Straight Talk on Student Stress

By Sharon Macey P’14; Wilton, CT

STRESS!!! We all live with it, as do our kids. Because it is such a hot-button topic, some 85 parents attended a Parent-to-Parent Panel over Parents Spring Weekend entitled Stress: Real or Perceived? Deerfield Parents Network President Jim Alexandre moderated the panel, which featured school counselors Dr. Stuart Bicknell and Dr. Sheila Fritz and Kristin Loftus, health issues teacher. Here is a recap of the presentation: 

One thing that became apparent during the discussion was that whether DA student stress is real or perceived, it doesn’t matter. If the kids perceive it, it’s real.

Stressors, as reported by students and counselors, were predictable:

  • Homework issues
  • Social issues
  • College preparation
  • Family concerns

The question is: What can be done to reduce students’ level of stress?

GO TO SLEEP ALREADY!

Mrs. Loftus spoke of the vital importance of sleep. In 2008, DA delayed the start of class to 8:30 a.m. in an attempt to allow kids to achieve the eight hours of sleep they so desperately need. As part of the Independent School Health Survey, students were asked on a Tuesday how much sleep they got the night before. About 30% said seven to eight hours. In the Independent School Gender Project survey, only 10% of seniors reported getting more than eight hours a night. A quick review of sleep studies shows a strong correlation between more sleep and increased efficiencies in work–more sleep led to better grades. Most important is Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, which stimulates the areas of the brain responsible for learning, helps the brain organize and commit to long-term memory what it has recently learned, and improves immune system functions. REM periods occur for the longest periods of time between six and eight hours of sleep. Lack of REM sleep means the student is more likely to perceive various stressors, have their sense of wellbeing disrupted and, quite possibly, get sick.

Moreover, students should try to be consistent in the number of hours they sleep each night and avoid sleep “jet lag” by not altering bedtimes by more than one and a half hours. With the bravado that surrounds staying up really late to finish homework (“look how busy I am!”) the challenge is to figure out a way to make it both cool–and possible–for the students to sleep eight hours a night for the sake of their health and wellbeing.

BUT WAIT, IT’S THE WHOLE CULTURE THAT’S STRESSFUL

“Stress is the result of a chain of events, which sometimes leads to a crisis. How that crisis is managed can help reduce the stress or exacerbate it,” said Dr. Fritz, who further advises that we adults can start by “normalizing” stress. If we acknowledge that it is a stressful environment, talk about what that means and let kids know it’s okay to talk about what they find particularly stressful–that alone will decrease their level of stress.

Dr. Fritz suggests “parents and students need to recognize that DA is a challenging place…and that stress comes with the territory. It’s part of the prep school culture, Deerfield is not unique.” There is no way around it being stressful with 600-plus high achievers as a peer group. It can be argued that the stress caused in this type of competitive environment is good and leads to the development of many positive traits. However, striving for excellence is one thing, striving for “excellence plus” is another. Dr. Bicknell pointed out “as parents, we would like our children to be well-rounded. Some of us encourage excellence.” But what the counselors are increasingly seeing is a push to combine the two: striving for excellence in everything. That is hugely stressful, according to Dr. Bicknell, and quite often unattainable. This trend plays into perfectionist tendencies and pushes kids to overachieve, resulting in a host of unhealthy issues. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our kids could “master” one or two subjects and/or activities and feel content that they have achieved something significant?

The counselors view stress on a continuum; ranging from positive stress that increases an individual’s effectiveness to perform, to negative stress that decreases an individual’s effectiveness to perform. Positive stress contributes to a sense of wellbeing, negative stress takes this away. This year the counseling department saw more students asking for help managing their level of stress. Within the first three months of school 50% more students came forward or were brought forward because their sense of wellbeing was shaken.

Counselors can help students develop positive coping skills by helping them build their own toolbox of solutions. They can provide relaxation techniques and help them regain “control” after a particularly stressful time.  Even one minute of slow deep breathing can bring anxiety levels down.

WHAT WE CAN DO AS PARENTS

Be a consultant, not a manager, in our kids’ lives. Employ reflective listening–asking how can we help, acknowledging that our child needs to talk or that they are going through a difficult stretch. We need to better figure out the partnership among school/parent/student and how best to manage those inevitable late night panic calls. Don’t over-react when you receive the middle of the night phone call, unless you perceive it be an emergency. The Health Center is open 24/7 for issues such as this. Assure them and yourself that they are capable, talented, and well-adjusted. Tell them you are sure they are not alone in this experience.

Dr. Fritz views the uptick in students being seen in the counseling office as an opportunity to raise awareness of the impact of negative stress and the chance we have to begin a dialogue surrounding these experiences. We need to ask why these stress levels are climbing and what can Deerfield, at the institutional level, and parents, at the family level, do to change the narrative. While the parent panel probably raised more questions than it answered, with more dialogue, the answers will come.

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