“Stressed out” is a tired expression in contemporary culture, and it can be easy to dismiss as a mundane complaint or mere conversation filler. But its overuse masks the real and troubling role that stress too often plays in school life today, particularly in the lives of high school students.
In 2015, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence surveyed more than 22,000 high schoolers, who responded most commonly to the question, “How do you currently feel in school?” with the words “tired,” “bored” and “stressed,” noting that they felt stressed 80 percent of the time.1 That same year, New York University released a study of high school juniors at independent schools which found that 80 percent of respondents felt stressed on a daily basis, with 49 percent reporting a “great deal” of stress every day of school, with grades, homework and college preparation being the top stressors.2
Sadly but not surprisingly, toxic levels of stress appear to endure—and even worsen—in college. A survey done by the American College Health Association in 2016 revealed that over the previous 12 months 52.7 percent of students reported feeling that things were hopeless and 39.1 percent reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function.3
In 2018, after witnessing firsthand how many Yale students had to “deprioritize their happiness to gain admission to the school, adopting harmful life habits that have led to ... ‘mental health crises,’” Professor Laurie Santos offered a new course, “Psychology and the Good Life,” to empower students with ways to lead a happier, more satisfying life. In just a few days, nearly a quarter of all Yale undergraduate students had enrolled, making it the most popular course in Yale’s 316-year history. As one of Santos’s students said: “In reality, a lot of us are anxious, stressed, unhappy, numb ... . The fact that a class like this has such large interest speaks to how tired students are of numbing their emotions—both positive and negative—so they can focus on their work, the next step, the next accomplishment.”4
Is Stress the Culprit?
But is stress, in and of itself, really the root problem in our schools? We know that not all stress is unhealthy. Indeed, as health psychologist Kelly McGonigal reminds us in The Upside of Stress, “The latest science reveals that some stress can make you smarter, stronger, and more successful. It helps you learn and grow. It can inspire courage and compassion.”5 To paint stress with too broad a brushstroke obscures a deeper and more worrisome problem in many of our highest-achieving schools.
William Damon of Stanford University claims that the “biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress: it’s meaninglessness.”6 Too many students simply do not believe in the value of what they are doing in school day in and day out; they do not see their stress as connected to meaningful pursuits about which they genuinely care. In What School Could Be, Ted Dintersmith recounts one high school student’s explanation of the unhealthy stress in his and so many high schools:
He described Adderall-assisted all-nighters cramming for tests. Many have
SAT or ACT tutors, and feel stressed about their scores. He likened school
to “being one of those hamsters on a wheel. We keep running faster and
faster, but it doesn’t feel like we’re getting anywhere.” As he was leaving,
he remarked, “We know school is just the game we have to play. But, hey,
we don’t make up the rules. You do.”7
Jumping Through Hoops
For many students, high school has become a “protracted process of university entrance,”8 a compulsory dystopian game in which the adults—teachers, parents, college guidance counselors and admissions officers—have complete design, power and control over the rules the child must follow. The game is stressful, and not on the student’s terms.
Students do not arrive at school expecting dystopia. What often begins as an earnest apprenticeship in questioning and exploration gradually takes on the form of a risk-averse, mechanical approach to knowledge and learning as students begin to internalize narrowing definitions of schooling’s purpose. Even before high school, students adjust their behavior to reap the rewards of the system as it is presented to them. Their work is no longer principally questioning and exploration, but instead performing and jumping through a never-ending set of hoops that trusted adults either tacitly or explicitly assert are necessary to clear that “ultimate hoop”: college admission. Such a system encourages our students, and particularly our highest achievers, to feign enthusiasm for genuine curiosity and lifelong learning while remaining exclusively focused on “acing the test” to attain a coveted spot in a highly selective college, where they believe they will suddenly have the tools to build a satisfying and meaningful life and career in the “real world.”
A Different Take on Stress
If school is, in fact, a “game,” must we design it this way? Are there better ways to play? And what would “winning” this game look like, beyond a high grade point average, strong standardized test scores, and admission to a selective college? Education consultant and former college president Richard Hersh offers a constructive differentiation: “There are two kinds of stress. There’s lousy external stress to excel on things the kid doesn’t believe in. But there’s healthy stress that comes from setting a big goal, and pushing yourself to excel in the face of challenges and deadlines.”9
We are not advocating for a vision of K-12 schools in which stress and evaluation have no role to play—indeed, stress and evaluation are a part of life and should be a part of school as developmentally appropriate. But we are saying that the wrong kind of stress has taken hold of our schools. And if new research shows that “healthy stress” is not only possible but also helpful to learning and growth, that “feeling stressed can be a barometer for how engaged you are in activities and relationships that are personally meaningful,” and that stress is often the “byproduct of pursuing difficult but important goals,”10 we wonder: If we sought to reframe and reclaim stress as necessary, healthy and connected to the pursuit of truly meaningful and enduring life aspirations—to deploy stress in the service of aims deeper, broader and more intrinsically rewarding than academic achievement alone—what might that effort look like in the everyday experience of students and schools?
