Our Students' So-Called Lives: Part Three

By Jonathan Schoenwald, Assistant Head of Schools and Preparatory Principal


Not surprisingly, student stress is one of the most discussed issues among those of us who work with high school and college students. One recent essay from the National Association of Independent Schools focused on how a single school in northern California took on the issue of stress through such efforts as shifting the starting time to give students the chance to sleep later (teenagers' natural rhythms are more aligned with later starts); asking questions about the amount and type of homework; shifting to a block schedule; and providing time during the day (in classes) to do homework.

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article a professor at the University of Pennsylvania wrote about how students arrive so acculturated to competing that even some community service groups demand essays and interviews to winnow down who is allowed to volunteer. While the article suggests some radical solutions (e.g., having selective colleges and universities admit qualified students based on a lottery), the author's hope is to demonstrate how far our students' lives have moved from what we might consider "normal."

Last month the New York Times Magazine ran a story called, "The Kids Who Can't," which profiled two high school students who suffered from severe anxiety. While the students represent, in some ways, extreme cases, it's a powerful piece. I read the article when it came out, and it inspired me to have a conversation with our faculty a few days later. At one of our Wednesday meetings we first watched a short film called "Ten Meter Tower," which shows people at the top of a 10-meter diving platform as they contemplate jumping. As they stand on the platform, microphones record their utterances and cameras capture their body and facial expressions. For me, this was making anxiety and stress visible. Not everyone jumps, and some people jump who you never expect to do so. After we watched the movie we talked about these questions at our tables:

  • What are those things—for our students or their parents—that are like jumping from a ten meter tower?
  • What about for us?
  • Why do these things cause such anxiety?
  • Where and when do you see anxiety manifested by your students? How do you know that's what they are experiencing?
  • What do you do to help them jump?
  • Are there times we should prevent them from jumping?
  • Who else can help them jump? How do we partner with these people?
  • What are some things we can do—short- and long-term—to help our students with their anxiety?

Every table had a rich exchange, and a number of faculty members sent me ideas from their groups. Here's the feedback from one table:

  • None of the persons in the video were convinced, cajoled, pushed, forced, helped, etc. to jump. They jumped if and when they felt ready (in spite of the inevitable anxiety). Application to our students: They need to find ways of working through the anxiety or functioning in spite of the anxiety because it is part of any and every new experience and risk taking. Counselors can help them develop these mechanisms.
  • We do not know the reasons behind the anxiety of every individual, but some people will simply NEVER jump from a 10 meter tower (myself included). Perhaps they would be less anxious jumping from a 5 meter tower, or simply not jumping at all. [Note: this was a suggestion that came up from a number of faculty—i.e., let's be sure to offer 3-meter and 5-meter options] Application to our students: There are individuals who should not be faced with the challenge of an AP or IB course, for example, if it causes so much anxiety that it will make them freeze or give up. Put simply, some of us are not and will never be daredevils. And that is OK! Counselors can help them realize what their limits are.
  • Perhaps some of those anxious people know they can't swim, and worry about what will happen when they fall into the water below. Application to our students: Students worry about not having the necessary skills to survive in a course that is over their head; so, once again, they should be given academic challenges that are realistic and based on the skills they have developed in a particular academic area. In other words, we should make sure that they can swim before we ask them to jump off a 10 meter tower. Counselors, teachers, coordinators, administrators, and parents should keep this in mind when placing students in courses.
  • Motivation and purpose trumps anxiety. Why would I want to jump? What is the purpose of taking such a risk? Are the possible gains higher than the possible losses? Application to our students: If their purpose in taking an academic risk is only getting a good grade that will look good on their transcript, they're missing an important factor of the equation: risks do not always yield optimal results. We should prepare students to accept this possibility while also encouraging them to be courageous risk takers. An academically challenging course is often worthy EVEN if one does not get an "A".
  • In short, well-being is not about eliminating anxiety, but about learning to deal with it in emotionally and physically healthy ways. To prepare our students for the real world, we should ensure that they are developing such coping mechanisms (meditation, yoga, time management, diet and exercise, relaxation, setting realistic goals and not overextending themselves, prioritizing, accepting failure, challenging negative thoughts, recognizing their personal anxiety triggers, weighing the pros and cons, etc.).

I hope you'll agree that these insights demonstrate that our faculty are thinking deeply about our students and what they—and all of us—can do to help them manage stress. As we move forward I plan to rely on their wisdom and experience as we refine our programs and policies to best help our students navigate their complex worlds.

Finally, as I do more work in this area, I find myself turning to our Counseling staff, whom I work with on so many levels. At the heart of their work are the relationships Counselors forge with our students, which are literally visible when one walks by their offices filled with students relaxing, talking with adults about what they're going through, and learning how to tackle one challenge after another. This doesn't mean that Counselors possess silver bullets that magically solve problems. Rather, they start by practicing non-judgmental and non-threatening listening, and it's clear to me that this goes a long way in terms of building trust, respect, and rapport. The relationships our Counselors build over the course of four years at the Prep and Miller Drive are, I would argue, what we should all aim to replicate, either as educators or parents. And if nothing else, that's a good place for all of us to start helping our students, sons, and daughters manage the stress of being a high school student in 2017.