The challenge of stress in high school students and its impact on mental health is a very real concern. According to a recent Pew Research report, 61 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 feel intense academic pressure to earn good grades. Furthermore, when it comes to college acceptance, 37 percent of female students and 26 percent of male students worry about getting into their top college picks.
This is undeniably a stressful time of year for students. Colleges will soon be sending out decisions, the big standardized tests are coming up later in the spring and midterms are just around the corner. Add in the need to keep up grades and to manage extracurriculars, a part-time job and sports commitments, and it's no wonder springtime brings a heightened level of pressure and anxiety.
When we look at the bigger picture, these acute pressures contribute to the growing challenge in education: As competition for college has intensified, students are experiencing more stress both from short-term obligations and longer-term life planning.
The real (and perceived) competition to get into a desired school can be crushing as students watch social media light up with their peers announcing college acceptances. But it's not just students who are feeling the world tilt. Everyone from students to parents to teachers experience the tense atmosphere, yet all seem to struggle to talk openly about what's going on.
When students turn to writing to help process those emotions, there are three key strategies to understand:
1. Writing as a means of expression
2. The role writing plays in the different high-stress activities the student is juggling
3. How writing can be the basis for confidence
The value of writing is not singular. It has the power to calm a restless mind, build a foundation for success and instill confidence in even the most stressed high school students.
Unfortunately, talking openly about concerns, fears and worries is a luxury that some students don't have or feel comfortable exploring. One way to independently process these complex emotions is through writing. For many, writing can be a cathartic exercise and a powerful tool to fight back against the more frequent and intense mental stresses. Putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard can help clear the mental clutter.
Just about every milestone in the journey to college includes an important paper.
Writing is a crucial part of preparing for college, and is one of the most fundamental skills a student will use in personal and professional contexts. Effective communication is the number one skill sought after in new job hires, so it's important to have this skill down cold.
But here's the thing: Part of the problem with writing for high-stakes environments is the expectation that students must compose some fantastic piece of writing. There's nothing wrong with doing so, but that is not required to be a good writer. As long as there are clear, organized arguments that support a position, the paper is going to be good. It's that straightforward.
Another part of the problem, particularly in testing environments, is that students don't know what they have to write about until it's time to start writing. A timed environment makes a hard task harder. This is another key reason to build confidence in writing abilities. Your best plan for writing with confidence is knowing what to say and how to organize your thoughts quickly.
Knowing what to say isn't as challenging as it seems. When writing for expression (as explained above), the student will naturally find their writing confidence. During the free-thought writing exercises, students learn how to say who they are and inherently get practice stating and supporting their ideas.
Another way to think of this is simply to know that you can write about anything. Students who have made it this far in the academic journey need to trust their foundational knowledge. If a student is confident they can compose an organized essay, they will do better when the time comes to write. Having a positive perspective can make all the difference!
There is a cultural emphasis, spoken or implicit, that students have to be better than one another. This transforms learning into a competition. This doesn't help already stressed students. When the comparison game starts, it's an unending race that can never be won. In school, on the soccer field or in a conference room, there is always someone smarter, faster or earning more. It's a life lesson that's helpful to learn sooner rather than later. Setting personal goals is better than adopting goals set by others.
Understanding that stress in high school students will happen, it's natural, and it's manageable is the first step to reframing the springtime stress situation that happens every year.
One surprising secret to disarm that stress is through writing. Writing to express and process big feelings, writing to prepare for important college milestones and writing to breed confidence will lead to success -- and not stress! When students pause, evaluate the situation and learn to trust themselves to thrive in a range of environments, the overwhelming pressure may begin to feel a little more manageable. And remember, summer will be here soon!
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