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Later start times, less homework: Here’s what elite schools are doing to help students cope with stress

Chicago Tribune

Tuesday, November 14, 2017  |  Article  |  Karen Ann Cullotta, Karen Berkowitz, Kimberly Fornek and Jennifer Johnson

Children, Teens (19)

Claire Buckley's day started before dawn.

 

Each morning, she would dress, gather her gear and leave her Barrington home to catch a 6 a.m. bus to her destination — not to a job in downtown Chicago, but as a freshman in high school.

 

"These days we're asking of our teens what very few adults are required to do," said Claire's mother, Melissa Buckley.

 

After watching her normally good-natured daughter return home from school each day exhausted, Melissa Buckley joined a Barrington High School advisory committee that proposed a later morning start time for students. After nearly two years of tweaking, the school board approved the change last year, and it kicked off in August. This year, Claire will get an extra 90 minutes of sleep each morning.

 

Buckley said she hopes the later start time is a step toward alleviating teens' sleep deprivation — just one of myriad factors experts say could be fueling an uptick in student stress and anxiety.

 

From Lake Forest High School on the North Shore to west suburban Hinsdale Central High School, school districts are launching an ever-expanding slate of methods for preventing and addressing what some are calling dangerous levels of school-related teen anxiety. Some of the volleys are targeted, like the move in Barrington, at proven problems. Others look to more esoteric ways at reducing stress. There are therapy dogs and meditation sessions, peer counseling and yoga classes.

 

The only option apparently not on the table? Doing nothing.

 

Structural changes

 

In addition to later start times debuting this year at schools in Arlington Heights, Barrington and Naperville, an increasing number of suburban school boards have also adopted school calendars that more closely resemble a collegiate model, with final exams prior to holiday breaks.

 

The Arlington Heights-based Township High School District 214 school board also passed a new policy that will put restrictions on when coaches and other advisers can schedule practices and rehearsals, limiting them to one a day, either before or after school. Teachers will also be prohibited from assigning students homework or projects during several school breaks, including homecoming weekend and the Thanksgiving break, officials said.

 

It's all in service of reducing the pressure on kids and promoting a healthy lifestyle.

 

"If you take more AP classes, do well on your ACT or SAT and have a strong GPA, you might get into a better college, but it doesn't matter how good you are at math if you have a heart attack at 32," said David Schuler, the superintendent of District 214.

 

“Very often, depression and anxiety are like brother and sister, and you don’t see one without the other.”

— Patrick McGrath a clinical psychologist at Amita Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital

Officials at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire also changed the school calendar so students could get first-semester finals out of the way before winter break. Sarah Bowen, director of student services for Stevenson High School District 125, said the move to an 8:30 a.m. start time, from 8:05 a.m., has been met with rave reviews from parents and students who say they can begin the day with a sense of calm.

 

"It gives them time to connect with their teachers, connect with their friends or see people in student services if need be," Bowen said. "They have time to get some extra sleep. We are starting to see some of the positive impact."

 

Many school districts, including officials with Hinsdale High School District 86, are assembling community groups to study stress levels among students.

 

District 86 Superintendent Bruce Law said parents and students have been reaching out to him about the issue, telling him their academic anxiety is having a negative impact.

 

"It clearly has struck a nerve," Law said.

 

Law cited national data from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, including a 2015 online survey of 22,000 high school students. After students were asked to give three words to describe how they feel when they are at school, Law said the most common response was

"tired," followed by "stressed." Overall, students reported feeling stressed 80 percent of the time, Law said.

 

 Practical advice about teen anxiety

Jacqueline Rhew offers parents common sense advice about how to assess and treat teen anxiety. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

District 86 also changed its schedule, starting with the 2015-16 school year, so the first semester would end before the winter break. The district previously had the first semester continue into January, but parents and students said that rather than relaxing with their families during the holidays, many students were immersed in homework.

 

"We have known for a while that students did not get a true break," Law said.

 

Hinsdale South also offers a program, held once a month, that teaches AP students how to take notes, study and review in a college-level class. They also meet older students, who can give advice and share their experiences, and visit colleges where the students learn about the application process and how AP classes and scores can help with admission.

 

Still, Law said for many students, stress and anxiety become a problem long before they walk through the doors at Hinsdale.

 

"No one would believe that a student who is happy-go-lucky in eighth grade is going to be stressed as soon as he starts high school," Law added. "The lesson for us, even as we are trying to define the problem, we also have to work with elementary districts to help them put their students in the best place."

 

While Law talked about "levers" the district could push to lessen student stress, he questioned how parents might react to any proposed policy changes.

 

“...It doesn’t matter how good you are at math if you have a heart attack at 32.”

