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High school students are stressed. A 2013 survey conducted on behalf of the American Psychological Association reported that teens' stress levels exceed those reported by average adults. Research published by Frontiers in Psychology in 2015 looked specifically at the stress levels and coping mechanisms of eleventh-grade students at independent schools. The study found that students perceived their primary purpose in high school was to earn admission to a selective college or university, and the accompanying stress put them at higher risk for substance abuse and other mental health problems.
Educational leaders have long been aware of the pressure students feel to achieve in high school, and in 2007, Stanford University held a gathering of experts to brainstorm ways to improve child and adolescent well-being. The result was Challenge Success, a program that partners with schools to encourage healthier behaviors and learning environments for students. According to their website, "Challenge Success recognizes that our current fast-paced, high-pressure culture works against much of what we know about healthy child development and effective education. Our work helps to foster learners who are healthy, motivated, and prepared for the wide variety of tasks they will face as adults."
Rowland Hall has already taken measures to improve the health of our community, including implementing late starts once a month, introducing First-Year Experience for ninth graders, and evaluating homework practices. So when the opportunity arose to participate in Challenge Success, Upper School Principal Ingrid Gustavson didn't hesitate. Along with Dave Samson, Upper School assistant principal, she created a team to represent our school community—Ms. Gustavson especially appreciates how Challenge Success includes perspectives from students, teachers, and parents, not just administrators—and last September they attended a conference at Stanford with other partner schools. In addition to attending panel presentations from schools who have already used the program's feedback to make changes, the Rowland Hall team had valuable time together to discuss the school's most pressing areas of concern, according to student participant Sidney Hare.
Shortly after the conference, Rowland Hall surveyed all Upper School students, collecting data about sleep patterns, engagement in extracurricular activities, social media use, program perceptions, and other factors that contribute to student health. While the survey was not mandatory, approximately 90% of students participated. When the results came back this winter, Ms. Gustavson said they mostly confirmed what school administrators suspected to be true. The representatives from Challenge Success helped Rowland Hall interpret the data and gave it meaningful context, especially in areas where we are performing over or under the national curve among independent schools.
Key takeaways from the survey include:
- Rowland Hall ranks off the charts for teacher support. Our students consistently report that their teachers care about them and want them to succeed.
- Students consistently reported that they see their academic courses and assignments as worthwhile.
- The time Rowland Hall students spend on homework is consistent with the national average.
- 97% of students reported participating in extracurricular activities.
- There is a subset of high-achieving students who take more Advanced Placement or Advanced Topics courses, spend more time on homework, and participate in more extracurricular activities than their Rowland Hall peers. However, they do not necessarily report feeling more stress.
Ms. Gustavson indicated two areas for particular focus among the survey data: the stress level among Rowland Hall girls is higher than boys, and we are above the national average for students reporting physical manifestations of stress such as headaches, eating disorders, and illnesses that result in missing classes.
Some ways Rowland Hall is already responding: a student-driven lunchtime program called Courageous Conversations offers the opportunity for dialogue and relationship-building in the community, along with recently formed support groups for teens who might be struggling with schoolwork or personal issues. Upper School Student Support Counselor Donna Booher said the groups focus on developing positive behaviors and practices in students, such as self-compassion, problem-solving, and empathy for their peers.
The efforts to analyze survey data and discuss possible improvements will continue for several months—if not years—but Ms. Gustavson has identified two potential changes that, in addition to increasing student support, could benefit our community as early as next fall. The first is altering the structure of morning break in the Upper School, which takes place every day from 9:15 to 10:05 am. While activities like morning meeting and chapel would still regularly occur, there could be two days a week reserved for student-teacher consultation time, make-up work, and similar student needs. This shift would alleviate the demands on after-school time, and increase flexibility for students and teachers alike.
The second possible change pertains to graduation requirements, which are sometimes difficult for students to meet, particularly if they are heavily involved in the performing arts, athletics, or debate. Additionally, senior Sidney Hare believes Rowland Hall can more clearly communicate graduation requirements, and help students schedule such classes starting freshman year. "I still do not fully know every requirement," Sidney said, adding that she and her friends have had to find ways to meet certain requirements in their last two trimesters of high school because they weren't previously aware of them.
Ms. Gustavson acknowledged the scheduling challenges associated with Rowland Hall's current requirements, and said, "We need to look at things differently, and make sure what we're asking of kids is meaningful." She and Mr. Samson plan to involve students like Sidney and fellow Challenge Success participant David Chortkoff, a junior, in the ongoing conversations about course requirements and possible changes to program offerings. Ms. Gustavson explained the need for overall balance, adding, "We're looking at what's best for our students from a wellness perspective and a learning perspective."
For parents and guardians interested in learning more about Challenge Success and what steps Rowland Hall is taking to improve the health of our school community, Mr. Samson and Ms. Gustavson will be presenting at different forums this spring, including grade-level College Counseling meetings, a coffee chat, and parent-teacher conferences.