“Dr. Richards. We have become good at being good at school”, a graduating senior of a well-known international school told me during a conversation about school achievement.
This is the crux of the school stress problem. The current generation of middle and high school students excel at achieving in school–doing what they are asked to do by their teachers and parents. They have learned what the elite universities want from them, and they readily provide it: a highly rigorous course schedule (with multiple APs), a palette full of extra-curricular activities, and an ample collection of service, leadership, and character-based experiences. This hyper-schooling is often at the expense of their wellbeing and happiness. Sink or swim, by whatever means necessary.
There is a dark underside to achievement in school. At best, today’s generation of young people go off to university without a natural curiosity or a love of learning, disconnected to the best of what schools have to offer. At worst, they are ill-prepared for university, have developed a dislike of learning and of classrooms, have cultivated unhealthy stress coping strategies, are severely sleep-deprived, rationalize cheating, carry a low social intelligence quotient, and perhaps most alarmingly, will find the competitive workplace wholly beyond their capacity to thrive in. They leave the nurturing nest of home as “excellent sheep”, as coined by William Deresiewicz, a critic of today’s elite education paradigm.
In 2009, I published a dissertation as part of an Ed.D. program at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education: Examining and Addressing Academic Stress Culture at a Suburban High School (link to full dissertation). The first of its kind, the thesis reported on the work of Needham High School (a public school in Massachusetts I led from 2004-2009) as it explored and then worked to improve its school stress culture.
The efforts in Needham built upon the good work being done by Stanford Professor Denise Pope of the Stress-Out-Schools coalition (rebranded Challenge Success), a group of San Francisco-area schools who grew weary of the academic stress culture and were highly concerned by countless young people cracking under the pressure. Nearly fifteen years later, the Bay area continues to struggle with this issue, which has been linked to adolescent suicide (link to The Atlantic article). As we know, concerns about school stress are not germane to a particular city or country. The mental and physical health of hundreds of thousands of our best and brightest youth–brought on by chronic stress–has become a worldwide pandemic. Society finally seems to be catching on to the problem, and are willing to act.
This blogpost, and its subpages, are intended to take my dissertation and make it actionable for schools who have the courage to develop a better relationship with its stress culture, and who are willing to make a moral commitment to the future of its students so that health, happiness, and school achievement are no longer mutually exclusive.
Field Guide for Schools
This guide suggests both essential and possible strategies for schools to examine and address its stress culture. It focuses on action, and allows schools to put the strategies into its own school context. What works in one place may not be appropriate for another. However, the advice has been field-tested in a variety of school settings, and has proven effective.
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