15 Serious Facts about High School Stress

Contributed by Michele Borba

Every parent and educator must know these troubling facts about our teens. Each fact is a wake-up call, but together they should mean: “Time for Code Red”

This blog was written by the Bachelor’s Degree Online and published with its permission.

One of the greatest lies ever perpetuated about the teen years is that they’re supposedly “the best years of your life.” Ask any high schooler these days how he or she genuinely feels about this statement and the opposite sentiment might very well end up relayed instead.

Every year, more and more pressures regarding classes, getting into the right college (or deciding if college is even the right choice), families, jobs, extracurricular activities, friends, relationships, and other stimuli just keep burbling away beneath their still-developing forms.

Suffice it to say, this avalanche of stress hinders their progress and personalities far more than it helps, but many think they have no real alternative. Without persistently striving toward an unattainable perfection, students find themselves trapped between success or failure, with no “gray areas” in between.

And the situation worsens every year, although there are plenty of things administrators, teachers, parents, and even the teens themselves can to do promote calmness and balance. Before that, though, they should understand exactly what’s at stake when it comes to stress and anxiety in the high school classroom.

1. Most high school students consider cheating OK: According to a CNN poll of 4,500 high schoolers, around 75% engage in “serious cheating,” over half plagiarize directly from the Internet, and about 50% believe that copying answers doesn’t even count as cheating. Such questionable ethics apparently stem directly from absurd competition, since grades mean the difference between getting into a dream school and a backup. To alleviate the mounting stress to constantly perform at the highest level, students turn toward cheating and compromising their own education as a solution.

2. One in five teens qualifies as clinically depressed: According to Mental Health America’s estimates, 20% of teens are clinically depressed, and the real tragedy lies with how their parents and teachers approach the subject. Because so many dismiss the symptoms of depression as mere adolescent adjustments, a disconcerting number of these teens go without the treatment they need to enjoy a healthy, happy life.

Obviously, depression stems from numerous factors beyond just heightened academic pressures. But they certainly render already painful situations even worse, regardless of whether or not they exist as the root cause.

3. Stress ups the suicide rate…: Over in the UK, Oakgrove head teacher John Harkin told The Guardian that anywhere between 600 to 800 students between the ages of 15 and 24 commit suicide annually. A poll of 804 teachers revealed that 73% considered school (and life in general) far more stressful for students than in the previous decade, which more than likely contributes to the climbing suicide rate. Eighty-nine percent believed high-stakes classroom assignments and exams played a major (if not the premiere) role in nurturing anxiety.

4. …oh, and self-harm, too: Beyond suicide, though, British students also cause self-harm in greater numbers than before, correlating with the increase in school and other life pressures. As reported by The Guardian, 46% of polled teachers claimed they knew of kids in middle and high school harming themselves. Cutting seems to be the most popular trend beneath this tragic umbrella, although anorexia — which, by the way, has little to do with simply wanting to “be skinny” — and other eating disorders appear on the rise as well.

5. The same thing happens in the U.S., too: The problem of depression, anxiety and suicide transcends nationality, and The Almanac printed statistics from the National Institutes of Health and its study on random San Francisco students. Although obviously not indicative of the whole nation’s risk, it did highlight the relationship between stress and mental health taxing the youth. A staggering 30% of the city’s high schoolers suffered beneath a suicide risk, and one institution in particular (Menlo-Atherton High School) saw 40 teens forced to go under behavior monitoring within a year.

6. Some schools have purged the AP Program altogether…: Despite the prestige heaped onto offering Advanced Placement classes and harboring students who get stellar scores on the affiliated exams, some schools have decided to forgo them completely. These college-level courses taught in high school require a heftier workload than their level and honors counterparts, and institutions like Beaver Country Day School in Massachusetts don’t think the inflated stress is worth the emotional and physiological toll. So they’ve obliterated the program, which they claim has no impact whatsoever on graduates’ eventual college acceptance and success.