We are certainly not the first to ponder this possibility, nor do we profess to have a tidy answer; to be sure, the problem is a complex one, and each school community must wrestle with it in a unique way, informed by its institutional history, mission, and vision for the future. But in thinking about student stress from the vantage point of our roles as teachers, administrators and independent school parents, we would like to share three basic beliefs about how our schools can reframe and reclaim stress not as a burden to be borne, but as a vitalizing experience in the pursuit of true meaning and fulfillment.
First, our schools should allocate time and curricular space in a way that empowers students to identify and pursue genuine interests. Unhealthy stress can emerge from curriculum that privileges breadth over depth, and where agency resides entirely with the course’s instructor. The experience of stress can be reframed, however, when student curiosity and agency help direct exploration of essential course questions and content. Such an approach does not eliminate the stress inherent in pursuit of a desired end, but it can alter the character of that stress. When students are given some expanded say in the scope, pace, depth and expression of their learning—when the learning becomes truly theirs, not merely the prescription of their teacher—what stress they feel supports work they find meaningful. What stress they feel emerges not principally from a quest for high grades and external approval, but rather the desire to improve their skill and understanding.
Some worry that if schools allow students to “go deep” with their interests, classes will become sites where “anything goes,” where unprepared students are in charge, and where important content is missed. With respect to these concerns, we agree that increasing student agency should proceed by degrees—students must learn gradually to take ownership of their learning. Moreover, learning through apprenticeship does not eliminate (and may in fact accentuate) the need for the thoughtful guidance of teachers.
We also take seriously the notion that courses must pose key questions and yield essential understandings of their discipline. But curricular approaches where content acquisition comes at the expense of student engagement seem to fail on their own terms. For example, one of the nation’s most esteemed independent schools conducted an experiment one September in which students retook final exams from three months earlier, after faculty removed detailed material they didn’t expect students to retain over the summer. On tests of just the essential concepts, the average grade fell from a B+ to an F.11 Students had acquired the content, but it seems whatever stress they felt was not connected to enduring understanding.
As Dintersmith writes: “We have it backwards. We push content, killing engagement. Better to spark and broaden engagement.” If we can provide students ample opportunity to encounter material on their own terms, to test and structure and apply the material in novel ways, we reposition stress as part of an intellectual experience that is robust, enduring and meaningful to the learner. We have all seen the magic that happens to children who are really into something—they are “content sponges”12 and will learn everything they can about it, without prompting. If intrinsic motivation is the holy grail of learning, then schools should be set up to bring this out in students.
Second, our schools should turbocharge students’ investment in their own learning by prompting them to articulate their learning goals, and to connect these goals to longer-term life horizons. All schools want their students to become healthy, responsible, caring adults who help make the world a more humane and decent place, but schools are in competition with a larger culture that Damon rightly sees as “urging young people to pursue short-term victories at the expense of enduring aspirations.”13 When schools become solely places of “short- term victories”—where activities are significant only to the degree that they produce high grades and academic status—student well-being is threatened not only by the unhealthy stress of a heavy workload, but also by the sense of meaninglessness that can emerge from a lack of agency over one’s own experience.
Schools can flip the script on stress by prompting students to consider and articulate a more distant goal horizon that gives short-term efforts deeper and more enduring meaning. (Given the opportunity to examine representation in American historiography, a student may discover an enduring interest in recovering and sharing the stories of the underrepresented. Another, engaged in a design technology project to improve the life of an elderly relative, may uncover an abiding desire to design products that better the lives of others.) Where so many cultural forces invite our young people to define their success solely in terms of where they rank on standardized metrics such as GPAs and SATs, schools have an opportunity to introduce a different, more transcendent set of evaluative criteria.
Schools are right to promote short-term learning goals; to be sure, realization of these aims can provide essential foundations for deeper learning, as well as create opportunities to enter other, more advanced sites of study. At the same time, however, schools can and should be places where students develop aspirations that direct academic achievement toward the service of something larger and more enduring.
When adults engage students in conversations about what gives life meaning, and about how their academic pursuits might connect to some meaningful niche in the world that they long to fill, students are empowered to look beyond transitory, transactional achievements. Students also then establish a higher-order level of healthy, life-affirming stress, one which drives the students to concern themselves with the qualities constitutive of a meaningful life.
