Jada Hickerson’s day begins at 5:30 a.m. and typically doesn’t end until midnight. And even that schedule leaves barely enough time for school, homework and her job at a local fast food restaurant.
“It’s stressful,” says the 17-year-old, a senior at Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester, Mass. “It’s too much.”
Hickerson’s opinion is shared by many other students and their families. There’s a growing realization, some education leaders say, that schools need to do something about the growing problem of student stress.
“We’ve been so focused on the academic progress of students over the past decade, we are not spending a proportionate amount of time on some of this,” says Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, which started to key on the issue last year. “It’s become a very significant topic — there’s a lot of concern about it.”
For older students especially, school has become even more stressful than their parents’ jobs. An American Psychological Association survey last year, for instance, found that teenagers’ self-reported stress levels were higher than adults’, and that the stress they experienced during the school year “far exceeds what they (the students) believe to be healthy.” More locally, a student health survey put out every two years by the MetroWest Health Foundation recently found that the percentage of stressed-out high school students is climbing — from 28 to 29 percent in 2006 to 35 percent last year.
Some of that stress is due to factors external to school; family financial troubles, hectic extracurricular schedules and demanding parents are just a few stressors many students face, experts say. But those experts also say, and parents and kids confirm, that school-related stress is one of the major reasons students today feel worn out.
“I think there’s a lot more pressure on them to succeed,” says Northboro resident Christine Rice, who has a 12-year-old daughter, Ainslee, and a 10-year-old son, Brennan. “The expectations to get into college have increased so much, kids have to work so much harder to get to the same spot (my generation) did.”
Many students cite testing, particularly the state assessment, which they have to pass to graduate, as a major contributor to school-related stress.
“Before tests, (teachers) are always telling you to be prepared, and study a lot — I get stressed out,” says Hailey O’Hearn, 11, a seventh-grader at Worcester’s Forest Grove Middle School.
Naana Agyen, the mother of three young boys in the Worcester schools, said she’s also been surprised by the heavy workload her sons have to do at home.
“When they get home from school at 2:30 p.m., they’ll get something to eat, and then get right to homework for two or three hours,” says Agyen, whose oldest, Nathan, is a second-grader at the Worcester Arts Magnet School. “There’s a lot of homework.”
But health experts say it’s how students respond to those stressors — and how adults in their lives misinterpret that response — that causes the most problems.
“I think where it can be overwhelming is when kids feel they’re supposed to be stressed,” says Nadja Reilly, a clinical psychologist and associate director of the Dreedman Center for Child and Family Development at William James College in Newton. “It’s almost a competition of ‘Who can do the most?'”
In addition to pushing themselves to burnout, some students can also have more serious underlying conditions such as anxiety or depression that people around them write off as just “being really stressed out,” she says. Consequently, missed diagnoses of mental-health problems is commonplace for young people, Reilly says; she cites statistics revealing about three-fourths of depression cases for that age group go undiagnosed until the age of 25 or older.
Experts say there are ways for students to better manage stress, however, some of which are starting to be adopted in school classrooms. The Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, for example, has developed a curriculum aimed at stress alleviation that has been adopted at schools across the country, including Worcester Academy.
“We’ve done a lot of research, and we’ve seen that kids who go through our program get better grades, have better attendance, and feel less stress and more in control,” says Marilyn Wilcher, the institute’s senior director.
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Five years after the school introduced the institute’s training, teachers at Worcester Academy are still employing its lessons, which include investigating what stresses students, how they deal with that stress, and mindfulness exercises they can do, during the school day, to reduce it. Anne Boyden, a middle school counselor at the academy, says some longer classes take a break to do guided relaxation sessions, for instance, which “really seem to help students with their focus and attention.”
Other schools in Central Massachusetts, especially urban districts, are deploying more resources toward student emotional health services. The Worcester schools, for instance, added several new adjustment counselor positions this year that have allowed the district to have a counselor at all but two of the city’s 33 elementary schools, up from just 40 percent coverage a year ago, says Bertha Elena Rojas, the schools’ manager of English-language learners and supplemental support services.
“We think we have gained a lot from that strategy,” she says. “Our schools will be covered better and with more consistency and reliability.”
The Fitchburg schools are also considering a similar move to expand the time when students can receive mental-health services at the high school’s student health center, says Superintendent Andre R. Ravenelle. In general, he says, the schools are trying to become more attuned to the emotional needs of students; the district’s scheduled opening day speaker for staff this year, for instance, is Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and an expert on student emotional health.
City school systems in particular see kids who have unique stressors compared to their counterparts in suburban districts, educators say. In the Worcester schools, for instance, some students have anxiety about the ongoing violence in the city, as well as the specter of police brutality, says Samuel Martin, head of the Worcester Youth Center. Those teens also often feel stressed out when they think about the challenges that await them after high school, he says.
“These kids have family members who are struggling to get jobs, or working two or three part-time jobs just to get by,” Martin says. “They see that and say, ‘This is what’s in store.’ “
But Martin also says financial uncertainty plagues families in the suburbs as well, and that the pressure to succeed affects students from all demographics. In Northboro, staff at Melican Middle School have tried to reduce students’ stress with an unorthodox approach: bringing in therapy dogs to the school every day. Students who feel anxious or worn out can request to spend some time outside their classroom with one of the dogs — two are in the program — take them for a walk or have one of them sit by their feet while they take a test, says the school’s principal, Michelle Karb. Staff members have used the dogs when students feel too stressed out to even leave their parent’s car in the school driveway, she says.
“That happened at least seven or eight times last year,” the first year the school tried out the therapy dogs, she says. “One of the staff will walk out with one of the dogs, and get the students into school.”
While experts say there’s no way to eliminate all school-related stressors, they advised families to at least try to control the things that can compound them, like a poor sleep schedule and too much screen time. Dr. Mary Ahn, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at UMass Medical School, said it’s especially important for parents to start instilling healthy practices in their students.
“Establishing a good routine,” she says, can at least alleviate the natural stress of returning to class. “Those first couple weeks are really important.”