator for students to perform well, but they can also have negative impacts on mental health.
“Some stress is good. It’s an existence reality,” history Department Head Kevin Delaney said. “It appears, however, to be contagious and can readily escalate to unhealthy levels.”
Some teachers have noticed stress among students and believe that WHS is a “high-stress environment.” Pre-existing feelings of pressure may have been exacerbated over the last year, guidance counselor Marybeth Sacramone said, due to the ongoing pandemic. Many students are feeling anxious, sad and socially withdrawn.
“Students have struggled with not being able to see their friends, shifting to and learning to manage remote and hybrid learning, social and racial turmoil, worries over family finances and not seeing their extended family members due to the pandemic,” Sacramone said. “All of these reasons combined have caused an increase in students reporting they are anxious, depressed and unmotivated.”
Stress can not only affect mental health, but for some students changes how they view and feel about school and future education. Students “run out of steam,” Sacramone said.
“Stress kills confidence,” English teacher Kelsey Pitcairn said. “It isolates people and makes it harder for them to reach out and ask for help at a time when they most need it. Humans are naturally curious— young people especially so—but stress narrows our world and blunts that innate curiosity so that school becomes a burden rather than an opportunity.”
Pitcairn says that some stress is caused by an “over-extension of time and energy” as extracurriculars, homework and social life can be difficult for some students to properly balance.
“Some of the most common things WHS students struggle with include trying to take on too much—for example, taking all honors and AP classes combined with doing a ton of extracurriculars,” Sacramone said.
Stress can lead to distraction from taking care of oneself. The guidance department encourages students to focus on important self-care like getting lots of sleep, eating healthy, exercising and spending time outdoors and with friends. Sacramone also suggests yoga, meditation and other mindfulness activities.
“I think [students] let slip the things that make them happy, like reading, or taking a walk or doing something for themselves,” English teacher Michelle Goodnow said. “I do think that worrying about always having to have an A, for instance, also affects kids’ performance in school. I think they get stressed if they receive any grade lower than a B and start to doubt their ability in the class, which only adds on more stress.”
Sacramone says that peer pressure to achieve high grades and comparison between students has created an “unhealthy competition among peers,” which can be another factor for stress.
“It’s a vicious cycle. Kids seem to be competing with each other, and their parents competing with other parents, to show maximum ‘awesomeness’ which often ends up killing the joy and causing emotional and physical damage,” Delaney said. “In the end, we ask students to do much less academically than we used to say, 20 years ago, yet on average, kids are far more stressed than they were in those days.”
This type of competition has led some teachers to encourage a focus on self-growth rather than the accomplishments of their peers.
“I spend a lot of time at the beginning of the year, and especially this year, talking to students about the importance of learning and of measuring yourself only against yourself,” Goodnow said. “If you are happy with the fact you are improving and learning, then you are succeeding in the class.”
Other reactions to high stress among students by teachers include deliberate assignments to have students spending time outdoors in nature and helping students develop coping mechanisms for stress. For Pitcairn, an effort to reduce stress became a practice of empathy, transparency and flexibility.
“I hear students articulating their stress all the time in my classroom,” Pitcairn said. “I practice empathy by listening to my students when they ask for help or support and by paying attention to when students might need help or support but are unable to ask for it, for whatever reason. I practice transparency both in explaining to students the reasons behind the work I ask them to do and also in sharing with them my own experiences of stress. Lastly, I practice flexibility by working with my students to determine the best timeline and process for major assessments and being willing to change course or adjust plans when it is in their best interest.”
For upperclassmen, the college search and pressure to go to a good school can also be a large contributor to stress.
“Although we know that most students are encouraged by their families to attend college, many students feel the pressure to not just attend college, but to attend ‘the best college’ which usually means a famous, well-known type of college with an extremely low acceptance rate,” Sacramone said. “Students work really hard to meet such goals, and they forget there are thousands of other schools and options that could make them just as happy.”
Sacramone encourages students to communicate with their guidance counselor and family when making decisions about course selection, extracurriculars and plans after graduation.
“It’s important for students to think for themselves,” Sacramone said. “It is our hope that students can understand that high school is a time to find out what you love, what you’re good at and what makes you happy and not feel you have to be perfect in everything to succeed in life.”