Third and finally, we believe schools should celebrate students and faculty as they experience the healthy stress that comes from being deeply invested in an ultimate concern, and find ways to encourage this type of transformational learning. In all independent schools, no matter their composition or mission, there are instances of students and faculty under stress as they pursue meaningful ends, and it is a joy to behold. Students ask how a particular subject will help them improve the world, wonder if learning can take place outside the classroom, and ask for challenges that allow them to pursue intrinsic interests. For their part, teachers—as hard-working and time-pressed as their students—design lessons around genuine student inquiry, give feedback to emphasize the value of resilience and risk-taking and curiosity, and invite their charges to take a lead role in developing classroom activity. These are stressful efforts, certainly, but they are also meaning-making efforts, ones which allow both learners and teachers to find fulfillment in their respective roles.
When a teacher adapts and refines her curriculum in response to her students’ genuine questions and interests, when students pursue an intellectual project in their free time without giving a thought to the grade they might earn, when mentors prompt advisees to connect their learning with deeper questions about what it means to live authentically and purposefully—this is independent schooling at its best. And while we rightly venerate the academic achievement of our students, we can also recognize that such achievement can just as readily be the product of robust and active intellectual engagement; we can, in fact, realize the goods of achievement while connecting student stress to the pursuit of truly meaningful and enduring life aspirations. With such recognition comes the responsibility to celebrate the process of learning as much as its product, and learning communities do so by giving this kind of transformational learning the time, space, cultural esteem and resource support it needs to thrive.
What Matters Most
Students perform best when they are challenged, and challenges are inherently stressful. But stress unmoored from a clear and enduring purpose leads students adrift in a sea of confusion, self-doubt, anxiety and meaninglessness. Too many schools are presently overwhelmed with unhealthy stress in part because what happens day in and day out is almost entirely controlled by adults, and this fact denies students sufficient chance to articulate what matters most to them and why. Learning what matters most to us and why should be one of the central goals of a meaningful education and, indeed, a meaningful life. Let us, as educators, parents and mentors, give students the chance to feel the kind of healthy stress that necessarily attends engagement with activities and relationships that are personally meaningful to them. If given this chance, our students will show us what they can really do—and who they can really be.
1. Toppo, Greg. “Our High School Kids: Tired, Stressed and Bored.” USA TODAY, 23 Oct. 2015. usatoday.com.; Watson, Stephanie. “Students Unhappy in School, Survey Finds.” WebMD, 25 October 2015. webmd.com.
2. Leonard, N.R. et al (2015). A Multi-method Exploratory Study of Stress, Coping, and Substance Use Among High School Youth in Private Schools. Frontiers in Psychology, July 23, 2015. doi.org/10.3389/ fpsyg.2015.01028; NYU Communications. NYU Study Examines Top High School Students’ Stress and Coping Mechanisms. 2015, nyu.edu/ about/news-publications/news/2015/august/nyu-study-examines-top- high-school-students-stress-and-coping-mechanisms.html.
3. “Campus Mental Health Needs Are Growing,” American Psychological Association, 2018. apa.org.
4. Shimer, David. “Yale’s Most Popular Class Ever: Happiness.” New York Times, 26 Jan. 2018. nytimes.com.
5. McGonigal, Kelly. The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It. Penguin Random House, 2015, p. xvii.
6. Lobdell, Terri. “Driven to Succeed: How We’re Depriving Teens of a Sense of Purpose.” Palo Alto Weekly, 18 Nov. 2011. paloaltoonline.com.
7. Dintersmith, Ted. What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America. Princeton University Press, 2018, p. 3.
8. Robinson, Sir Ken. “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, Feb. 2006. ted.com.
9. Dintersmith, What School Could Be, p. 102.
10. McGonigal, pp. 65-67.
11. Wagner, Tony, and Ted Dintersmith. Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era. Scribner, 2016, p. 41; Strauss, Valerie. “A Venture Capitalist Searches for the Purpose of School. Here is What He Found.” The Washington Post, 3 Nov. 2015. washingtonpost.com.
12. @dintersmith. Twitter, 9 Aug. 2018, 6:56 a.m., twitter.com/dintersmith.
13. Damon, William. The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life. Free Press, 2009, p. 106.
Tara Christie Kinsey is head of school of The Hewitt School, a school for girls in grades kindergarten through 12 in Manhattan. John Botti is head of school of The Browning School, a school for boys in grades kindergarten through 12 in Manhattan.
This article first appeared in the 2019 issue of Parents League Review. © 2019 Parents League of New York www.parentsleague.org.