7. …and managed to implement some successful alternatives, too: Along with jettisoning the AP Program, some schools — like the aforementioned Beaver Country Day School — have decided to implement other measures to keep students from succumbing to stress. More low-key assignments, like shooting videos or writing songs, prove just as effective as more rote, lecture-based methods used in traditional classrooms. Other strategies include weekends with no homework assigned, improved communication between teachers so major exams don’t correspond with those in other classes, and longer study and recreation periods. Once again, the school reports that these strategies improve the quality of life for their students without compromising their academic performance or potential.

8. And the teachers on the front lines could be doing better as well: Regardless of whether or not they work in a school experimenting with more stress-reduction methods, teachers themselves could generally do better when nurturing mentally and emotionally healthy students, especially those teachers with Advanced Placement kiddos under their care. Menlo-Atherton High School math teacher Jerry Brodkey practices empathy in his classroom, tailoring his workloads to maximize education while minimizing anxiety. Such a simple concept and awareness of his students’ lives beyond his calculus and algebra classes resulted in improved scores once AP Exam time rolled around. Not to mention some seriously positive teacher evaluations mentioning how the relaxed atmosphere better facilitated learning and information retention.

9. It starts much earlier than high school: Increased college competition means increased high school competition. Increased high school competition means increased middle school competition. Increased middle school competition means increased elementary school competition. Once students get to the last four compulsory grades, the pressure to constantly excel and perform has already been shoved into their growing bodies. So when kids do succumb to the pressures, chances are they may very well have been lurking beneath the surface long before freshman year.

10. Female students feel it harder than their male peers: A survey conducted by the Associated Press and MTV discovered that of the 85% of students claiming they experienced “stress at least sometimes” (if not more than that), most were female. Forty-five percent reported they felt it “frequently,” compared to 32% of their male colleagues. Most disconcertingly, the trend seemed to reflect an increase in stress and anxiety levels when compared to surveys from the year before — at least 10 points higher, says MSNBC. Interestingly enough, students hailing from mid-range income families experienced far more pressure than those from low- or high-income ones.

11. Girls are more likely to suppress their stress: Not only are female students more likely to experience hefty amounts of stress, they also typically handle it more discreetly than males. However, the boys don’t always handle it healthily, either — according to Dr. Roni Cohen-Sandler, they typically react to the anxieties by dropping out mentally. Social pressures push girls towards constant perfection in school, extra-curriculars, appearances, relationships and friendships without ever growing ragged or showing signs of exhaustion (what sociologist Michael Kimmel refers to as “effortlessly perfect”). In fact, 55% told the psychologist they place almost unnecessary amounts of stress on themselves to maintain society’s near-impossible expectations of flawlessness.

12. School ranks as the highest stressor in high school students’ lives: For both females and males between the ages of 13 and 17, school stood as their primary conduit of super stress. Once they hit the 18-to-25-year-old demographic, work supplants academics. But high schoolers face down more anxieties than that, including (but not limited to) bullying, broken homes, substance abuse (or the temptation towards substance abuse), relationships and sex, jobs, extracurricular activities, appearances and more. Girls and young women in particular find themselves petrified for safety reasons at a higher rate than their male counterparts, as they’re more likely to be the victims of rape and sexual assault.

13. GPAs are increasing: In California, at least, where state schools saw a significant rise in the GPAs of incoming freshman between 2003 and 2009. Petaluma360.com’s Colleen Rustad noted that UC Davis transitioned from a 3.86 to a 4.0 average, and Berkeley witnessed an increase from 3.58 to 3.61. So while some modicum of positivity can be squeezed out of the overworked teenagers’ plight, the serious mental and physical health tolls often render them a rather Pyrrhic victory instead.

