As Teen Stress Increases, Teachers Look for Answers
When people who don’t work in education approach me with sincere interest, “What’s new with teens?” Typically, I let them know that it appears that more of them will end up in the hospital with each passing school year.
I’ve worked with high-achieving students who forgo sleep in favour of studying flashcards and always appear to be on the point of a nervous breakdown. There have been times when I’ve had students who choose not to come to school because they don’t want to add to the pressure they’re already under. I was a part of a student panel once, and I overheard several of the students boasting about how they only wanted “the points” since they felt overwhelmed by their assignments. The occurrence of student meltdowns has really grown rather widespread, and as a result, parents frequently ask for their children’s impending homework in advance, knowing that their children would be absent from school.
My school is not a high-stakes feeder programme for Ivy League institutions, despite the impression that this is the case; rather, it is a diverse public school that serves students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. We are similar to many other public schools in that student stress appears to be on the rise. This is putting teachers like me in a difficult position, causing us to second-guess ourselves and ask whether students are really too stressed or simply lack the ability to manage their time effectively and are lobbying for less homework.
But data backs up my anecdotal evidence that students now appear more anxious than they did in years past. This research also demonstrates that anxiety, sadness, and self-harm are on the rise among adolescents. According to a poll conducted by Pew Research in 2019, seventy percent of the young people surveyed feel that stress is a significant issue. Emergency room visits for self-inflicted, non-fatal injuries among children and young adults increased by 5.7 percent from 2008 to 2015, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that between 2007 and 2017, more teenagers were seriously considering suicide or hurting themselves in attempts to commit suicide than in previous decades. The number of self-inflicted injuries that were not fatal also increased during this time period.
Dr. Melissa Holland, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at California State University, Sacramento, said, “I’ve observed a rise in diagnosable anxiety disorders that virtually incapacitate kids.” Dr. Holland works at the university. It is believed that around one in every five adolescents has a diagnosable mental health issue, and the majority of these cases do not receive treatment.
The issue is quite real and frightening, but who or what is to blame?
I took part in a question-and-answer session at a preschool that my spouse and I were thinking about enrolling our daughter in two years ago when we were still in the research phase. The principal of the school polled the parents to find out what they envisioned for their offspring in the years to come.
Two of the parents, whose children were still wearing diapers when they were playing a few feet away, quickly volunteered that they were excited for their young children to be exposed to a STEM-based educational environment. A third mother raised her hand and stated that she wished for nothing more than for her child to experience joy. The fact that her neighbours were laughing at her as they were crammed into little wooden seats like grown-up versions of their children is really revealing.
The scholastic expectations and stress that modern adolescents experience begin well before they reach high school and appear to intensify with each passing year. The pressure is brought on by parents and educators who worry, and make teenagers worry, that they won’t get accepted into highly ranked universities with tuitions that are becoming increasingly prohibitive, or that they won’t be prepared for a competitive job market once they graduate from high school.
View from above of students sitting for their GCSE examination in the classroom
Photograph by Fredrick Kippe / Available on Alamy
According to psychologists, rising academic pressure may be one factor that contributes to student stress.
Students who grew up in the wake of the testing-intensive No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law hire SAT tutors, pack their schedules with activities and community service projects, and try to increase their grade point averages by taking as many honours and advanced placement classes as they can. Even with these overburdened course loads, kids have no guarantee of getting into universities, not even state schools, which are seeing their admittance rates continue to decrease.
“There is tremendous competition to get ahead,” said Daniel Keating, professor of psychology, psychiatry, and paediatrics at the University of Michigan and author of the book Born Anxious, which was published in 2017. Keating is also the editor of the journal Child Psychiatry. “There are academic and career aspirations, diminishing opportunities and reduced social mobility,” said Keating. “It is not entirely evident to teens [of today] that there will be a prize at the conclusion of this game.”
He explained that pupils reacted more strongly when they felt that their reality was less solid than they had anticipated, and when they felt that their efforts and hopes were less likely to be rewarded with the expected consequences. Because of where their brains are in the development process, it can be extremely difficult for teenagers to negotiate these kinds of pressures; they simply aren’t capable of handling stress in the same way that adults are.
According to Keating, these individuals are paradoxically more sensitive and less capable of managing their impulses. “The stressors feel even worse [for teens], which leads to behavioural disorders, hair-trigger responses, acting out, and an inability to keep things in perspective—or, conversely, becoming more isolated.” [Citation needed]
UNIQUE CULTURAL AND SOCIAL DYNAMICS
Students, on the other hand, do not study in a vacuum. These academic pressures are heightened for teenagers, according to the psychologists and educators that I spoke with, because of the status of the economy, current events, and unique cultural and social dynamics that earlier generations were not exposed to.
Teens who are part of Generation Z who were born between the middle of the 1990s and the middle of the 2000s now receive frequent alarmist warnings online in the form of a personalised intravenous drip of alarming news. This is despite the fact that the world has never been a safe place (fake and otherwise).
