By Kristina Slusser
Wake up early. Go to school for seven hours without a break. Pay attention. Be engaged. Write papers. Take tests. Do homework. Be involved. Have friends. Work. Do community service. Spend time with family. Do chores. Play sports and play them well. Get enough sleep to wake up and do it all again and again. Five days in a row, 10 months a year.
The life of an American high school student is no simple life. These kids are scrutinized the moment they start slacking in even one of the aforementioned areas. The expectations for many high school students are simply astounding. Are adolescents capable of handling such pressure?
USA Today reported that in 2015, students across the U.S. felt tired, bored or stressed while at school. In an informal survey of my own students, the reports were consistent. My students also associated negative emotions with school, with stress making the top of the list.
Clearly, our high school students are not having an easy time dealing with the numerous pressures of high school life. Yet, even though we know they are struggling emotionally, our schools continue to demand more from them. At what point will we recognize that students need to be emotionally stable if we wish for them to excel academically?
In conversations with my students, I explored what they felt was the root cause of their stress that hindered academic achievement, and their responses were similar. Almost all of them stated that the pressure to do everything exceptionally well is what causes them to be stressed because they are afraid of disappointing themselves, their teachers, and/or their parents. An overwhelming number of my students stated that they feel added stress from feeling like they “can’t show weakness,” meaning that they don’t want people to see them have a meltdown for fear of being seen as not being able to control their emotions or make reasonable judgments.
The irony is, the things that these teenagers fear are the same things that they are intellectually incapable of fully controlling.
Why have we put our kids in a situation where they fear making mistakes in areas where mistakes are natural? We expect students to excel academically while being in full control of their emotions, but honestly, what adult can do that on a daily basis? School should not be a place where children fear their natural imperfection.
The world of K-12 education is all about rigorous, age-appropriate academic tasks. Shouldn’t the same emphasis be put on emotional and behavioral tasks? High school students are obviously more mature than young children; however, their brain is not fully developed. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a professor of cognitive neuroscience, says an adolescent’s brain is not yet fully capable of processes such as “internal control, multi-tasking and planning … also self-awareness and social cognitive skills such as perspective taking and the understanding of other people’s minds.”
What does this mean for high school students? They lack reasoning ability, internal control and the ability to make thoughtful judgments. If we leave out the at-home expectations and look solely at what we ask our students to do at school, we can see that sometimes our expectations may not always be age-appropriate.
Rigor in school, inarguably, is necessary. For students to learn and grow, they must be challenged to think and do beyond their comfort zones without the assistance of someone with more experience. However, while rigorous curricula is beneficial to the intellectual development of high school students, what are we doing to their emotional development when we make them live in emotional discomfort?
Maybe instead of requiring students to take myriad courses that are tested via standardized tests, we should offer courses that train their brains to grow and develop effective social and cognitive skills such as self-control and reasonable thinking. Maybe, instead of having kids sit through the same classes day after day, schools should introduce social well-being classes.
There is no doubt that we do not have time in the day to simply add more classes to students’ schedules without sacrificing another, but students will not excel academically if they are not in the right state of mind to do so. In fact, some schools around the world – specifically those in Canada – have figured this out and have taken steps to correct it. Students take yoga classes, mental health classes and receive lessons in coping mechanisms and addressing anxiety and common mental health issues faced by adolescents. Schools implementing this curriculum, designed with input from the Canadian Mental Health Association, are educating the whole child in order to ensure students are in the right frame of mind to achieve academically.
We are asking our kids to fight nature, a fight that many will not win. Instead of understanding their struggles and working with them to develop their emotional stability and reasonable judgment, we punish them by writing referrals to get them out of class when they have an outburst. We take away privileges if their behaviors are not perfectly aligned to our expectations. We suspend students for poor decisions without teaching them why it was a bad decision and a better course of action to get to a more effective decision.
We are quick to punish, but not quick to teach alternatives.
Instead of stressing our kids out beyond control, how about we implement a few changes to our schools, including:
- Nontested courses about mental health.
- Classes that promote positive mental health (yoga, fitness, art).
- Educating faculty to better recognize the signs of poor mental health.
- Stress management classes.
- Replace punishment for outbreaks with intervention (with the idea of guiding kids on how to make better decisions and giving second chances).
- Realistic expectations for student behavior.
What else can you add to this list?
Kristina Slusser is a high school English teacher at Simon Kenton High School (Kenton County). She has been teaching for four years and is a track and cross country coach. Slusser is a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati pursuing a degree in educational studies-literacy.