14. Parents can exacerbate the situation…: Even the most well-meaning, loving moms and dads (or grandparents or aunts or uncles or legal guardians) run the risk of contributing to Little Junior or Muffy’s ever-mounting anxiety. Although parents and guardians should encourage and support their kids’ academic and (within reason) personal goals, they should stay alert for signs of burnout as well. Success (ethically earned, of course) is always great, but should never take precedence over the health, safety and overall well-being of a student, either. The likelihood of entering an Ivy League university even with a perfect record sits between 7% and 18%, and there’s no shame in pointing kids toward more affordable — and still thoroughly viable — options requiring less strenuous high schooling.

15. …but they’re also key in making it better: Dr. Cohen-Sandler’s research revealed that less than 50% of the most stressed-out female students believed their parents and guardians didn’t notice the mental and physical cracks forming. Along with “less stress” and “more sleep,” the primary thing this demographic desires is more communication and support from parents and guardians. They believe bouncing their feelings off a more experienced individual who knows them well will prove game-changing in better managing their time, emotions, friendships, and other messy hallmarks of being a teen. In addition, tighter-knit, more genuine social circles and the eradication of “mean girls” will considerably help ease the transition into adulthood.


38 Parenting Practices That Build Moral Intelligence

Contributed by Michele Borba

REALITY CHECK: The family is the first school of virtue.

Kids don't learn kindness from a textbook.Even in our increasingly toxic culture, parents can still have the inside track in their children’s development because parents are their children’s first and most important moral teachers. That premise only applies, though, if parents choose to use their moral influence.

Remember, children do not acquire strong character in one-time lectures, but in daily teachable moments. So take advantage of everyday moments to stretch your child’s character and there are dozens!

“You have a new friend in your classroom. How do you think he feels not knowing
anyone? What could you do to help him feel less lonely?”

“Listen to the lyrics on that CD. Do you want others to think girls should be talked
about and treated that way?”

“Was that helpful or hurtful? In our home we only do things that will build people
up – not tear them down. What will you do to make amends to your friend?”

Here are a few practices from my book, Building Moral Intelligence, that make a difference in raising moral kids.  Find ways to use these moral-building principles in everyday moments with your children.

38 Parenting Practices That Nurture Moral Intelligence

  • To teach kids empathy, you must show kids empathy.
  • Show the impact empathy has on others so your child understands it’s important.
  • If you want your child to feel for others, demand your child to feel for others.
  • Provide opportunities for your child to experience different perspectives and views.
  • Experiencing different perspectives helps children be able to empathize with others’ needs and views.
  • Be sure your behaviors your kids watch are ones that you want them to copy.
  • If you want your child to act morally, then expect moral behaviors from her.
  • Talk about moral issues as they come up, so your child can hear your moral beliefs.
  • Plainly explain your concerns to your child, set standards, and then stick to them.
  • Catch your child acting morally by describing what she did right and why you
    appreciate it.
  • To teach kids self-control, you must show kids self-control, so be a living
    example of self-control.
  • Refrain from always giving tangible rewards for your child’s efforts so she develops her own internal reward system.
  • Your home is the best place for your child to learn how deal with stressful
    situations. Don’t rob him of the opportunity to learn how.
  • Gradually stretch your child’s ability to control his impulses and learn to wait.
  • Treat children respectfully so that they feel respected and are therefore more likely to treat others respectfully.
  • Tune up your child’s social graces and make courtesy a priority in your home.
  • Do not tolerate any form of back-talk or rudeness. Stop it before it spreads.
  • Supervise your child’s media consumption closely. Set clear family standards, and then stick to them!
  • Explain your moral standards to the other adults in your child’s life so you can work together.
  • Make sure you are a positive, affirming role model and surround your child with
    people of high character.
  • Take an active stand against cruelty and just plain do not allow it.
  • Take time to tell and show kids how to be kind – never assume they have that
  • Kids don’t learn how to be kind from a textbook, but from doing kind deeds.
  • Encourage your child to lend a hand so he or she will understand the power of “doing good.”
  • The best way to teach kids any virtue is not through our lectures but through our
  • Become the living textbook of morality that you want your child to copy.
  • Teach your child from the time he is very young that no one is better than any other person.
  • Refuse to allow discriminatory remarks of any kind in your presence.
  • Get in touch with your own prejudices and be willing to change them so your child
    won’t learn them from you.
  • Nurture in your child a sense of pride in her culture, heritage, and identity.
  • Expose your child early to games, literature, and toys that represent a wide range of multicultural groups to boost her or his appreciation and acceptance for
  • Encourage your child to participate in activities which promote diversity and nurture tolerance.
  • If you want your child to be fair, expect your child to be fair.
  • The easiest way to increase fairness is by reinforcing fair behaviors.
  • Encourage your child when he encounters unfair treatment to stand up for himself and the rights of others.
  • Look for opportunities in your neighborhood or community and get involved together in making the world a better place.
  • Emphasize acting fairly and good sportsmanship both on and off the field.
  • There is no more powerful way to boost kids’ moral intelligence than to get them
    personally involved in an issue of injustice and then encourage them to take a
    stand; they will learn that they can make a difference in the world.

