A recent article from WBUR Boston described the terrible tragedy of three Newton South High School students who recently committed suicide. Newton South High School is known as an excellent school with a high-achieving student body and a very rigorous curriculum. The article, written by a Newton parent who is also a professor of psychology, asked what high school administrators and faculty could do to address the enormous stress of the student experience.
While the tragic situation at Newton is thankfully uncommon, many high school students feel enormous stress and pressure to succeed. So what can you, as a parent, do? As a student, how can you help yourself and your friends to get the most out of high school without being overwhelmed? How can families prioritize health and well-being in the midst of everything else that is happening at a child’s high school?
Change your definition of success
As an educational consultant helping students apply to college, I’ve noticed that those who are the most stressed out tell me they want to attend a “good” college but have a very narrow definition of what that means. If by a “good” college they are thinking only the Ivy League, MIT, and Stanford, there is a lot to be stressed about. I gently try to remind them that there are many good colleges in this country whose students learn an enormous amount and become highly successful alumni, and that many of those colleges have admit rates of 20 percent, 30 percent, 40 percent, or higher. Remember, Warren Buffet graduated from the University of Nebraska, Omaha! In fact, a study conducted by two economists, Alan Krueger at Princeton University and Stacy Dale at Mathematica Policy Research, determined that applicants with SAT scores as high as those of successful Ivy League applicants may have been rejected from those Ivy League or other elite schools, but still enjoyed average salaries similar to graduates of elite schools. In other words, attending a “big name” or otherwise elite institution did not create student success. A talented student who attends Penn State is just as likely to be successful as a talented student who attends Yale.
Find what works for your child
So back to our original question—how do you deal with the stress of high school and remain a healthy person? Hopefully the information above hasn’t made you more stressed about grades and test scores, but instead has helped you realize that you don’t need to attend the most well-known school to lead a successful life. Coming to grips with this reality should free you from the expectations of “measuring up” to others in an admission process that is so selective that the demands can seem both infinite and impossible.
In concrete terms, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work hard in high school. You should. You also should be involved in extra-curricular activities. But understand that in selecting AP or Honors classes and activities outside the classroom, your goal is to be challenged, not overwhelmed. For some, that might mean two AP classes instead of four; for another, taking zero APs in order to make way for a well-rounded high school curriculum, and two extra-curricular activities in which you are deeply and personally invested. If you are so busy that you regularly get less than eight hours of sleep a night (during a typical school day, not finals week), then you should consider lightening your load a bit. This will confer many advantages beyond the extra rest. When you have time to reflect, you will not only learn more profoundly, you will enjoy the process of learning.
As a parent, you can strengthen your child’s resolve to live a healthy life by telling him that you will be very proud wherever he goes to college, as long as he works hard. Students often look for this extra source of support from their parents in the midst of so many competitive external forces. Explain to your child that you want her to be challenged but not overwhelmed, and remind her that if she is true to herself, whatever college admits her will be the right place for her to thrive.