School stress is a real phenomenon. As an article in the Journal of Adolescent Health reported a few years ago, stress and depression are on the rise in school-aged kids. The authors of this study found that the number of outpatient visits during which children ages 7-17 reported depression doubled from 1995-1996 to 2001-2002.
While the roots of childhood stress are manifold, there is no doubt that heavy workloads, even in the early grades, and an emphasis on standardized tests are part of the problem. Students at rigorous private schools tend to feel a great deal of stress, as they have long days at school and many hours of homework per night. As a result, kids wind up sleep deprived, worsening their stress levels. Fortunately, some schools have started listening to the experts, who think kids need to have time to unwind and just be kids. Here's what some private schools are doing to reduce stress among their students.
Eliminating AP Classes
In part to combat student stress, many private schools are dropping AP classes. Advanced Placement classes are intended to show colleges that applicants are capable of college-level work, but many private school graduates have completed difficult course work that prepares them for college and therefore do not necessarily have to follow the AP curriculum. Schools such as Beaver Country Day School, a co-ed school for students in grades 6-12 in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, have dropped their AP classes entirely. Many critics of AP classes claim that they emphasize breadth over depth, and students must race to finish the curriculum, thereby depriving them of the ability to focus critically on certain subjects in a meaningful way. Dropping the tests means that students can study certain areas in a more measured way, and students also do not have to take AP exams in addition to other standardized tests.
Reducing Homework and Staggering Assignments
As an article in New York Times, the newspaper that owns this site, recently reported, elite schools such as Dalton, Trinity, and Horace Mann in New York City are trying to reduce students' stress by looking at students' workloads. Dalton has decided to stagger tests and papers to avoid overburdening their students, and they have also pushed their winter exams back two weeks so that students do not have to prepare for these tests over winter break. Trinity has created a task force to examine how to manage the workload of students in their high school, and Horace Mann has opened a tutoring center to help students handle all their work. The schools are in part responding to the work of Denise Pope, a Stanford researcher who found that students with more than 3.5 hours of work a night tended to develop more physical and emotional problems, such as headaches and ulcers. Dr. Pope has written about how students are so concentrated on achieving high grades and getting through their overwhelming work loads that they do not really think meaningfully about their studies.
Increasing Sleep and Managing StressSchools are realizing the negative effects of sleep deprivation. In order to consolidate information learned through studying effectively, students must sleep sufficiently. However, many private school students exist in a state of perpetual sleep deprivation; for example, according to their student newspaper, high school students at Horace Mann in New York City sleep an average of only 6.5 hours per night, far less than the 8 or nine hours they need. As a result, they wind up not only running the risk of developing health and emotional problems but also working less effectively. In addition to trying to help students sleep more and providing them with instruction on good sleep hygiene, through such advice as unplugging from screens at least an hour before bedtime, schools are also offering classes such as yoga to help students practice stress-reduction techniques.
Many schools have started to realize that stressed-out kids are not productive learners, and their curriculum is beginning to embrace not only hard-core academics but also instruction in how to live a balanced life.