There is no rewind button on parenting, so be intentional when it comes to building
your child’s character. Parents who raise good kids don’t do so by accident!


Resistance to Character Education

by Sarah Twardock, Fundraising and Research Fellow at CEP

The mere mention of the words “character education” inevitably sparks resistance among certain populations.

If my students don’t get certain test scores, my job is in jeopardy, asserts the overworked teacher. I don’t have time to teach math AND character.

“What do you mean, you’re going to teach my child character?” questions a suspicious parent. “I don’t want the school to teach him something against my values.”

 People are going to be mean no matter what you try to teach them, argues the jaded teenager. All of these “character” programs are a big joke.

These statements are valid—if you are referring to a very limited, narrow approach to character education. We all know the type. It’s characterized by inspirational posters on the wall, times set aside throughout the school year to didactically teach students about a particular character trait, and outdated videos that oversimplify the nuances and challenges facing young people developing a personal code of ethics. Yes, the core values highlighted on the posters and in the designated “character times” are concepts we can all agree upon—surely, that suspicious parent would not object to her son learning about respect, responsibility, integrity, and perseverance. Yet this rather half-hearted attempt to promote the values essential to a student’s (and society’s) optimal development while appeasing the naysayers is not particularly effective, and it has created a widespread misconception of character education as the “soft” part of education that is difficult to dispel.

Difficult, yes, but impossible, no. The case for character education is certainly there. Numerous studies (Angela Duckworth’s grit scale and Joseph Durlak’s meta-analysis of SEL programs come to mind) have shown that particular character traits—such as being able to persevere in the face of failure, make responsible decisions and goals, recognize and manage emotions, establish positive relationships, and constructively handle interpersonal situations, among others—predict success above and beyond IQ. Given that schools were created to equip young people with the skills necessary to succeed in and eventually lead our society, it seems irrefutable that they should not only help their students to attain certain test scores, but also intentionally work to develop these personal qualities in students that enable them to succeed beyond the classroom as well.

The framework for developing a comprehensive, successful character education program is also in place. A growing number of schools across the country have used the Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education to bring staff, parents, and, most importantly, students, together to create a more caring and productive learning environment. Those schools that have received the highest marks according to the 11 Principles assessment tool saw numerous concrete indicators of whole school improvement. For example, students were treating others with more respect. Violence and bullying decreased. Substance abuse declined. Teacher morale and retention improved. Parental involvement increased. And, of course, that lynchpin of all good schools, academic achievement, also significantly improved.

