A new study looks at the stress many high school students must confront and how some are able to develop successful coping strategies while others do not.
“School, homework, extracurricular activities, sleep, repeat — that’s what it can be for some of these students,” said Noelle Leonard, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at the New York University College of Nursing (NYUCN).
According to Leonard, academic, athletic, social, and personal challenges have been regarded as domains of “good stress” for high school aged youth.
But there is growing awareness that many subgroups of youth experience high levels of chronic stress, to the extent that it impedes their abilities to succeed academically, compromises their mental health functioning, and fosters risk behavior.
Leonard said that this chronic stress may persist into the college years and could contribute to academic disengagement and mental health problems among emerging adults. “We are concerned that students in these selective, high pressure high schools can get burned out even before they reach college,” noted Leonard.
“The Charles Engelhard Foundation is interested in the issue of college engagement, and funded us to explore whether the roots of disengagement reach back as far as high school. We found that indeed they do.”
In a four-phase quantitative and qualitative study published in Frontiers in Psychology, a team of NYUCN researchers led by Leonard assessed the coping skills, academic engagement, family involvement and expectations, mental health symptoms, and substance use among juniors enrolled in two highly selective private secondary schools. The schools were located in the Northeast with one an urban day school and the other a boarding school.
“While there is no doubt students in selective public high schools also experience high rates of chronic stress, we decided to study the private school setting, which has been under-studied compared to public institutions,” said Marya Gwadz, Ph.D., the study’s Principal Investigator.
Among the differences, families pay substantial tuition rates for a private education and most students are affluent, and “such factors result in a unique set of pressures, expectations, norms, and resources,” noted Leonard.
The study focuses on students in the 11th grade. Chronic stress tends to be particularly high for this cohort, as it is generally the point at which students consolidate their portfolios in preparation for college applications.
In the first phase of the study, researchers conducted semi-structured qualitative interviews with 19 private school teachers, counselors, and administrators to elicit their perspectives on student stress and coping. These responses were in turn used to inform the second phase of the study, a quantitative anonymous Internet-based survey, administered to a total of 128 juniors between the two private schools.
About half (48 percent) of those surveyed reported completing at least three hours of homework a night, with girls 40 percent more likely to report three or more hours of homework a night than boys. Participants demonstrated a relatively strong academic performance, with girls reporting an average GPA of 3.57, higher than boys’ average of 3.34.
Students showed high levels of motivation for academic achievement, with an average valuation of 2.35 on a scale of zero (least) to three (most). On average, girls were found to be more motivated in this regard than boys (2.48 vs. 2.22). Students reported high rates of feelings of “closeness” to their parents, with an average valuation of 3.15 on a zero to four scale.
Nearly half (49 percent) of all students reported feeling a great deal of stress on a daily basis and 31 percent reported feeling somewhat stressed. Females reported significantly higher levels of stress than males (60 percent vs. 41 percent).
Grades, homework, and preparing for college were the greatest sources of stress for both genders. A substantial minority, 26 percent of participants, reported symptoms of depression at a clinically significant level.
In the third phase of the study, the NYUCN researchers conducted qualitative (semi-structured, open-ended) interviews with eighteen of the students surveyed to provide an interpretation of the results from the students’ perspective.
For the fourth and final phase of the research, a panel of eight private school experts was convened that included clinical social workers, psychologists, a private school guidance counselor, a teacher with both private and public school experience, a parent of two recent private school graduates, and a student who recently graduated from a private school.
The expert panel members were presented with the results from the study’s three previous phases in individual meetings and the responses from these interviews were used to further interpret and expand upon the data from prior phases.
“I think that parental pressure (on schools and students) is real,” said a teacher with more than 20 years of experience in the private school sector interviewed in the study’s fourth stage. “Parents are coming in and thinking, I’m (spending a lot of money) and I need to get something, a very tangible something. A great education is not a tangible something; a diploma from Harvard, Princeton or Yale …that’s tangible.”
Despite the stressful college preparation, it has never been more difficult to enter one of the top-tier institutions, which may accept only five or six percent of their applicants. Private high schools are responding to this competitive climate by providing more difficult classes (which may require longer hours of challenging homework), college-level classes, and requiring extracurricular activities, as well as other opportunities for students to stand out, such as entrepreneurial or community service opportunities.
Parents, in turn, may demand their children take Advanced Placement courses, even in cases where they are told their child is not a good fit for the course and may not be able to handle the work. Thus schools, parents, and students may feel caught in a cycle of escalating demands and expectations, largely out of their control and driven by greater societal factors.
Importantly, in a theme echoed by schools and experts, students noted that these demands did not always feel appropriate to their developmental levels. Instead, they felt they were asked to work as hard as adults, or even harder, with little time left for relaxation or creativity.
Coping with the Stress
When exploring how students managed the various sources of stress described in the study, researchers found they used a variety of coping strategies ranging from healthy, problem-focused coping, to less adaptive, emotion focused, internal and external avoidance coping strategies.
Active or problem-solving strategies for coping with stress included listening to or playing music, playing video/computer games, meditating, or getting away from school.
“Three main themes emerged as the most dominant adaptive coping strategies, notably, sports and exercise, preventive activities such as good planning skills, and maintaining a balanced perspective on school and grades,” said Leonard.
“On the opposite end of the spectrum, our interviews yielded few descriptions of less adaptive strategies, in contrast to the many adaptive strategies articulated by students, with two exceptions, emotional exhaustion and substance use,” said Michelle Grethel, Ph.D., an expert and independent consultant.
Students described emotional exhaustion as a feeling of lethargy or immobilization in response to feeling overwhelmed and stressed. “I just don’t do anything”, “I won’t do any of it”, or ” I lose the ability to function” were some of the ways students described this sense of paralysis.
Self-medication for excessive stress was a common occurrence.
“Substance use for stress relief was a predominant theme in our interviews with students, over two-thirds of whom described substance use as both endemic to their social experience and as a method for managing stress,” says Dr. Charles Cleland, a study investigator.
Alcohol and marijuana were described as the primary substances students used for relaxation. For the most part, students reported that substance use, while very common, did not usually rise to the level of problem or hazardous use.
Substance use for this purpose was not gender specific. Over the thirty-day period preceding the survey, 38 percent of students reported getting drunk and 34 percent of students reported getting high on an illegal substance, rates one to two times greater than reported in national normative samples.
“While students didn’t discuss prescription drug use, members of the expert panel indicated its widespread use among students for whom it was prescribed as well as those for whom it was not prescribed,” said Gwadz.