— David Schuler, the superintendent of Arlington Heights Township High School District 214.

"Of course, we are concerned about students' health, but whether a student should take five AP classes in one semester ... I don't think it is our place to say," Law said, adding there could be some pushback if parents fear the district is "trying to water down the curriculum."

 

In fact, when District 214 proposed requiring students to take a lunch period, officials said some parents, students and teachers complained, saying the mandate would force kids to give up one of their elective classes.

 

Susan Owens, who has a junior at Hinsdale Central High School, said when she attended the introductory meeting for District 86's student stress study group, she was struck by the cross-section of students who admitted to feeling stressed.

 

"We have a responsibility to look at the issue and help kids lead happier and healthier lives, while still striving for excellence in education," Owens said. "People might think, kids in Hinsdale, what kinds of stress do they have, compared with the gun violence and poverty some kids in Chicago face?"

 

Acknowledging that families are fortunate to live in Hinsdale and attend its high-quality public schools, Owens said that when it comes to student stress, "it's real."

 

State mandates

 

In Illinois, the impetus for schools playing a critical role in students' mental health dates back to the 2003 Children's Mental Health Act, which required the Illinois State Board of Education to develop standards for what's called "social/emotional learning," according to state board of education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews.

 

The standards don't tell schools how to teach the subject, but the state has set out what are called "competencies" that it believes students should have.

 

Coverage: What schools can do to combat academic stress

For example, goal No. 1, "Develop self-awareness and self-management skills to achieve school and life success," is intended to help students develop ways to handle stress, control their impulses and motivate themselves to overcome obstacles.

 

The standards let schools decide how to approach the topic but the state has developed a new accountability system that includes "climate and culture" as one of 10 indicators of school quality.

 

"Our new mission and vision is to crystallize the idea that we need to educate the whole child, which includes their social and emotional health," Matthews said, adding: "It's well-known that student learning and outcomes are better when students feel safe and well-cared-for."

 

Marni Johnson, the assistant superintendent for student services for District 214, said the state's social-emotional learning standards are incorporated in the district's counseling and instructional curriculum, "so that it is infused in everything our educators do."

Johnson said that social-emotional learning is also behind all of the district's instructional goals. For example, Johnson said the district helps students understand the importance of good attendance, serving the community, collaborating with others and building effective communication skills.

 

Outside of academic courses, Johnson said the district provides support for students who might need extra services to help them be successful for life after high school.

 

"The state's passage of SEL standards is beneficial because now, there is an expected focus on this area," Johnson said. "The SEL standards change the way schools think, because now all schools are expected to incorporate these standards."

 

In addition, Johnson said incorporating SEL in the district's curriculum gives students opportunities to develop and improve their interpersonal skills, such as effective communication, problem-solving and critical thinking.

 

"Students work and collaborate in groups in and out of the classroom, participate in team and project-based learning, and develop soft skills as part of internships and other workplace learning experiences," Johnson said.

 

Schools changing homework, start times and more in response to student anxiety

From Lake Forest High School on the North Shore to west suburban Hinsdale Central High School, school districts are launching an ever-expanding slate of methods for preventing and addressing what some are calling dangerous levels of school-related teen anxiety. (Stacey Wescott)

Researching the problem

 

Ryan Bretag, the director of instructional innovation at Glenbrook High Schools District 225, said officials in recent years have taken a "deep dive" into the area of student wellness.

 

For example, after officials held focus groups designed to combat student stress, some suggested that limiting teens' constant access to their grades and assessments, which they get on a digital portal, might provide some relief. But the experiment, which included hundreds of student participants, garnered mixed results, Bretag said, leading officials to conclude that there is not a one-size-fits all model for dealing with student stress.

 

"For every student who said the grade book caused them stress and anxiety, there was another student who said it was important and of value, and they had more anxiety when it was taken away," Bretag said.

 

Indeed, experts warn that high schools should not be insulating teens from experiencing every kind of discomfort and hardship.

 

Many parents, some say, are trying to create a life for their children in which they never fail, nor experience disappointment.

 

As a result, their children are not developing the resilience they will need to cope with college and life beyond, said Dr. Carol Weitzman, a pediatrician and researcher at Yale University.

 

Parents can support teens by avoiding the temptation to intervene and rescue them from stressful situations that they should be learning to tackle on their own, Weitzman said.

 

"The truth is, if parents say, 'Oh my gosh, I'm going to come rescue you,' every time their child is stressed, it is giving their child the message that, 'You can't cope very well and you constantly need protection, because you have no ability to manage this on your own.' "

 

Teachers and administrators are also looking at how to manage the delicate balance between providing enough support and allowing kids the space they need to develop.

