by Steven Payne, KSST Intern and SSHS Senior
When people think about school, many things come to mind: waking up early before even the sun is out of bed, writing countless pages of notes, eating questionable cafeteria food, chatting with friends in class, getting wrapped up in drama, attending sports games and UIL meets, and more. Everyone may have different things come to mind when they think of school, but there is one thing that almost everyone can associate with school – stress. For many students and parents, “stress” has become synonymous with the word “school.” Certain levels of stress are healthy and even necessary in order to succeed in school, but there are many cases where stress can become unhealthy for students.
All throughout social media and news media, people argue that unhealthy levels of stress are becoming a pandemic among students in the 21st century. Others claim it is simply a result of coddling the younger generations and making them soft. Despite the various claims from both sides of the argument, it is true that students in schools today face stress and anxiety, but whether or not it is unhealthy is much more complicated than people believe.
Counselors across all age groups in the Sulphur Springs Independent School District help students handle stress and anxiety on a daily basis. According to these professionals, the issue of stress is not one that can be addressed with a blanket term but is instead handled on the individual, personal level. Students first begin dealing with stress as early as the Elementary level. Counselor Carey Lobin with the Sulphur Springs Elementary School has been a counselor for nine years, and during her time at SSES, the primary source of stress she has seen from students has been their first time undergoing standardized testing.
“It goes without saying that testing is going to be a big issue, especially for those new third graders that are taking the STAAR(State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) for the very first time in the Spring semester,” Counselor Lobin said. “We see a lot of kids then have test anxiety, and a lot of it comes from the fact that they’ve never done it before, so any time that there’s something new that you’ve never done before, it can create some stress in your life. A lot of times I see that number drop in fourth grade. So those kids who get really stressed out about the test in third grade experience the test and are fine. Then in fourth grade we tend to see that number in the Spring drop. Now some of those kids are going to have Generalized Test Anxiety where we’re going to see it from now on. They’re always going to have difficulty with that test.”
When stress becomes unhealthy for a student, it can begin to have a physical effect on their health. Sometimes students experience, lack of sleep, loss of appetite, various stress-related disorders and more. Lobin has dealt with many cases where students become physically affected by stress with some developing sores or pulling their hair out among other unhealthy behaviors. Lobin encourages teachers and students to combat stress using basic techniques such as classroom breathing exercises, refocus their thought processes, use stress balls and other manipulators, removing themselves from the situation in order to come back calm and refreshed, and to seek counseling should stress and anxiety become a major issue.
“I think that our teachers are very good at noticing when a student is stressed,” Counselor Lobin said. “They don’t want their students to be stressed, they want them to enjoy coming to school and loving school. So I think that our teachers do a really job in that if they see some problems in that area they will refer them to the counselors pretty quick. We work with the parents, and sometimes, if necessary, we will get medical doctors involved or the parents will get a doctor’s opinion about what needs to be done and then we try to do the best possible thing for that student on a case-by-case basis depending on what the situation calls for.”
Other situations that can cause stress for students come from more than just school. Sulphur Springs Middle School counselor Tracie Dannheim, who has been a counselor with SSISD for 11 years, sees students experience stress coming from a variety of different places beyond school as they grow older and out of the Elementary level.
“I think that in a lot of ways there is more stress today,” Counselor Dannheim said. “I was reading an article about social media being stressful for kids because there’s even that pressure to be online all of the time and keep up with what everybody’s doing. I definitely think that kids have pressure today that we didn’t have when we were younger, so there is, in some ways, an increase in stress, but the issues are just different. Years back kids had to go to school and then work in the fields; it’s a different time and so there are different issues. And then I believe that we’re more knowledgeable and we as teachers identify anxiety disorders more than we did in the past because we’re just more educated about it.”
Despite however peaceful an environment a student may be in, they may suffer from stress and anxiety nevertheless. This could be somewhat due to the fact that some students might actually be genetically predisposed to stress. This genetic disposition can sometimes make tasks such as homework become a stressful ordeal for students on a daily basis.
“Heart disease runs in families, ADHD runs in families, and anxiety can run in families as well,” Counselor Dannheim said. “There can be some elements in their world that contribute to that; parents can contribute to that, even a lot of times unknowingly. Homework can be a source of stress and frustration, and it depends a lot on the kid. If you have a kid who struggles academically, homework and extra schoolwork is probably going to be stressful for them. When I was a kid, I wasn’t good at softball, so I didn’t like to play it. It’s kind of the same way for some of the students. If they don’t feel successful with their schoolwork and in the classroom, they’re certainly not going to want to do it when they get home.”
