Facing fierce competition to get into top colleges, many students are compromising their health and values to get ahead. Experts are even seeing stress levels increase at the elementary school level. Some educators are working to reduce the pressures on students. Included: One school's efforts to reduce student stress.
The Wheatley School has the type of students about whom communities like to boast.
Many of the students at the public grade 8 to 12 school in affluent Old Westbury, New York, wrack up honors and Advanced Placement courses, while participating in school clubs and community service. About 95 percent of Wheatley graduates attend college.
But a few years ago, principal Rick Simon read the book Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students, and felt like he was reading about his own school. He took the pulse of the Wheatley student body and discovered what was behind all those outstanding transcripts: stress. Students reported they were feeling overwhelmed and exhausted from trying to meet all the pressures from school, home, and themselves.
With Doing School as a catalyst, school administrators teamed up with faculty, students, and community members to look at the causes of stress and brainstorm ways to change the culture at Wheatley. "I think the biggest change has been awareness," Simon told Education World. "We got it out on the table and we're talking about it."
Ironically, at a time when U.S. high schools are under scrutiny for not being challenging enough, many students are working harder than ever, and often compromising themselves to get the highest grades and most impressive transcripts possible, at the expense of their well-being and education.
"Kids are mortgaging their adolescence, health, and values to get into college, where they are not resilient and are unprepared," according to Dr. Denise Clark Pope, who is a Stanford University School of Education (SUSE) lecturer, founder of the Stressed Out Students' Project, and author of Doing School.
Dr. Pope and Simon met when Simon used Doing School as the basis for an examination of school culture. Simon e-mailed Dr. Pope for suggestions about using the book and additional resources, and she attended one of Wheatley's school-wide discussions about the book.
Dr. Pope wrote Doing School after spending a year following five students at a competitive California high school. She learned that students had "too much to do and too little time, so they developed strategies to get top grades, and they had no time or interest for engagement in the curriculum."
The book's title comes from students' approach to high school that Dr. Pope characterized as "doing school" -- compiling an impressive transcript of difficult courses and school and community activities without really thinking about what they were doing or learning.
"One student said, 'You don't go to school to learn -- you go to school to get into college and then get a high-paying job,'" Dr. Pope said.
While shadowing students, Dr. Pope noticed that cheating was rampant and that students in class were doing homework for other courses. Many of the kids said they didn't want to cheat, but they didn't have time to do everything.
"They may be getting good grades, but they are not engaged or retaining information," according to Dr. Pope. "The new caffeine is Adderall and Ritalin, to help them stay up and study."
When Dr. Pope asked the students what they wanted more of , they said sleep and more time with family and friends. The result of this lifestyle, she said, is that "colleges are packed with anxious, depressed kids on antidepressants."
After reading Dr. Pope's book, Simon suggested faculty members read it and thought it would be a good basis for school-wide discussions. In the fall of 2002, Simon taught a mini-course called "Doing School" using Dr. Pope's book. Students were required to keep reflective journals on their reading and write final papers about a problem at Wheatley they would like to see changed.
"We began to realize that stress was a major issue," according to Simon. "We had a number of dialogue nights [for the school community] about issues, and stress was one of the big ones."
The administration also set reducing student stress as a long-term goal as part of its action plan for re-accreditation.
Wheatley students noted similarities between behaviors at their school and the school described in the book. In their journals, students wrote about the stress of living in a community where everyone is expected to go to the best colleges. The pressures often led to plagiarism, sleep deprivation, and test anxiety among students, and the use of tutors, therapists, caffeine, and prescription pills, some students said.
Wheatley's administration already has adopted numerous changes, including eliminating student rankings. Wheatley is the only Long Island, New York, high school that does not name a valedictorian, according to Simon.
Teachers are more conscious of students' many commitments. "Now teachers are more flexible," Simon said. "They try not to schedule multiple tests on one day and extend due dates for projects."
He also asked teachers to let "vacations be vacations" and not assign a lot of homework or major projects over school breaks.
Guidance counselors also were asked not to talk to the eighth graders about the need to prepare for college, and the math midterm for eighth graders was dropped because it usually was scheduled about the same time as the state's high-stakes test.
Among the other changes that were implemented:
"Parents also have to be part of the equation," Simon said. "Part of it is raising awareness in the community about the downside of pressure."
The Stanford University School of Education continues to examine the issue of student stress through research and conferences with local middle and high schools, and has held conferences on student stress. Dr. Pope also works directly with some middle and elementary schools to help them reduce student stress, and said symptoms of stress are showing up in increasingly younger students.
"Stress can begin in elementary school with overscheduling, tests, even tutoring for kids," she said. "We're seeing more anxiety in elementary students."
Both Simon and Dr. Pope said that one of the first ways to address stress is by listening to students.
Ask students to name one thing in the school they would like to change and explain why, Simon suggested. Administrators also can set up a "fishbowl" in which students sit in the center of a room with a facilitator and the faculty listens to students' comments.
Administrators also can help reduce the stress teachers are feeling about student performance on high-stakes tests. "You have to give your staff permission to say it is not the most important issue," Simon said.
Restructuring the school day and reworking curriculum are other ways to beat stress, according to Dr. Pope. "Block schedules can reduce stress because there are fewer classes and less homework," she said. "Also, look at ways to improve the curriculum and assessment so kids can get more out of their work and reduce cheating."