 

School districts Lyons Township High School and Hinsdale High School District 86 have had experts from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence conduct social emotional learning workshops for staff members in recent months.

 

The presentations have covered how to recognize and manage emotions, differentiating between good stress and bad stress, and teaching skills that will help students not only academically, but also to become more well-rounded, compassionate and successful adults.

 

Other paths to peace

 

Some of the other strategies are more esoteric.

 

Students at John Hersey High School often drop by counselor Brigette Muck's office seeking stress relief through an array of aromatherapy products she makes available along with stress balls and mindfulness coloring books.

 

"Everyone needs their safe haven, and sometimes, the nurse actually has the student in her office with a stomachache, and suggests, 'maybe you can talk to a counselor for a few minutes,'" Muck said.

At Maine South High School in Park Ridge, a mentorship program pairs freshmen with upperclassmen mentors. And though competitive sports can add to some kids' stress, for others it's an important way to relieve it. Andy Pape, a student at Maine South, says playing hockey can be a welcome distraction from academics.

 

"It's very nice having a sport to play or something to do because it takes you away from school work, pressure and anxiety," he said. "You get to not think about it during practice or games."

 

Some students also are taking classes intended to help ease their anxiety. Sadhana Panuganti, the parent of a middle school student and a Naperville North graduate, teaches a meditation class for youth on Mondays at the Alive Community Center in Naperville.

 

Panuganti, who is affiliated with the Heartfulness Institute, said teens are facing stress from social pressures, as well as expectations from parents and teachers.

 

"Sometimes it can be overwhelming," she said.

 

Meditation gives youth the tools to empower them to fight the "flight" response that is triggered when students experience stress. She said by calming them down, students can see the situation from a different perspective.

 

"We teach them to cope with all their feelings," Panuganti said.

 

Panuganti said she would love to see schools introduce a time for meditation during the school day. She said she's heard of schools in other states embracing meditation as a stress reducer, and is hopeful more schools in Illinois will do the same.

 

In Park Ridge, it's also about finding ways to balance academics with lighter moments.

 

David Berendt, assistant principal of students at Maine South, said the school tries to create seasonal assemblies, like the one held during homecoming week, in which students compete against faculty members in unusual games such as a trivia contest in which a correct answer results in a face full of pie for each of the deans.

 

"High school is important, but it's also an important time for kids to have a good time," Berendt said. "We provide as much of that as we can."

 

One student's story

 

Despite the growing number and variety of high school programs targeting stress and anxiety, some students need more serious intervention.

 

Such was the case for Carolyn Russell's daughter. By the time Leila had hit her sophomore year at Deerfield High School, the teen, who had previously been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, was also suffering from debilitating school-related anxiety.

 

"I would get a call, 'Mom, I need to come home because I can't breathe,'" Russell said. "And then it was the migraines ... I even took her to a neurologist."

 

Last year, Leila's anxiety became so severe she fell into a pattern that some therapists call "school refusal," prompting Russell to place the teen in an outpatient program at Amita Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates.

 

Homework

Leila, 16, goes over homework assignments at the School Anxiety Program at Amita Health Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

Among the primary goals of the program is to "help teens to learn to manage stress, and to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable sometimes," said Jacqueline Rhew, the clinical liaison at Amita Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital.

 

"By developing strategies, the teens develop confidence, and they start to see they can manage their stress with coping skills," Rhew added.

 

By the end of the 2016-17 school year, Leila, who is now 17, had completed the program, which included individual and group counseling, academic tutoring and recreational therapy.

 

In addition, therapists partner with parents, school officials and other resources, said Patrick McGrath, a clinical psychologist, and the co-director of the program at Amita Alexian Brothers.

 

While Leila's anxiety could be treated through an out-patient program, for other teens suffering from serious mental health issues, inpatient hospitalization is sometimes the only alternative, McGrath said.

 

Currently the hospital's 32-bed inpatient adolescent unit in Hoffman Estates is filled, as is a six-bed unit at their hospital in Hinsdale, Rhew said.

The teens getting inpatient treatment have been diagnosed with serious mental health disorders, McGrath said, and frequently doctors are treating more than one mental health issue in a patient.

 

"Very often, depression and anxiety are like brother and sister, and you don't see one without the other," McGrath said.

 

But he said with intervention and treatment, there is hope — and often recovery — for teens.

 

For Leila, her experiences in the program last spring appear to have given her a fresh start as she began her senior year this fall.

 

"She's made a complete and total turnaround ... she's like a completely different person after that program," her mother said.

 

This is the second part of a three-part series examining the issues surrounding student stress and the pressure to achieve. In part three of the series, we will look at some kids who've found alternative pathways to success and discuss emerging ideas for preventing academic anxiety.