Overwhelm: Supporting Achievement and Wellbeing in HS Students
Today, as I was browsing the list of fall classes available to rising ninth graders at my daughter’s school, I was surprised to see an Advanced Placement (AP) offering. Ninth grade is early for college level coursework, and I can’t help but think of the many students I see who are often overloaded with academic and extracurricular commitments in high school. Recent studies show that high achieving students fall into the “at-risk” group with elevated levels of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and burnout. Yet, it seems the pressure to perform continues to increase with little discussion about choices best suited for an individual student’s development and wellbeing, aside from their motivation or drive to achieve.
It can be easy for students and parents alike to lose perspective and forget that future success is not just about academic outcomes, or that colleges do look beyond academic load when evaluating prospective students. Jessica Chermak and Sawyer Earwood from Virtual College Counselors, acknowledge that though colleges want to see academic rigor, there are many ways for a student to show their potential. Additionally, “the transition into high school is a big adjustment, and students should be supported in developing a strong foundation prior to beginning college level courses. Establishing time-management and effective study skills with a manageable course-load leaves time for students to engage in activities outside of the classroom, and that experience holds weight in the college admissions process as well.” Beyond the classroom, time to decompress and maintain social and family connections is crucial for healthy development and growth.
Competition over learning can overshadow the important academic and life skills that are also developing during the important high school years. Though some students have excellent time management and organizational habits, and possess the motivation and emotional maturity to meet the demands of challenging classes at an early age, many lack critical skills and habits that will serve them well into adulthood; caring for their wellbeing and navigating the ups and downs of life. In my own coaching practice, I see students who feel disorganized and overloaded, are functioning on too little sleep, have poor nutritional habits, and report high levels of stress and burnout. Students and parents have both told me they feel anxious about choosing the “right” classes in order to “keep up”, and get into good schools. In the book Overloaded and Underprepared(Brown, Pope, Miles 2015), the authors note “our current fast-paced, high-pressure culture works against much of what we know about healthy child development. The overemphasis on grades, test scores, and rote answers has stressed out some kids and marginalized many more.”
So, what can we do to guide students as they make academic decisions?
Have conversations with your student and ask them questions to increase self-awareness, clarify their goals, and recognize the importance of finding their right balance for growth and wellbeing.
1) What topics are they most excited/motivated to learn?
2) Why do they want to choose a specific class? (Do they find the subject matter interesting? Are they looking for a bigger challenge? Do they need it to meet college goals, or are they feeling pressure to follow their peers?)
3) What extracurricular activities are important to them? (Sports, clubs, honor society, volunteer experiences, part-time jobs).
4) What are the student’s unique interests and talents and how can those guide them to make decisions suitable for their individual needs?
5) What skills and learning strategies does the student possess that will help them manage challenging courses with extra-curricular activities and family obligations, without feeling too overwhelmed? (Does the student stay organized and have strong time-management skills? How do they handle stress? Are they good at carving out healthy activities that allow them to decompress and connect with others?)
6) Is the student choosing a course-load that allows them to stay challenged, while also maintaining some balance to enjoy other activities, time with family and just simple down-time?
Adolescents are well served by parents who guide and support decision making that leads to increased confidence and self-sufficiency. All students will benefit from conversations that help them better understand their unique interests, talents and needs in order to guide choices that balance academic goals with healthy outcomes.