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Testing Our Limits

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No matter what time of the school year it is, high school students can be routinely spotted slouching over textbooks, gathering with a group of friends to study in the last minutes before a test, and getting over all-night study sessions with a cup of coffee (extra shot of espresso, of course). Yet, these seemingly normal student behaviors are contrary to what education experts recommend, and all of the above examples are symptoms of an epidemic plaguing the high schools of today: chronic stress.

The physical and psychological tolls that a demanding educational system has on students aren’t surprising – between homework for Advanced Placement classes, standardized testing, extracurricular activities, sports, music lessons, part-time jobs, SAT/ACT prep, and more, it is no wonder that high school students are facing an all-time high record of stress in the classroom.

13525405_mThe standard amount of homework, according to the National Education Association, follows the simple “10 minute” rule: 10 minutes of homework for first graders, with an additional 10 minutes for each grade level following. According to this standard, 12th grade students should spend no more than 110 minutes on homework a night. On the contrary, studies conducted by the American Journal of Family Therapy have found that, for children ages 5-18, the average homework load received is three times the recommended amount, making the average 12th grade homework standard a whopping five and a half hours.

“There is no such thing as a ‘typical night’ [when it comes to] homework,” said Hills West junior Jake Backman, “It seems to be completely random whether I get pounded with huge assignments from every class, or if I get almost no work from any. This makes it extremely difficult to schedule after school activities educational or otherwise, because I don’t know how much homework I’m going to have and how much time it will eat up. Schoolwork is not overly stressful when taken on its own, but when combined with non-school-related stress, it can be the difference between feeling in control of your own life, and terrible anxiety.”

While there is a dramatic correlation between homework and anxiety, there is also a rising correlation between anxiety and academic dishonesty. Reports of cheating and plagiarism across the United States have risen dramatically over the past 50 years. According to surveys conducted by The Josephson Institute of Ethics among 20,000 middle and high school students, 64% of high school students admitted to cheating in 1996, which jumped to a whopping 70% in 1998. Research about cheating among middle school children has shown that there is a “blatantly increased motivation” to cheat due to a greater emphasis on grades than traditional education.

I understand any student who is so strapped for time and unable to handle the exorbitant workload of school that they are forced to cheat,” said senior Brandon Epstein. Backman added how North American schooling systems put a larger emphasis on grades than they do on actually learning the content of a class.

“If you had the opportunity to get better grades with less stress – and you don’t care about learning the content – then cheating seems like a great option,” he said.

“The stress and pressure to be perfect and get into the ‘best’ colleges definitely brings people to do stuff like cheat, and the large work load makes people copy off of other’s work,” said junior Tatum Ogata.

“The only people who acknowledge the competition at High School West are the students who constantly lose and feel like they’re never going to be smart enough,” added sophomore Dana Schlackman. “School just makes me frustrated, so I end up putting more stress on my body at the gym because it feels good to be good at something, even if I’m hurting myself in the process. And, I wouldn’t call the competition at our school positive motivation; the only thing it does is make me feel bad about myself.”

Backman has had a first hand experience with the physical repercussions of stress in the classroom.

“When combined with stress from my personal life, school stress has led to anxiety attacks, and a feeling of being out of control of my situation.” However, he is not the only one to experience physical symptoms of anxiety. Hills West’s very own nursing staff receives, on average, stress-related reports “at least 5 times a day, [on a] consistent basis,” said Nurse Gavras, “Stress-related anxiety makes [students] … physically ill. Anxiety is cyclical, and it forces you to feel worse.”

According to patient-doctor help website MayoClinic.org, common symptoms of stress include headaches, stomach ailments, overeating/undereating, potential drug or substance abuse, muscle pain and sleep deprivation.

“I get about four hours of sleep on weeknights,” Schlackman said. “I’ve cried over the workload, and I’ve actually forgotten to make new friends in my classes this year because I’m so focused on school and with the time and effort I have to put into it. I can’t can’t afford to do anything else.”

Backman says his normal stress coping mechanisms do not work with school-related stress.

“I’m simply reminded of it every time a teacher collects the homework I forgot, hands back a test I did poorly on, or enters a zero on Infinite Campus,” he said, “There are two sides to school stress: trying to do the work amazing[ly], and dealing with doing the work poorly. The more you escape one, the more the other becomes apparent.”

Schools across the country are required to know how to deal with the rising problem of anxiety-related symptoms. About one in eight children under 18 in the United States alone (that’s about 3 in every standard-sized classroom) suffer from some type of anxiety-related disorder according to the National Institute of Mental Health. As anxiety-related disorders have been on the rise since the 1950’s, school nurses and counselors alike have cited a surge of overwhelming anxiety in students and school administrators alike. Dr. Servier, Chair of the Board of the American School Counselor Association, admitted the overwhelming rise in standards for the younger generation.

School is more challenging,” Servier said, “the stakes seem to be higher, and pressure is alive and well.”

However, stress is not the end-all be-all: there is a multitude of ways for handling stress. “[When a student comes into the health office], we speak to them, have them laid down, and make them understand [that] we suffer from the same stresses,” said Nurse Gavras. “It’s always followed through with laughter.”

Some students, such as Backman, have formulated a more grand-scale approach to not only conquer stress, but to promote education as a whole.

“We must make school about learning, not about scores,” he said. “When all a student cares about is getting a good score on a test, they don’t give two —– about what the answers to the questions even mean. If school encourages learning instead of encouraging high test scores, then students will actually care about learning what the answers mean, rather than what the answers are. [This] would have an overall positive effect on the learning experience and discourage cheating, … [in addition to] showing lower levels of student stress, way better student happiness, and, in most cases, more intelligent students.”

Ogata added that students’ attitudes about certain colleges should change as well.

“People need to realize that not everyone needs to go to like an Ivy League college, and sometimes, a non-Ivy college will be the best fit,” she said, “A different college may be stronger in the major that person wants to go into (Ivy college doesn’t mean amazing at everything). People are stressed because they want to go to colleges that accept so few kids, but it isn’t necessary to go to that college. The atmosphere may be very competitive and cutthroat there, whereas a different school may have a warmer atmosphere that you would like better. If people don’t feel the need to get into a school like Harvard, they won’t take a million AP classes or try to do a million extracurriculars that they don’t want to do, which would decrease their stress level.”