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Taking On The Epidemic Of Stressed Out Students

To reduce the pressures on kids that drive some to suicide, we must redefine success to include and even encourage the possibility of failure. (Kelsi Barr/flickr)
To reduce the pressures on kids that drive some to suicide, we must redefine success to include and even encourage the possibility of failure. (Kelsi Barr/flickr)
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There has been ample discussion recently around the correlation between rising teen suicide rates and the pressure felt among students to achieve high academic success. In 2013 alone, a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 17 percent of American high school students considered suicide in the previous year, 8 percent of whom admitted attempting it. Over the past decade, the suicide rate at MIT, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world, was 10.2 per 100,000 students, higher than the national average.

It is vital that, as educators, parents and mentors, we know the difference between encouraging success in our students and pushing them too far.

As head of Dana Hall School, an all-girls school for grades 6 through 12, I see firsthand the issues that adolescent girls face today both socially and academically. It is vital that, as educators, parents and mentors, we know the difference between encouraging success in our students and pushing them too far.

Not long ago, my school participated in a study focused around these issues, called "21st Century Athenas: Aligning Achievement and Well-being." Researchers interviewed and surveyed girls, parents and teachers at both Dana Hall School and Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, over a two year period about the stress they face. Students made it clear that as they get older, the pressure intensifies. Concern over a failed test in 10th grade can cause anxiety over not passing the class, but by junior year, that anxiety extends to fears about not getting into college and, eventually, to worry about not being employed.

Such results emphasize the need to motivate our students to be the best versions of themselves. That does not mean setting expectations that they must get the best grades, get into the best school or be the best on the sports team. It means motivating them to try something new, even if it results in failure.

One of my favorite activities for both students and adults is to create a failure resume, which is a list of things that they have failed at in life. The goal is not to remind them of what they could not accomplish, but to show them that failure is a part of all of our lives and encourage them to consider their failures as opportunities to learn and grow.

As educators, the best way to make sure our students are OK is to establish connections with them. As we learned from the 21st Century Athenas study, when girls feel connected to their school, teachers, mentors and friends, they experience positive outcomes like higher self-esteem and report a decrease in negative outcomes such as health problems, depression, social-emotional problems and stress. The same holds true for boys.

...encourage them to consider their failures as opportunities to learn and grow.

Such encouragement will only go so far if it is not also practiced beyond the confines of the school campus. Much of the pressure that students feel today starts in the home and comes from a very real fear of disappointing their parents. In "Push, Don’t Crush, The Students,” in The New York Times, Matthew Richtel quotes psychiatrist and senior science adviser to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, Dr. Morton Silverman, who urges parents to confront the new realities of today’s wavering economy and workforce by saying to their children, "I can’t tell you which path to take or how to get there, but I will support you. I’m here to back you up."

It is our job to create environments for our children and students in which they feel supported by the people around them, but not stifled by the pressures upon them. We must set the bar high for ourselves to change the way we define achievement for younger generations. If we do not address the issue now, we face the risk of losing more teenage lives because of unnecessary and preventable feelings of disappointment and self-loathing. The stakes are too high to do nothing.

More From Caroline Erisman:

Caroline Erisman Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Caroline Erisman is the Head of School at Dana Hall all girls day/boarding school, grades 6-12 in Wellesley, MA.

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