‘She Can Eat During Passing Period’: How College Pressures Are Causing Serious Anxiety Problems In Students

By Katherine Rosenberg-Douglas
Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Elizabeth Arbir, a high school guidance counselor says finding the balance between a challenging schedule without overscheduling can take trial and error. She most often sees students start high school with wildly ambitious schedules that can lead to suffering emotionally and possibly physically.

Chicago Tribune

For high school students with dreams of reaching top colleges, the pressure to prove they can handle a punishing academic schedule can have devastating effects: Some are hospitalized for academic anxiety and others don’t graduate at all after failing an AP class they weren’t required to take, a suburban high school guidance counselor says.

Students today are acutely aware of how hard it is to get into the best universities, so they’re preparing themselves earlier, many as early as junior high and some even in elementary school.

But until they are in over their heads, it can be hard for them to understand how much is too much, causing academic anxiety or extreme stress over their studies, and what their breaking point will be, said Elizabeth Arbir, a guidance counselor at Crystal Lake Central High School in the far northwest Illinois suburb.

“Without a doubt, academic anxiety is definitely increasing,” Arbir said in a recent interview. “These kids are setting themselves up for dealing with a lot of pressure. And though some of them will be able to handle it … others are going to be, probably, those same kids who are going to come into my office and have a meltdown.”

Counselors’ experiences are reflected in recent studies of high school students.

Rachel Gordon, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recently published research about high school peer groups. One of the biggest changes that separates today’s high school students from past generations is the increased stress and anxiety about their studies and getting into top colleges, Gordon found.

Arbir, who has been a counselor for more than two decades, said there is a fine line between pushing students to master the most academically challenging schedule possible and overscheduling them. Finding the balance can take trial and error, but she most often sees students start high school with wildly ambitious schedules that can lead to suffering emotionally and possibly physically.

“I like all students to reach their full potential, but when my kids start having bad day after bad day, I would say, ‘Look, it’s not worth your well-being here, so let’s lighten your load,’ ” she said.

When Antonette Minniti walked into a sixth period sophomore honors English class at Palatine’s Fremd High School and saw most of the students eating at their desks, the overscheduling she’d cautioned against came into sharp focus.

“It hit me, sophomore year is the first year they’re allowed to remove lunch from their schedule,” said Minniti, a guidance counselor at Fremd. “Colleges love to see the most rigorous schedule you can take, but they want you to be getting As. Some students can handle it and they get really excellent grades, but for other students, sometimes it comes at a cost.”

Arbir said each year it becomes more apparent that eighth-graders think they’ve got to set themselves apart beginning in the first semester of high school.

She recently spent an evening with incoming freshmen at an event designed to help the students select their high school classes, something she has done for a number of years. More students than ever, and parents on students’ behalf, ignored her advice that students should build some downtime into the day, such as with homeroom or a study hall, she said.

“It just seemed like in conversation after conversation I’d hear, ‘She’s OK if she doesn’t even have lunch, she can eat during passing period,’ ” Arbir said ” … It’s like, push, push, push.”

Arbir’s experience mirrors Gordon’s findings. In studying high school cliques, Gordon found increased anxiety about parents’ expectations worse than in earlier studies of teens, especially in the group of students known as “brains.” Gordon expected the highest-achieving students to be anxious about performance, but she said it was greatly amplified in comparison with the same group in earlier studies.

“Participants identified academic anxiety in more specific terms, even suggesting that students in the ‘brain’ peer crowd were less mentally healthy, due to a fear of upsetting their parents,” said Gordon, who is also a fellow of the Institute for Health Research and Policy at UIC.

Arbir said the students who are most afflicted and debilitated by anxiety often have therapists who they’re seeing outside of school in an attempt to mitigate it.

Katie O’Berry, a senior at Central, where Arbir works, decided to visit a therapist toward the end of her junior year, she said.

“AP tests were coming up, so to cope with all that anxiety and all that stress, I started to go to therapy and it literally has changed my life,” O’Berry said. “Now I know how to deal with all that overwhelming pressure that school kind of gives me.”

O’Berry usually gets up at 6 a.m. and is on campus around 7 a.m. to either attend a club meeting or to seek out a teacher to ask questions. She takes multiple AP classes and is in two clubs: Tiger Buddies, in which she helps students with special needs at fun activities such as going to an arcade or bowling, and Interact Club, a volunteering group that often requires her to log hours after school and on weekends. She also is a mentor to several younger students through an organized, school-sanctioned program.

To keep up with her rigorous class load, including AP Physics and AP Calculus, O’Berry often is still doing homework into the early morning. Some days she gets as few as four or five hours of sleep.

“It’s good in the way that it will get us ready for college, but we’re still in high school,” she said.

O’Berry recently was accepted into the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she plans to study infectious diseases. She hopes ultimately to work in a medical research lab. She knows both her schedule and her studies will be more demanding in college and she’ll need the tools she’s picked up in therapy.

Her therapist recommended she try breathing exercises when she notices a spike in anxiety. She also uses two apps to do guided meditation.

“Doing those guided meditations, I can shift the focus from school to somewhere else I’d rather be,” O’Berry said.
She also uses Central’s new Care Room, a space designed for students who need a break.

For Danny Brodson, a senior at Glenbrook North headed to Ohio State University, there’s also pressure to impress friends when sharing news about which school a student is accepted at.

Brodson said it is practically a given for students to post on social media where they plan to attend college. There’s a huge premium placed on large, out-of-state universities such as the University of Wisconsin at Madison, or the University of Michigan. Students who either can’t afford tuition at big schools or want to attend a smaller school might feel reticent to share their plans.

“It’s really sad to think about the student who has just been accepted into their dream school if it isn’t the same type of dream their peers think they should have, one of the large, party-filled university,” Brodson said. “They chose the school, and it may be small and perfect for that person, but then they have to feel ashamed to share their good news.”

Eric Melton, a guidance counselor from Schaumburg, Ill., also said the push toward college for all is creating more stress in high schools.

“Whether you are an upper-middle-class student who is trying to continue to ascend or if you are in lower middle class or even below, there’s more pressure from families to get accepted into a university and to go on to college,” Melton said.

With more teens on the college track, schools have become more selective because they’ve got so many more applicants. That stresses students out more because they are constantly searching for ways to stand out, or as Arbir says, “beef up their ‘resumes.’ ”

Minniti, from Fremd, said students there have always been highly competitive, but in recent years she has seen more students allow the college admissions checklist to become the driving force behind their choices on which activities to pursue.

Minniti says school faculty begin talking about such checklists freshman year so students know what is expected, but some students take it to the extreme.

“If it says a college values participation in clubs or sports, they think that means they have to be in every single thing that’s offered,” she said. “I try to tell them just to choose what they are interested in and excel at them, but some of them, it’s like they can’t hear me.”

Minniti said she does her best to tailor her approach to each student she sees struggling with his or her course load and resulting anxiety, noting there isn’t a single approach that will resonate with students. Part of her job is to ask questions about the student’s goals and to offer feedback with possible paths to meet them.

“I don’t want to be a dream-crusher, but I also don’t want them to be like, ‘No one told me getting into Harvard was crazy difficult,’ ” Minniti said.

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