Every year that goes by, I find myself increasingly worried about the amount of stress that students are under–and the impact of that stress on their health and well-being. A recent New York Times article by Benoit Denizet-Lewis focused on the increasing number of students in high schools and colleges who suffer from severe anxiety. From that article:
In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase — to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 — of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year.
When I first started teaching, I would often blame the parents. And certainly I've heard from plenty of students who feel a lot of (undue) pressure from their parents to succeed. But more and more, the parents I meet are not the primary source of anxiety; rather, the students are putting this pressure on themselves. From that same New York Times article:
It’s tempting to blame helicopter parents with their own anxiety issues for that pressure (and therapists who work with teenagers sometimes do), but several anxiety experts pointed to an important shift in the last few years. “Teenagers used to tell me, ‘I just need to get my parents off my back,’ ” recalls Madeline Levine, a founder of Challenge Success, a Stanford University-affiliated nonprofit that works on school reform and student well-being. “Now so many students have internalized the anxiety. The kids at this point are driving themselves crazy.”
It's not just anxiety or depression–there are many ways in which stress impacts students' physical and emotional wellbeing. From a 2015 article in The Atlantic by Alexandra Ossola:
But too much stress has many effects on the body and mind, [Mary] Alvord says. In the short term it can cause anxiety; over long periods of time, elevated levels of stress hormones can degrade the immune system, cause heart problems, exacerbate respiratory and gastrointestinal issues, and bring on chronic anxiety and depression. That’s bad for anyone, but it can be especially bad for high schoolers... And since everyone has a different psychological capacity for stress, it’s hard to know when a student is pushed to the point of degrading his or her health.
As educators, we can't fix all these issues, but we have to be attentive to them and do what we can to help our students succeed without sacrificing their physical, mental, or emotional health. As writer (and writing teacher) John Warner puts it:
Increasingly, I think there’s a barrier I haven’t previously considered that needs addressing if my students are going to succeed: anxiety... We need to build a pedagogy that removes some measure of that anxiety and that allows students to practice–and see the benefits of–resiliency.
And you don't have to take my word for it. Ask the students, as they're acutely aware of the different stressors in their lives. In 2015, a junior at Palo Alto High School wrote about "the sorrows of young Palo Altans," and much of it sounded very familiar to me. Ms. Walworth may have only been a junior in high school, but I can't say it any better than she: "Effective education does not have to correlate to more stress."
So what do we do?
Earlier this spring, the New York Times covered some attempts to address this issue in Lexington, Mass.:
Elementary school students now learn breathing exercises and study how the brain works and how tension affects it. New rules in the high school limit homework. To decrease competition, there are no class rankings and no valedictorians and salutatorians. In town, there are regular workshops on teen anxiety and college forums designed to convince parents that their children can succeed without the Ivy Leagues.
There's a trend to say that schools should focus on teaching "grit," but to quote John Warner again, "Simply demanding greater resiliency isn’t going to work. We don’t badger people suffering from depression to be happier." I have little patience for teachers who justify policies that exist primarily to cause stress by saying, "I have to teach them a lesson," as if by simply living in a state of anxiety or stress for long enough is enough to help them learn to cope. As Alfie Kohn writes:
But people don’t really get better at coping with unhappiness because they were deliberately made unhappy when they were young. In fact, it is experience with success and unconditional acceptance that helps one deal constructively with later deprivation. Imposing competition or standardized tests or homework on children just because other people will do the same to them when they’re older is about as sensible as saying that, because there are lots of carcinogens in the environment, we should feed kids as many cancer-causing agents as possible while they’re small to get them ready.
So the key is to give students some experiences where they feel challenged, while maintaining an environment that is unconditionally supportive. Alfie Kohn again writes about the importance of "unconditional teaching":
One study found that students who felt unconditionally accepted by their teachers were more likely to be genuinely interested in learning and to enjoy challenging academic tasks—as opposed to just doing things because they had to and preferring easier assignments at which they knew they would be successful (Makri-Botsari, 2001).
To provide this unconditional support, we must actively oppose the policies that get in the way, such as those that encourage us to value children on the basis of their academic standing—or, worse, merely on the basis of their test scores.
Mr. Denizet Lewis' piece spends some time discussing the use of exposure therapy, an important piece of cognitive-behavioral therapy for those suffering from anxiety. We teachers are not clinicians, of course, but those same principles could perhaps inform how we aim to challenge students while still supporting them unconditionally. How can we help students have challenging experiences, while still making it clear to them that they are safe?
If teachers are challenging our students, stretching them to try new experiences, learn new skills, and think in new ways, it's not inherently bad that they feel some stress or anxiety about the process; those moments of discomfort can be where the growth happens. At the same time, we teachers can make sure that students feel entirely supported throughout that process. For example, do my classroom policies make students feel stress or anxiety about valuable things, like trying to write the best paper they can, or do I cause them to feel stress about extraneous details like unnecessary deadlines? Many times I worry that the entire process of assigning grades to student work is counter-productive to this unconditional support, but if grades are a necessary evil, how can I minimize the damage? I can say to my students, "Don't worry about grades," but if only the students with the highest GPAs are recognized, what message does that send?
I have my own experiences with anxiety, and my heart goes out for these kids who find themselves feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Life is challenging enough, and if we in schools make it unnecessarily difficult for our students, that's not some kind of vaccine that will protect them later. We can't make their world completely free of stressors, nor should that be the goal. But I do think we have a duty to support them–in many cases, better than we have done.