Managing Academic Stress in Schools Today

Excited to create dialogue about resource equity in education. Enjoys munching on bell peppers and devouring poetry.

Anti-bullying and mental health campaigns have been active markers in the past decade of the education reform canvas. Despite this increased awareness for social and mental health in schools, stress continues to directly plague high school students. More specifically, college admissions, grades and course load play a disproportionate role in shaping that stress.

Concerned by this pattern, I recently sat down with peers from my high school in a roundtable discussion to get a student perspective on school climate and stress. Situated in the affluent North Shore Suburbs of Chicago, my public school is well-funded, allowing students to participate in a wide variety of activities, organizations and competitive teams. This surplus of opportunity is also reflected in academics: a wide variety of Advanced Placement (AP) courses with minimal prerequisites. A byproduct of this opportunity is a competitive atmosphere where the school is known for its excellence in academics (five-time blue ribbon award winner), extracurriculars (multiple achievements on the national level), and sports (winning state titles consecutively). Given this atmosphere, the roundtable yielded insights on the nature of student stress and achievement.

Success for Every Student

That’s the motto of Adlai E. Stevenson High School. It’s repeated at every student meeting, used consistently by administrative staff, and is the underlying goal behind my school’s culture. The idea that no matter who you are and what your interests may be, the opportunity available at Stevenson will ensure you thrive during your four years.

This philosophy manifests itself in different ways. As witnessed by Prachi Gyanmote, a sophomore, “There’s a lot of high expectations that are being put on the students, and the culture at Stevenson expects you to push yourself to your limit and strive towards doing your best.”

While these expectations may be exerting pressure on students, it can be argued that “pushing” students may be crucial to success in the long run. Yet, Nandhini Nair, another sophomore, finds the reality to be quite different as she observes that “the competitive nature may even inhibit some students’ performance because they may be limiting their thought potential based on what teachers want to hear or what other people want to hear rather than just unleashing the full creative potential. “

Nandhini is alluding to students choosing letter grades over learning. The need to pick the “right” answer that will be rewarded over the answer that aligns with their thinking and growth. This mentality was also noticed by Sarah Zhang, a freshman, when she reflected, “I remember at freshman orientation the principal was talking about success for every student and that may come through athletics or extracurriculars or academics, but I feel like there’s such an emphasis on academics over everything else…I feel like it’s gotten to a point where students prioritize getting good test results over just actually learning the material and understanding it.”

In spite of the good intentions behind “Success for Every Student”, academics seem to still rule as king in high school, and the need to do well academically is driving students to become good test-takers over good learners. The letter grade and points-based system are interfering with the growth mindset that is so necessary for learners because scores take precedent over mastery of content. Students should be focusing on their progress, not benchmarks that compare them to other students.

Academic Preparation

This atmosphere of competition and academic pressure can not solely be attributed to the school. Post-secondary opportunities and college seem to be a large influence as well. Nandhini confided during our discussion, “People take courses starting from middle school just so they can get onto that AP track because they know that eventually at some point or another they’re going to have to take a certain number of APs for college.”

Once again, the desire to remain competitive among peers motivates students. In the context of college admissions, this is an interesting trend because AP courses appears to be only loosely associated with college grades and degree completion, according to a study published in the American Educational Research Association in July of 2018. Even though AP courses aren’t crucial for collegiate success, students still feel burdened to take them for success in college admissions.

When considering the school’s approach to academic preparation, Srusti Donapati says, “I feel like they are trying to make you choose more challenging courses without directly saying that it’s going to help you get into the college. That’s kind of what’s happening. Where they’re trying to make it seem as if they’re just trying to challenge you.”

Even from the school’s perspective, post-secondary education is an important influence on course selection. This mentality of challenging coursework seems to be justified by the plethora of support available as Prachi explains, “They are pushing towards challenging classes but then at the same time they’re also saying you should only be doing 30 minutes of homework. They’re pushing towards tests and harder classes, but they’re giving us resources.”

Support Systems

Along the lines of resources, Stevenson does do a wonderful job of supporting its students in dealing with stress in terms of mental health staff. The most recent report (2015–2016) on the national average student-to-counselor ratio was 482:1. In comparison, Stevenson supplies 18 counselors for its large student body of roughly 4,000 which is a ratio of about 222:1. That’s roughly two times better than most other schools in America in terms of support.