Schools have been giving out less amounts of homework as opposed to previous years. In some upper level and advanced classes, large amounts of homework are still present, but advanced classes are optional for students. Schools offer before and after school tutoring for students who want it with some Middle School classes offering snacks for students who attend in order to lighten the mood and make it easier for students. Most cases of stress and anxiety in SSMS are dealt with on an individual basis due to the complexity of stress as students begin to grow.
“As maturity sets in, people in general tend to learn about themselves, how to self-monitor, and we learn how we handle things best,” Counselor Dannheim said. “Then, on the flip side, we’re a middle school and the kids here are going to face issues that they didn’t face at younger grades, and the school work tends to get more challenging. In some ways, I see that whereas a child may not have had an issue at a younger grade, it might surface in middle school. With maturity, students do learn how to handle things better, but they’re faced with a lot of new challenges at this grade level as well.”
While many students deal with stress in Elementary School and Middle School, the biggest and most infamous culprit is High School. At High School, the severity of stress primarily comes from the vast amount of factors that play into a student’s levels of stress and anxiety. High School counselor Leslie Harred, who has been a counselor for 14 years, helps many High School students through their time from budding freshman to college-bound senior.
“I think a lot of the things that some students are dealing with – whether it’s academics, something in their personal life, home life – those factors are a lot more serious,” Counselor Harred said. “Also, in the world that we live in, issues with drug use and the violence that we see, all of that is being reflected in some of the students lives as well.”
Another major factor for High School students that lower level students do not face is the end result. While lower grades work towards promotion to the next grade, High School students face the daunting task of graduation and what to do with their lives afterwards.
“The ultimate promotion is graduation, and that what’s on the line for many of these students,” Counselor Harred said. “A few years ago, the state was talking about having to pass 15 exams, then they lowered it and said five exams, and now you need to pass three out of the five. I think the fact that the standards keep changing and what’s at risk and what the goal is adds another level of stress to students. I think just making the basic decision to go to college for many can be found stressful. Then a lot of them look at which college, what will I major in, and just getting a plan for their future brings a lot of stress. Once they make a decision and they start their application process and it’s very competitive, and you have your college entrance exam to look at, your GPA, you have a lot of things going on in one of your busiest years. A lot of these kids are involved in extracurricular activities and they try to focus on that as well as academics. They try to keep this balance without side things and it is just a stressful time.”
In Counselor Harred’s opinion, the biggest factor of stress for High School students is time management. With only so little time and so much to do, students can feel as if it’s impossible to succeed at all of it.
“I think that managing their time when a lot is coming at them requires discipline and organization,” Counselor Harred said. “Part of being an adult is getting some kind of structure . When you’re younger, you may have some homework but you can remember off the top of your head what it is. But when these students have eight classes a day and all of their extracurricular activities with possibly multiple deadlines, it’s very challenging for some students to keep that organized and to meet deadlines, which is a skill that will help them through a life time if they’ll get a handle on it.”
The overall statement by all three counselors is that the severity of stress comes with perception, and this is how Counselor Harred tries to help students with the issue – changing their perception of the problem. Where certain situations may crush one student, for another, it could just be another thing to cross off the list.
“The goals are different, but the stress is the same,” Counselor Harred said. “To me, ‘whether or not I’m going to graduate’ is just as stressful as ‘what if I’m not going to get into my first choice college’. It’s two different problems, but it could impact students with a lot of stress.”
Some ways in which High School students are encouraged to deal with stress are directly facing the problem, eating healthy and exercising, having hobbies, getting plenty of rest, and finding balance. Some students have their own methods of dealing with stress such as listening to music, reading, writing, sports, video games, relationships, hanging out with friends and other outlets. Counselor Harred would like to see more teachers work together to keep multiple deadlines from being due all at the same time in order. More streamlining would help ease stress off of students.
“What I really want students to know is that they have counselors here,” Counselor Harred said. “Whether it’s academics or home life, I don’t think that students are using their counselor resources as much as they should. That’s what we’re here for; we’re here for the students, we see a lot of them but we’d like to see even more. I think that there’s some stigma with coming to the counselor and we have to work through that. They don’t realize that we see a lot of their friends and the reason they don’t know is because we keep it very confidential, and the students that do come in benefit.”
To wrap it all up, stress is not a universal, blanket issue. While there are many common factors, there is no common level of stress. The apparent “rising levels” of stress is actually a result of better knowledge on the issue and addressing it better, as well as more and more factors of stress becoming prominent in students as time goes on. Perception and Balance are some key components in dealing with stress, not only as a student, but as an adult as well. Counselors encourage students to take advantage of help from school and from home in dealing with stress and anxiety. They also encourage teachers and parents to work more towards addressing stress in their students and children.