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It’s Official: High Achieving Students Designated “At Risk”

Teachers always have to worry about students who may not be working up to their potential. But lately, they’ve also had to worry about another cohort:  the ones who are overwhelmed by the pressure they feel to be exceptional.

Each year, more and more students seem to get sucked in to a vicious cycle of expectations and stress and achievement. There are kids in tears because they’re so worried about their grades. There are kids who stay up all night because they have clubs, and practice, and rehearsal and then hours of homework. And there are kids who take a class even though they hate literature but think it will get them into college. There’s no joy in high school for these kids.

So it is no surprise that two recent studies by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have identified a new group of at risk-youths: kids who feel immense pressure to perform at the highest level possible. As reported by Jennifer Breheny Wallace in the Washington Post, a recent article examined the findings of several studies as well as the causes and the possible ways to counteract the pressure that these teens feel.

Wallace found that these children often attend highly ranked schools where students score well on standardized tests. They often have a wide range of academic and extracurricular options available to them, and often go on to highly selective colleges.

In a sadly ironic twist, all of these advantages have resulted in students at these schools being overwhelmed and stressed out by their pursuit of excellence.

Wallace interviewed Suniya Luthar, a professor at Arizona State University who has spent nearly 30 years researching groups of children who seem to have all the advantages, but are also extremely vulnerable to stress. Luther points out several external sources of the pressure:

  • Parents who want their students to be the best they can be (and better than their friends’ kids)
  • Coaches whose personal and professional success is entangled with the performance of their athletes
  • School administrators who are being judged by the success of their students and who know that property values are closely connected to school rankings

So where does that leave the students who cannot help but internalize this drive to achieve?

Hyper-driven, Hyper-worried, and Hyper-exhausted

Even if they’re not directly pressured to succeed, these teens feel the need to do more and more in order to get into college. There are only 24 hours in a day, but they keep adding activities, AP classes, and internships to plump up their resumes so they will stand out for the college admissions officers.

Extracurricular activities like music, theater, sports, and debate become a means to an end, rather than an opportunity to pursue a passion or learn for the sake of learning. Down time is non-existent.

Wallace found that it’s not just teenagers who are suffering from the pressure to succeed. She reviewed information from a survey of 43,000 students conducted by Challenge Success which found that 75 percent of high school students and 50 percent of middle school students claimed that they “often or always” feel stressed about homework. And more than two-thirds of high school students “often or always” feel stressed out about getting accepted to college. Many of these kids are exhibiting symptoms of stress as early as elementary school.

This constant worrying about being as good as—or better than—everyone else takes its toll. Reviewing the data, Wallace reported that high achieving students suffer from anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and delinquent behavior at a rate that is two to three times higher than the national average. Some of these students develop their own unhealthy coping strategies, such as cheating, to keep up. They are also plagued by the green-eyed monster, jealousy, which leads to destructive behavior and volatile relationships.

How to Help Students Who are Feeling the Pressure

It’s not easy, but Wallace identified some concrete steps parents can take to take the pressure off our kids:

1. Focus on character, not achievement

Our kids know if we care more about whether they go to Harvard than if they are kind to the neighbor or stick up for a friend. Ironically, kids who feel validated for their character traits tend to do better in school. We need to show our kids that we love them for who they are, not for what they can accomplish.

2. Recalibrate our definition of success

Many parents believe there is only one path to success—and it includes attending a highly selective college. Like Rick Moranis in Parenthood, we can’t help ourselves. We use flashcards and provide cultural enrichment. We spend tons of money on music, dance, and soccer, all with the goal of giving our kids the edge to get that coveted university spot.

The thing is, our actions not only eliminate the opportunity for our kids to explore their own interests, but also make them feel like they’re failures if they don’t get into the prestigious university of their (or our) dreams. That’s a tough road to hoe when you’re 15, especially when the truth is that there are so many different definitions of success and so many different avenues to achieve it.

3. Reconsider our priorities

Is it more important to drive your kid to an activity every single night? Or is it more important to sit down and have a family dinner? How does your family spend time together?  Do your kids—even your teens—have time to play and relax?

Most kids are trying to please their parents, so they are not likely to say, “I’ve had enough. I really need some time to recharge.” They may not even know that they do, and they may not know that they have choices.

As parents, we need to be the ones to protect our kids from the pressure. Many of us have inadvertently created a pressure cooker of an environment for our kids. And it’s heartbreaking to think that our efforts may be backfiring. It’s time to put their emotional well-being at the top of our list of priorities. We need to help them learn how to take the pressure off—before they explode.

Jody Podl

Jody Podl is a teacher at Shaker Heights High School.