The question remains, then, how to take these success stories to the masses and publicize what effective character education really looks like. If teachers knew that effective character education is the cultivation of a nurturing classroom culture rather than an additional item to fit into the busy school day, they wouldn’t feel as though their agenda were too jam-packed for character. If parents knew that their children would be encouraged to reach their fullest potential in a more respectful environment, they wouldn’t view character education as an attempt to undermine their role as primary moral educators. And if students were involved in creating their own character development initiatives, they wouldn’t dismiss them as an outdated waste of time.

Please help CEP spread the word on what effective character education is and what it is not. We’d love to hear your ideas on how we can further the movement!


Does ‘teaching to the test’ actually encourage cheating?

By Mark Hyatt
President & CEO
Character Education Partnership

“Teachers matter,” said President Obama this week in his State of the Union address. “Instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”

We at the nonprofit Character Education Partnership (CEP) share this concern because “teaching to the test” can deceive stakeholders into thinking students are doing better than they really are. But in the current environment, we are even more alarmed by how the testing status quo seems to be adversely affecting the integrity of our education system, itself.

Recent revelations of widespread testing fraud in Atlanta’s public schools are just the latest examples of a disturbing national trend that should finally force all of us who care about education to ask some uncomfortable but unavoidable questions. Chief among them: Has a national over-emphasis on standardized testing actually created a monster that is eroding the character of K-12 education?

In just the last year, institutional efforts to artificially inflate student performance—mostly for the benefit of teachers or administrators—seem to have reached epidemic proportions. Incredibly and ironically, cheating nationally among educators now seems even more pervasive than it was a decade ago (when federal ‘No Child Left Behind’ (NCLB) legislation was enacted for the purpose of elevating K-12 testing standards nationwide. Unfortunately, it seems that placing more emphasis on standardized tests to measure the effectiveness of teachers and schools has led some good educators to do bad things. In fact, as we later learned, even the signature success of the NCLB education model—the public schools system in Houston TX—apparently had succumbed to the temptation to shape scores to reflect desired outcomes.

Despite all of its noble intentions, this emphasis on high stakes/standardized testing seems to have done more harm than good and yielded troubling unintended consequences. So, why exactly are these good people cheating? I suggest that we are now getting what we inspect, not what we expect. Perhaps placing less emphasis on standardized tests and more on multiple measures of a teacher’s effectiveness and an individual student’s growth relative to his/her peers is now in order.

With that in mind, I believe it is time to step back and reassess our current national testing strategy. Our concern is that those unintended consequences are overtaking good intentions and instead creating pressures that frankly promote cheating. An educator secretly putting on plastic gloves and changing students test scores after hours only hurts students in order to benefit adults. Yes, we can make it harder for educators to cheat with stronger audits, “air-tight” tests that make it harder to cheat, or even civil penalties for those who do this. But really shouldn’t we change the system that tempts this bad behavior? Some say “we won’t have ethical people until we have ethical institutions”. I’ve heard others say just the opposite, we won’t have ethical intuitions until we have ethical individuals”. I think the answer is in between. At the end of the day, this dilemma undermines what should be the parallel (if not paramount) mission of every school: to graduate people of good character.

This month, after nearly a decade “in the trenches” in the role of K-12 public school superintendent, I have signed on to lead CEP in hopes of promoting this vital mission. Our goal is to create an environment of integrity both inside and outside the classroom that exposes students everywhere to people who are committed to enhancing their character. And we hope to promote examples not just in classrooms, but in sports, media, at home, and beyond.

Indeed, it is time for all of us to stand up and demand honesty and accountability from all of our students, teachers and school administrators. After all, our nation’s ability to compete internationally in virtually any arena now depends on it.

Based in Washington, D.C., the nonprofit Character Education Partnership is the leading national advocate for character education. Our goal is to strengthen our communities, nation, and democracy by empowering schools—teachers, administrators, students and community members. Our membership includes some of the nation’s leading education organizations, and our board of directors is made up of corporate leaders and experts in the field of character education. For more information, go to www.character.org.

Mr. Hyatt can be reached via e-mail at mhyatt@character.org