“The other day, a student told me that the world isn’t safe anymore, with school shootings, terrorists, politics, war, and violence,” said Barbara Truluck, a middle school counsellor who was recently named Georgia’s 2019 Counselor of the Year. Truluck was honoured for her work as a counsellor after being named Georgia’s 2019 Counselor of the Year. Her pupils will occasionally have an outburst of emotion over matters that appear to be unrelated to their time spent in school. “On a daily basis, children are coping with a never-ending barrage of [bad] headlines,” the author writes.
Additionally, there are new forms of terror, such as climate change, immigration policies, and the #MeToo movement. The findings of the 2018 Stress in America survey conducted by the American Psychological Association lend credence to Truluck’s observations. According to the survey’s findings, 75 percent of participants between the ages of 15 and 21 reported worrying about mass shootings, whereas only 62 percent of adults overall reported having these concerns. Members of Generation Z have reported feeling the highest stress than members of any other age group, regardless of the problem being discussed, be it immigration policy, sexual harassment, climate change, or suicide itself.
Teenage girls utilising their mobile phones while sitting on the floor.
Stock image courtesy of Westend61 GmbH / Alamy
According to the findings of a survey, nearly half of all adolescents say they are “constantly” online.
Teenagers are not only continually exposed to terrible news online, but they are also involved in the digital halls of Snapchat and TikTok. Sometimes, they are so engrossed in these digital hallways that they collide with one other in the actual corridors of their schools. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center on the use of social media by adolescents found that nearly all adolescents have access to a smartphone and that more than 45 percent of adolescents report being online “constantly.” This represents an increase of more than 20 percent since the same study was conducted in 2015.
Even though the use of technology can have beneficial effects on young people, compulsive and always-on media use can trap adolescents in the unhelpful refuge of wide-ranging shallow connections that magnify pre-existing problems and make them all-consuming. These problems could include a conflict with a peer, an unhealthy relationship, or a negative body image. These digital ties can very rapidly become a substitute for actual, deeper interactions with other people, which may help adolescents manage stress or cope with challenges.
SOLUTIONS FOR THE WORLD WE HAVE
A senior student approached me in the corridor at the beginning of one school year and requested to have a conversation with me. She maintained her composure as she calmly informed the class, “I want to let you know that I will not be able to turn in all of my assignments.” Because I become highly stressed out, I make it a practise to let my professors know about it in advance so that they can understand. Similar presentations have been made by other pupils. The takeaway from this is that, since tasks are a source of stress, tasks should be eliminated.
However, dealing with student anxieties one at a time like a game of whack-a-mole does not solve the larger issue. If a student’s assignments are removed from the gradebook in an effort to calm them down, then other possibilities for anxiety will undoubtedly arise in their place if the student does not develop effective coping methods.
Obviously, schools have a need for more guidance counsellors and therapists, but unfortunately, these positions are frequently the first ones to be eliminated when budgets are slashed. Students absolutely need to take a break from their phones. And the snowploughs parent who wades into conferences to wage battle on behalf of a kid’s valedictorian hopes is doing nothing more than delaying the student’s ultimate encounter with the limits of parental power.
However, for those adults, such as parents and teachers, who are unable to alter the conditions, there are helpful answers that tackle the environment in which we live. These solutions include coping skills that assist individuals face future obstacles. “You’re teaching kids a toolkit for whatever stress they may face if you educate them grit, resiliency, and self-care,” Truluck added. “These are skills that can be applied to any situation.”
For instance, educators should be willing to entertain the possibility that the manner they have traditionally assigned and graded students’ work may potentially contribute to an increase in stress without correspondingly increasing the level of academic rigour. When students complain that their teachers don’t interact with one another enough, they actually have a point. This can lead to situations in which students are required to complete multiple substantial assignments at the same time.
To look at it from a more holistic perspective, however, social and emotional development shouldn’t be viewed as an add-on in high school, nor can it be equated with a loss of academic rigour or instructional minutes: Some schools are beginning to recognise that self-care should be incorporated into the instructional programme.
After suffering the loss of a pupil to suicide during his third year as a teacher, Roni Habib vowed to devote himself to enhancing the psychological well-being of both students and instructors. Because “it’s very easy for kids to fall through the cracks,” especially as they progress through school and academics take priority, Habib said that schools need to make sure that every single kid in a school knows that at least one adult in the school “really sees them.” This is especially important as students move up through the grades.
There is no compelling reason for this kind of interaction to be conducted in a casual manner. Habib proposes thinking out a means to switch places with one of the students at least once during the course of the day with another teacher. Habib was rattled by the encounter he had in which he followed a pupil from class to class. “By the time the day was up, I was completely worn out,” he remarked. “I barely had time to eat or pee,” the speaker said.
Since then, he has been teaching the popular Positive Psychology elective at Gunn High School. This experience has helped him realise that it is beneficial for children to have time built into their daily schedules not only for relaxation but also for engaging in activities that promote active healing. Even in the Advanced Placement (AP) Economics class that Habib had previously instructed, he discovered that introducing games and mindfulness practises into his lectures helped students better focus on the material at hand and resulted in more fruitful group work.
“What is more important for a youngster to learn, an esoteric notion in macroeconomics, or how to be patient and kind with themselves when they fail so that they may recover and try again so that they can persevere?” said Habib.