When it comes to school stress, Hannah O'Brien has seen some extremes.
The 17-year-old junior at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California, has witnessed students crying in class after getting low test scores, she says, while others have gone without sleep a few nights in a row to keep up with homework.
"I personally have seen so many of my closest friends absolutely break -- emotionally, physically, mentally -- under stress, and I knew a lot of it was coming from school work," she says.
School stress is serious business. A 2007 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report suggests that for children and teens, too much work and too little play could backfire down the road. "Colleges are seeing a generation of students who appear to be manifesting increased signs of depression, anxiety, perfectionism and stress," the report says.
Young Kids Feel School Stress, Too
A great deal of the pressure and anxiety about school stems from the college admissions race, O'Brien says.
"Students are being really pushed to make great academic gains, with No Child Left Behind," says Jim Bierma, a middle-school counselor in St. Paul, Minnesota. "A lot of students are stressed out about college already - in junior high."
But younger kids feel pressured, too. Even among her elementary students in Harrisburg, Arkansas, school counselor Joy Holt sees academic stress. Young kids are terrified of failing the standardized tests now emphasized heavily during the school year, she says.
"Even the little ones, they know how important [testing] is, and they don't want to fail," Holt says. "They cry. They get sick. Students have actually thrown up on their test booklets."
Of course, not all students find the classroom such a crucible. But in today's landscape of high-stakes testing and frenzied college admissions, experts worry that school stress takes a toll on too many.
Here's what parents can do to help ease the burden.
1. Watch for signs of school-related stress.
With teens, parents should watch for stress-related behaviors, like purposely cutting themselves, or expressions of despair or hopelessness, however casual the comments may sound. "Those are off-hand remarks that you need to take seriously," Pope says.
Younger kids may have more subtle signs of school stress, like headaches, stomachaches or reluctance to go to school, she adds.
2. Teach kids time-management skills.
With today's heavy homework loads, time-management and organizationalskills are crucial weapons against stress, experts say.
Teach kids to budget their time wisely with homework. "Try to do something every night instead of cramming at the last moment," says Delores Curry, a California high school counselor and secondary level vice president of the American School Counselor Association.
Stress-Relieving Homework Tips
- Teach your kids to use a planner to keep track of assignments, says middle-school counselor Bierma. When they finish each assignment, kids can check them off for a feeling of accomplishment.
- If kids struggle with tracking their homework, help them by following along with homework if their school posts assignments online.
- Give your child a quiet place to study, free of distractions, away from TV and video games.
- If possible, have kids study earlier rather than later in the day. "The later it is for most students, the shorter their attention span," Bierma says.
- Ask the school about resources if your child is struggling academically, Bierma says. Many schools now have homework clubs, math clubs, and tutoring programs after school.
3. Consider whether your child is over-scheduled.
Over-scheduling is a big source of school stress, experts say. Many high-school students enroll in more Honors or Advanced Placement courses than they can handle, and then pile extracurricular activities on top, says Denise Clark Pope, PhD, a lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education in Stanford, California, and author of Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students.
If parents filled their kids' schedules with more sleep, down time, and family time, Pope says, "We would not be in the situation we are today. It would be that dramatic of a change."
As a fellow student, O'Brien agrees: "Kids are so consistently worried about keeping up with 'what's next' and 'what's next,' that it's hard to sit down and say, 'Wow, I'm stressed out. Let's find out why.'"
Elementary students can be over-scheduled, too, Holt says. "There are so many things to do now. It's not like you just go outside and play. Now there are clubs, sports, ballet, gym - plus you're trying to get homework in there," she says. "As a society, we're just in a whirlwind. We've forgotten: We are dealing with children."
Some children thrive under a "driven schedule," the AAP report says. "However, for some children this hurried lifestyle is a source of stress and anxiety and may even contribute to depression."
The challenge is to strike a balance between work and play. If your child feels overly stressed and overwhelmed, look for ways to cut back on school work and extra activities - though that's not easy for overachievers to hear.
"Kids just have this idea that they need to be Superman," O'Brien says.
Worried about the physical and emotional costs of academic stress, Pope founded the Stanford-based "Stressed-Out Students" (SOS) program. SOS partners with middle schools and high schools to survey kids' stress levels and find ways to reduce stress in school.
"There has been a serious problem with sleep deprivation," Pope says. "It's not unusual for 30% or 40% of [the students] to get 6 hours or less. Almost none are getting the required hours that an adolescent needs - which is 9 ½ hours." Adequate sleep alone would make a big difference in teens' stress levels, she says.
Holt advises exercise to help cope with stress. "If all you have is academics," she says," [stress] is going to build up, and it's got to go somewhere. It's going to help if kids are being physically active."
Both Holt and Pope agree: Family time is also crucial for cushioning stress. Pope suggests mealtimes as a way to connect with your child - "a minimum of 20 minutes sitting down together at least 4 to 5 times a week," she says. "Listen to your children, and communicate with them."
5. Watch the parental pressure.
Some parents may not realize they're making school stress worse by pressuring their kids to excel. But parents who want to ease kids' stress must shift their perspective, says Pope.
"Really think about how you're defining success in your family," she says. "If the first question out of your mouth is, 'How did you do on the history test today?' then you're sending a message that you value grades more than anything else." (And worse: It could prompt academic cheating.)
Instead, Pope suggests asking: "What's the best thing that happened to you today?" "Did you learn anything exciting or new?" At first, the conversations may be awkward. "It's going to take some practice," Pope says. "But just asking the questions in that way is starting to send the right message."
It's not easy for some parents to let up. As the AAP report says: "Even parents who wish to take a lower-key approach to child-rearing fear slowing down when they perceive everyone else is on the fast track." Try to keep in mind that a few, low test grades won't torpedo your child's lifelong plans.
6. Keep the fun in childhood and teen years.
Kids often have too little unstructured time to relax and play, experts say - from a leisurely bike ride with friends to a Saturday hanging out at the beach.
"I hate to say it, but school is almost their job," Holt says of her elementary students. "And you know how stressful jobs can be. If you don't go and have fun and forget about it for a little while, you're just going to take it with you the next day. And are you going to perform as well?"
"Remember to have fun in your high school career," Hughes says, "because I see a lot of kids letting the stress consume them."