The right amount of stress

If you are a bright, motivated 9th grader, which combination of courses should you take?

  1. Algebra I, English, Human Geography
  2. Geometry, Honors English, Human Geography
  3. Geometry, Honors English, AP Human Geography
  4. Calculus, Honors English, AP Human Geography

Option A would be typical in many high schools, but in my experience it’s too easy for most bright students. Coasting through high school with classes where you easily earn As doesn’t do much to prepare you for college or life. The lack of rigor is a major reason American students underperform compared to global peers.

Option D is unusual, to say the least, but some students at my high school will choose it, and they’ll also take AP Macroeconomics, AP Biology, music and a foreign language. For all but a few students, though, this schedule would create an unbearable workload and stress level, possibly even contributing to mental health issues.

So which is it? B or C?

The answer is: There is no right answer.

Unfortunately, there is no correct level of academic rigor for all 9th graders, even for all “bright, motivated 9th graders.”

Last week I wrote about Clara, my cousin’s daughter, whose Rhode Island middle school errs on the side of classes that are too easy. My Minnesota district has moved in the opposite direction, opening up a host of challenging opportunities for students, allowing middle school students to take high school math and allowing high school students to take AP Almost Everything, starting in 9th grade, with very few prerequisites.

For some students, this has been a fantastic, much-needed opportunity. Some of my current seniors have 12+ AP classes on their transcripts. Some are taking courses at local colleges and universities now, or working actual internships at local businesses like Medtronic. They have worked hard, overcome challenges and learned resilience.

I asked a handful of these top seniors — all National Merit Semi-Finalists — how they feel looking back on their exceptionally rigorous high school schedules, and they said that for them, it wasn’t overwhelming. For them, Option D was an appropriate stress level.

Unfortunately, opening up opportunities appropriate for a few students has created an arms race within our school, with unintended negative consequences for a host of other students, who now feel they have to keep up.

Within any high school, student motivation is shaped by peer culture. At many schools, the peer culture encourages underachievement, but at Mounds View, it is the opposite. Many students at or above the 75th percentile fear that if they don’t take on every challenge, they will be failing.

I’ve overheard students who are suffering anxiety and insomnia from a load of five AP classes, combined with athletics and a job, explain their choices by saying, “I just want to get into a ‘decent’ college.” I’m not sure what they mean by decent, but if they mean a well-respected state university, I’m sure they are already overshooting the mark. In this arms race, they have lost all sense of perspective.

Earlier this week, I got an email from Laurie, a parent in my district who worries that the academic culture here is stressing many kids to the limit.

“The kids ‘feel’ they should stay in their high level courses (4-6 per day) AND do activities AND be involved in clubs/service, etc… then go home and do homework into the wee hours of the morning. Yikes!” she wrote. “Days go on like this and there is no balance.”

My student newspaper editors have been having the same conversation this week, as they struggle with how to editorialize on the need for better mental health support and more balance in their lives.

The easy answer is that students (and parents) need to be more realistic about what is an appropriate level of challenge, but it’s not so easy to resist social influences or admit that maybe, AP U.S. History isn’t for you, when everyone is encouraging you to try it.

Some would like to see the school tone down its rhetoric about academic achievement, even intentionally limit the number of advanced classes a student can take, but that’s not a perfect solution either, since some students need that level of rigor.

I don’t particularly want my school to discourage ambition. But maybe we educators need a way to change the motivation, so the focus is on learning and preparing for future learning, rather than on keeping up with the Joneses or getting into Harvard.

We need to focus on providing an appropriate level of challenge for each student, rather than letting the peer culture push everyone into overdrive. How can we do it?

I asked my journalism students how they thought their peers, parents and the school should address this issue, and they had a few solid pieces of advice. Here are their ideas for younger students, who are wrestling with these decisions:

  • Take your first AP class in a subject you are actually interested in or already know something about – not just because everyone else is taking it.
  • Start with one or at most two AP classes at a time, so you know how much time they will take.
  • Before you embark on a rigorous schedule, think about how stable your life is going to be. If your are going through a tough time — whether it’s a relationship, a sick family member, or financial stress — don’t add academic stress to the mix.
  • Stop thinking about college names. Think about what you want to study – science? math? architecture? – and let that guide your decisions.
  • Have a study group you can lean on. Don’t try to go it alone.

I’ll add one more piece of my own advice: Don’t expect to get all As. Challenge is good, but perfectionism is unhealthy.

We’re not going to solve this problem easily or with a one-size-fits-all schedule. But we need to recognize that peer motivation is a powerful tool, and rather than sit back and watch the competition unfold, teachers and parents need to temper this arms race with some adult insight about work-life balance, required sleep and appropriate stress levels.

What is the right level of challenge? Unfortunately there is no right answer. But there is a right answer for each student. We need to help them step back from the crowd and figure out what that is.