Freshmen are told on one hand not to worry about college, then given an early version of a college entrance exam three weeks into their first year of high school.
Like kindergartners pushed to be first graders, high school is the new college.
Teens are more anxious than ever. Depression and anxiety are a fact. Drugs and alcohol use are an actuality. Suicides are real. More teens seek support from counselors and mental health facilities than ever. Some miss school due to hospitalization.
The New York Times recently chronicled the lives of teens who struggle with anxiety. They’re frightened they will fail. They load up on Advanced Placement (college) classes not understanding they’re pushing themselves beyond high school—beyond normal teen development.
However, despite all this so-called concern in the media, the underlying theme is still—grit and mindset.
The subtitle for the above report is Parents, therapists and schools are struggling to figure out whether helping anxious teenagers means protecting them or pushing them to face their fears.
Does anyone believe school administrators, teachers, and parents will quit pushing?
Students are expected to learn more than ever. They must do college in high school so they will succeed.
There’s little time to relax. Even sports and extracurricular activities come with a price. Students can’t just play a sport. They must lead. If there’s art, it must be a perfect drawing. If it’s music, there are contests to win.
Some competition is fine, but how much, and at what price? If so many students are struggling, isn’t that a sign there’s too much?
With college expense, students vie to obtain scholarships. AP, which started out as a class or two of college credit in high school, has mushroomed into mandatory curriculum. Ease the financial burden on Mom and Dad students are told. Parents should check, because some universities don’t accept AP credit.
It has become the competitive, profit-making, privatization tool to push students to work harder to fulfill the corporate message that Americans should expect more of their students in public schools.
Adolescents aim to please. They read through the phony adult messages too. Make sure to catch the video of student Tessa Newman. Learn about her petition.
The Chicago Tribune also reported on high school stress displaying this hypocrisy perfectly.
At first, the report sounds compassionate. B.J. Casey, a Yale psychology professor and director of the Fundamentals of the Adolescent Brain Lab, describes how stress affects teens in high school. One in four teens between the ages of 13 and 17 have the conditions for an anxiety disorder.
She’s startled about this, comparing the U.S. with Australia where students have far less anxiety.
Casey also describes the important changes going on in teen brains during adolescence. Normal development involves giving the brain time to mature and fine-tune itself.
Students need sleep too, which they most likely are not getting.
Stress significantly impacts this development and not in a good way.
The emotional part of the brain “hijacks” the pre-frontal cortex, or rational, cognitive part of their brain, that helps someone pause and think before acting, Casey says.
She compares the rational part of the brain to the logical Spock from “Star Trek,” saying the emotional part of the brain is more like the passionate and impulsive Captain Kirk.
“When the brain’s circuitry is not fully developed, the logical part of the brain can’t talk back to the emotional part, to tell it to calm down, things will be different tomorrow.”
So teens are still developing. They’re still growing, and all this school pressure is a warning. It should prod school officials and parents to look for ways to lessen the stress in high school.
Here are suggestions. You might have some too.
- Put a cap on the number of AP courses students are allowed to take.
- Create quality honors and general classes.
- Carefully consider AP class placement for students.
- Work with colleges to lessen or refine high school requirements.
- Eliminate useless homework—often busy work.
- Include activities that make learning enjoyable.
- Provide support for ELL students to help them integrate.
- Reduce unnecessary standardized testing.
- Provide cultural programs that teach and entertain.
- Involve students with disabilities in classes and social activities.
- Require students to take at least one non-academic class (the arts) each semester.
- Encourage community service projects that students feel good about.
But while media reports bemoan the state of student pressure, the Chicago Tribune report is also deceptive.
Casey goes on to say stress can have at least one positive result — it can end up making teens more resilient.
“It’s so important for teens to learn how to cope, and to learn how to fail,” she said.
In that vein, some argue that stress and anxiety are part of growing up, and that officials at elite schools shouldn’t lower academic standards but should push for even more achievement.
Certainly, students need to be able to learn how to accept failure. But piling on the difficulties knowing students are stressed is quite another issue.
Again, this falls into the grit, mindset babble that is promoted to parents and teens starting when children are young. This is the corporate message that has been allowed to fester since the early 1980s and A Nation at Risk. It slithered through No Child Left Behind like a poisonous snake, and it still exists in state mandates that will beat on kids with the Every Student Succeeds Act.
It especially affects the poor, but wealthy students can’t hide from it either. Don’t quit or you are a loser! Be strong! Put up with all the bad stuff thrown at you because there is college at the end of the tunnel if you endure.
So what about those who don’t make it?
The message to parents isn’t that your child is in trouble due to all the pressure being placed on them. It is, instead, get your kid to deal with it, because they need even more of it to succeed.
I’m not sure what these reports are going to accomplish in the end. I hope they will focus on change that will help students focus on high school. College comes quick enough.
Karen Ann Cullotta, Karen Berkowitz, Kinberly Fornek, and Suzanne Baker. “No Worse Fate than Failure: How Pressue to Keep Up is Overwhelming Students in Elite Display.” Chicago Tribune. November 17, 2017.
Suzanne Baker. “Survey Wants to Know Source of Naperville Student Stress; Results to be Shared at January Forum.” Chicago Tribune. October 30, 2017.
Benoit Denizet-Lewis. “Why Are More American Teenagers Tan Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?” The New York Times Magazine. October 11, 2017.
Thomas Ultican says
This is so correct. High School children are undergoing delicate brain development that makes stress added to natural adolescent stress toxic to them. Just as babies learn through play and academics are exactly the wrong prescription for a five year old, college curriculum and high pressure are exactly the wrong prescription for teenagers.. The damage done will manifest as mental issues during their adult life.
There used to be an observation that went something like this. American high school students don’t work. They hang out with friends go to movies and dances. The seldom do homework and they do poorly when compared with foreign students academically. Then they graduate from high school and three months later a miracle occurs. The become the top achieving college students in the world. They create new industries and win most of the Nobel Prizes.
That may be somewhat apocryphal but I think there is a lot of truth there. The education could surely be improved but it was at least age appropriate.
Nancy Bailey says
Well said, Thomas. Thank you. Hopefully, students will be able to relearn. But high schools need to change.
Sheila Ressegers says
Resilience comes from pride in accomplishment, in receiving acknowledgement from those the student respects. Resilience does not come from toxic pressure. As an eighth grader I was chosen for an accelerated program in high school–we completed four years of high school work in three years, and then did college level work in our senior year. I say “we.” We started with 4 classes of 30 students each in 9th grade, and eight of us completed the program. Those who “dropped out” went into college prep and did fine. Speaking for myself, the stress was intolerable, particularly in my junior year (which was also 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated). I believe the incessant stress to excel scarred me emotionally. We did have an academically rigorous program, which I have to admit I benefited from, but the cost was too high. Let kindergartners be kids; let high school students thrive in an academic environment that values psycho/social health (not the kind measured by social/emotional learning tests) and personal satisfaction.
Nancy Bailey says
How interesting! Sheila, Thank you for sharing your personal story. Your message should be well-taken!
Donna Reeve says
Nancy, so many yeses in this article. So many good points. So many good tips.
While it had good company, this is my favorite article of yours yet! Thank you!
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you, Donna. I appreciate this. My best to you.
All standardized testing is unnecessary. Not to mention toxic.
Roy Turrentine says
While I agree that many modern students are under too much pressure from programs that demand scholarships and from standardized testing, I wonder how we can develop the desire in students to go the extra mile. Something made me sit for hours in the library when all my friends were having fun in college. It was not pressure and standardized tests, but what was it? How do we develop the kids who will work hard? How do we develop kids who will be honest?