The Focused Student: Kids and high anxiety — a problem that starts at home

La Cañada High student rushes to class
Educator Robert Frank writes this week on student stress issues in high-performing schools. Above, a La Cañada High School student rushes to class after hearing the bell in this file photo. The school has taken part in a research-based program that aims to reduce student stress.
(File Photo / La Cañada Valley Sun)

According to a recent article published in the Washington Post by Jennifer Wallace, students at high-achieving schools are now considered an at-risk group. The article caught the eye of a local woman who posted it on “The Real Parents of La Cañada” Facebook page.

Stress, research has shown, is not all bad. Up to a point, it enhances performance. But in the context of school, stress has grown to the point where even the most successful students are in danger of failing emotionally while achieving their 4.5 GPAs.

So where does all the pressure and anxiety come from and how did it get to the point that we need wellness centers, medications, and therapists to manage it?

The problem begins at home. Those of us in high achieving communities have high expectations about academic achievement. This becomes a problem when a child, who above all wants parental approval and love, perceives that the only way to gain that approval and love is with an extraordinary academic performance that leads to acceptance at the most selective of universities. Average isn’t good enough. Neither is above average. Only way above average will do.


Academic performance is important, but so are artistic ability, compassion, empathy, social skills, kindness, charity and many other things we should celebrate as positive achievements. If we don’t value our children for who they are and through other values, we can create unhealthy stress.

Schools are complicit in this singular focus. High achieving communities want schools that can boast about their academic ranking in the state. Many schools stress that their graduates go to the most selective college and universities. Far too few advertise that they nurture emotional and social intelligence as well as academic achievement. Schools provide what they perceive parents want, and the stress level goes up.

Peers are a third source of angst and anxiety, and social media has become an instrument of destruction rather than construction. In lower grades, students are pretty accepting, but by late primary school things shift. Differences are subject to derision, alliances and allegiances form (and collapse), and too often the student who is academically average is excluded in a sad case of academic apartheid.

What can be done?


At home, find and value the gifts of each child — yours and those who are visitors to your home. Remind them that everyone is different and each of us has important, meaningful skills that can be discovered, developed and appreciated.

Not every important trait in life can be graded A to F. Talk about giving and caring and being aware of the feelings and wants and needs of others. The socially awkward girl or boy in the next seat might be very grateful for an offer of friendship — and she could be the next Billie Gates.

Finding out that they have the capacity to make others feel good is empowering for youngsters, but they need guidance in understanding how to do this. Get kids out of the house to play, imagine and interact in real life with others. Replace screen time with face time. The less screen time a child spends, the better adjusted they usually are and the better able to deal with stress.

Schools need to continue building a culture of acceptance and self-worth for each child. They need to invest more time and effort in developing all aspects of a child’s self, academic and non-academic. In the final analysis, it is the whole person who will go out into the world and succeed or fail.

Teachers need to continue building a positive dialogue with all children. The best schools I’ve seen are those where each staff member takes an interest in a student or two. This interest, the fact that someone cares and listens, is enormously important. I find that it’s often the security guards and other non-teachers who do this best.

Finally, challenge students to cut down on their phones and/or social media. Most phones can measure the amount of screen time children use. Make it a challenge and see what can be done. Don’t hesitate to get help.

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