And this impact is felt by students. Sarah notes that “counselors come in pretty often during advisory and just introduce themselves and reinforce the idea that there is a support team.”

Clearly, students do feel more confident with the idea that they have people to turn to in times of need. Continued support over the entirety of high school seems to be a systemic problem, however. While Sarah, a freshman, found that she had easy access to counselors through freshman advisory, Srusti, a sophomore, felt that her access to social support decreased over time.

Since we don’t have like a class where the counselor comes in and actually talks to you one on one, it’s difficult for me to consider approaching him for certain things because I haven’t been talking to him since freshman year. If I was in distress, I would go to my friends because I don’t know who this random lady or man or whoever is. I think there should be more outreach for sophomores and juniors and seniors in terms of who their counselors or who their social workers are.

Despite the need for further outreach on their part, Stevenson support staff have been doing an effective job at helping students when called upon. As Nandhini found, “ When I said that I wasn’t getting enough sleep on a survey, I automatically sparked attention. I was called by my counselor, and I had a discussion with her. Their attention to detail was great because it was really powerful for them to just reach out to me.”

Mandatory Assistance

Stevenson, like many other high schools, offers tutoring before and after school to help students deal with academic stress. However, unlike other schools, it also offers another strand of tutoring called Mandatory Targeted Tutoring (MTT). MTT is structured where students who have grades or predicted grades that are failing (usually a C or below) are required to see an adult tutor in the library outside of school. With the goal of helping with student’s mental health (keeping grades up), MTT should be another form of support for students, but it’s rarely seen as a tool.

“It’s such a strong label, you’re placed in mandatory targeted tutoring. Now, you’re feeling under attack… I shouldn’t be separated out from the rest of my class to go get extra help when really it should be embraced because someone is actually being proactive with learning.” — Nandhini Nair

The social stigma of needing help outside of the classroom turns students away from using MTT as the resource that it is because they see it as problem ostracizing them from their peers. Prachi, however, offers a counter-perspective on the power of MTT. She says, “In my math class, if you don’t do your homework, then you’re automatically put in mandatory and targeted tutoring and that like for a lot of the students clicked for them. That was the main push that made them start doing their work or else they’re going to be put in MTT. It has such a big label that no one wants it.”

Advocating for the positive outcomes of MTT’s stigma, Prachi perceives the power of MTT’s threat. Students who can be putting more work into doing better now will work harder to avoid the program. If you can’t reward students with carrots, sometimes the threat of the stick can do just as well. While relying on negative social attitudes isn’t a long-term solution, it can prove effective short-term as educators work to make receiving academic assistance less stigmatic.

Evidence-Based Learning

Concerned by how grades are overtaking students’ minds in favor of learning, Stevenson decided to implement a new model, Evidence-Based Reporting (EBR). The model assesses a students’ skills with qualifications instead of numbers: no mastery, approaching mastery, mastery and above mastery. In addition to this type of grading, the model also favors growth over time, so if a student achieves mastery in most skills towards the end of the course, regardless of earlier “grades”, he will have done well in the course (equivalent to receiving a letter grade of ‘A’).

Currently, Stevenson curriculum employs a mix of points-based and EBR grading, having just piloted the EBR program a few years ago. However, the coursework is predominantly EBR, especially for underclassmen, and the goal is for all courses to be under the EBR model by the next academic year (2020–2021). Stevenson is simply following the rising trend of schools employing growth-based education. The above figure shows that 18 states have education policy very much in line with this model, most others approaching accordance, and only two states not following the competency-based approach.

The model is meant to relieve the stress of points-based grading as students are less concerned with every test score and more concerned with their growth in learning all the skills by the end of the course. To some extent, EBR grading has improved student success and decreased stress, as Prachi finds from her EBR math class, “They care about your learning and not just is the question right or wrong. They’re looking for your understanding in a holistic way and not just thinking about it from a very narrow perspective that you either completely mess it up or you got all the points.”

The Bottom Line

Academic stress is changing as the weight of post-secondary education, peer pressure, and school expectation all burden students. Despite this, schools are becoming more competent with helping students manage stress as they increase mental health staff, abandon traditional assessment models, and provide more support (emotional and academic). The best way for schools to be more effective at managing stress in the status quo is by communicating and listening to the needs of students. Having outreach through roundtable discussions, surveys, and one-on-one meetings are all great methods of facilitating this. All that’s needed to get the ball rolling is to open the conversation.