Are we stressing out our kids?

Stressed out, over-scheduled, hurried: These words are often used to describe children these days.

By Marian Wilde , GreatSchools Staff

Are we unwittingly lowering the quality of life for those we mean to nurture? Are we degrading childhood by demanding ever more of our children? Many parents worry about these questions, as students report that they're feeling stressed out.

"I have been really stressed because of the homework that is being assigned," a middle-school student from Utah recently wrote in an email to GreatSchools. "In pre-algebra, we get at least three pages of homework. In English, we get at least one page and a reading assignment, at least 30-50 pages in our books. Then there is science, five-six pages are assigned all days except Friday. In Utah studies, we get one page with the option of extra credit, which is another page. In French, we have to do two to three pages of verbs in the French dictionaries. In Spanish, 80 flashcards are assigned two days before the test. As you can see, I don't take any extra activities because I don't have time!"

Stress on the rise

"Everyone has their own way of measuring stress, depression being one measure," says Denise Clark Pope, author of "Doing School" How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students. "But the consensus is that there are more stressed-out kids."

One recent study from the Stanford School of Medicine indicates that the number of children, ages 7-17, treated for depression more than doubled between 1995 and 2001.

What's causing the stress?

From kindergarten through high school, the causes of childhood stress are numerous. One of the most commonly cited is standardized-test stress, which starts in first-grade in many states.

High-stakes tests, such as the TAKS in Texas and the FCAT in Florida, are particularly stressful, for students and teachers alike. Students in certain grades must pass these tests to advance to the next grade. In Florida, children as young as 8 years old face the prospect of being held back if they fail the test. Whether you are for them or against them, high-stakes test create considerable stress.

And while experts are debating whether homework loads are in fact heavier now than in the past, many agree that it is being assigned at an earlier age than before.

Another source of school-related stress occurs in high school where more students are taking more rigorous classes, such as Advanced Placement (AP) classes offered by the College Board. In the past 25 years, there has been explosive growth in the number of students taking AP classes, with one-quarter of all high-school graduates having taken at least one in 2004. In addition, more high-school students are now taking the PSAT twice and the SAT and ACT at least once, if not multiple times.

College admissions anxiety

The prize at the end of the rainbow for many students is admission to a prestigious college, but the prize may seem less attainable now than in years past, especially depending upon how they and their parents define "prestigious."

According to the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, the number of high school graduates increased 24% from 1991 to 2004, and the number is expected to grow another 5% before 2017. That's an additional 700,000 high school graduates queuing up for college admission, while the actual number of colleges has remained the same.

The result: Highly selective colleges have become even more selective.

As the college admissions process becomes more demanding - more admissions tests, more rigorous classes, more applications, more college tours - the stress on students increases. "College admissions should be educational," says Lloyd Thacker, author of College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy, at a recent lecture to parents of high school students in San Francisco. "But the process has become impossibly confusing."

Thacker, as the title of his book shows, has been campaigning to end the competitive frenzy to get into a brand-name college. He points out that "twenty-five percent of all college applications go to one percent of colleges."

"There are over 3,000 colleges in the United States and 70-80% of kids get into a college of their choice," Thacker says.

He encourages students to question the assumption that success in life is determined by the selectivity of the college that accepts them. "Two-thirds of Silicon Valley CEOs went to public colleges. Students are sacrificing their individuality, health and ethics to fit into a certain mold that they think colleges want. We're squelching curiosity and risk-taking," he says.

Some stress is good

Not all stress is bad. A certain amount of stress drives healthy competition in the classroom and in extracurricular activities. Good stress induces a student to strive for her personal best on an exam, a term paper or on the debate team.

"It's impossible to live in a stress-free world," says Pope. "A little bit of butterflies before a test may improve performance. Our definition of bad stress is that a student feels the situation is impossible or he feels he is not able to meet the demands upon him."

Parents need to be sensitive to their child's individual ability to deal with stress.

Some high school students may be able to handle four or five AP classes at a time, but many may not be able to. "There is a myth that if you're getting great grades you're OK. However, great grades are not an indicator of good mental health," says Pope.

If your child exhibits any of the above symptoms and it's causing problems at school or home, or if any of the above symptoms persists for weeks, seek professional help. You can start with your school counselor or family doctor.

Teaching students to regulate stress

A number of strategies are available to help navigate the stresses of school. Parents can start by listening to their children. If a child complains of stress, anxiety, depression or hopelessness, parents should pay attention.

There are many children, however, who do not or cannot verbalize their stress. In these cases, parents need to be on the lookout for other signs. Some children may not want to stop or slow down their schedules for fear of disappointing their parents.

Strategies for parents of younger children

  • Listen and notice any expressions of anxiety
  • Talk with them about their feelings
  • Brainstorm with them to find things they can do to feel better
  • Make sure they are getting enough sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 9-11 hours for children 5-12 years old.
  • Make sure you are not over scheduling them

Strategies for parents of older children

  • Make sure they are not over scheduling themselves
  • Make sure they are getting enough sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 8.5-9.5 hours a day for adolescents
  • Look at your assumptions about what constitutes a good college and what you are communicating, perhaps unknowingly, to them

Strategies for parents of children of all ages

  • Look at how you define success and how you communicate that to your children
  • Limit media time
  • Increase family time, especially eating meals together as a family

Strategies for students

  • Think about how you define success and make the appropriate changes to your attitude
  • Root out any tendencies to perfectionism
  • Be aware of tendencies to be overly competitive
  • Ask yourself whether you are being less creative and open to exploration in exchange for high grades and test scores

It goes without saying that schools have a part to play in reducing stress.

Strategies for schools

  • Examine the testing, homework and final exam policies
  • Stop publishing the honor roll in newspapers
  • Stop listing where kids are going to college in community newspapers and in graduation ceremonies
  • Look at teaching and assessment policies

One school, Needham High School in Needham, Massachusetts, created a Stress Reduction Committee after Principal Paul Richards attended a Stressed-Out Students conference at Stanford University.

In January 2008, the committee issued an report encouraging parents to help by advocating for a "mastery goal approach" to high school rather than a "performance goal approach, focused on high grades and admission to a name-brand college."

The report advised the school to "minimize any hypocritical practices that contribute to high stress, e.g., non-coordinated testing schedules, excessive homework and ranking students."

These actions, and more, have been taken at Needham High School as of January 2008:

  • Teachers participated in a professional development day on stress and wellness
  • Stress management workshops were held for juniors and sophomores
  • Articles about stress appeared in the student newspaper
  • A stress survey was taken by the student body in February 2006

The committee identified many more actions to be taken. These include:

  • Develop a Web site with a list of resources about stress
  • Communicate best practices to reduce stress
  • Revise the school's homework policy
  • Create a column about stress in the student newspaper

Finding the right level of stress

Parents need to set rules for their children that enforce moderation. They must strive to keep time free for family meals and activities.

Driving children from one activity to another, day after day, while cramming homework into whatever time is left over, teaches children to over schedule themselves. On the other hand, if parents have personal goals for themselves — that they can realistically achieve — are comfortable with their own stress levels, and know how to relax, then their children will grow up learning to do the same.

These are the signs that a student has a healthy level of stress:

  • She is excited about learning.
  • He doesn't feel that he needs to cheat to get ahead.
  • She feels healthy.
  • He feels he is determining his own future.