December 4, 2019

PHS Takes Steps to Combat Student Stress

By Donald Gilpin

Teachers, administrators, and parents are hoping to see drops in students’ high levels of stress and sleep deprivation and increases in levels of joyful engagement with learning, as Princeton High School students participated Tuesday in a three-year update of a survey originally conducted by Stanford University researchers in December 2016.

PHS Principal Jessica Baxter, as assistant principal over the past two years before taking the reins as principal this fall, was a leader in implementing and following up on the survey. “We were a strong school academically, but we weren’t so healthy,” she said in an interview last spring. “We were trying to focus on wellness, and our kids were not feeling well. They were feeling over-scheduled, overworked, and stressed out. It was manifesting in different ways. We were seeing kids missing school, kids not enjoying classes, and lacking engagement in the learning process.”

The Challenge Success survey reported three years ago that of the 1,417 PHS participants, 81 percent were often or always stressed by schoolwork, 47 percent stated that a stress-related health or emotional problem had caused them to miss more than one day of school, and 41 percent had experienced exhaustion, headaches, and difficulty sleeping in the past month. Students estimated spending more than three hours a night on homework, getting less than six-and-a-half hours of sleep each night, with 64 percent usually going to bed later than 11 p.m.

Only 15 percent of students reported “full engagement” in their schoolwork, while 41 percent of the participants in the survey said they often or always work hard, but rarely if ever find their school work interesting, fun, or valuable. In the area of extracurriculars, however, 73 percent reported choosing those activities for pure enjoyment, not resume building.

The survey measured students’ experiences with 12 different topics, including stress, academic engagement, perceptions of homework, extracurricular activities, use of free time, teacher care, parental expectations, sleep, academic integrity, and overall health and well-being.

Baxter pointed out a number of changes at PHS over the past three years to help alleviate student stress and heighten engagement.

“We have done a lot of work with our schedule, assessments, school climate, and educating staff, students, and parents on the importance of balance,” she said.
Moving the school start time from 7:50 to 8:20 a.m. received overwhelming support from staff and students, as tardies dropped 37 percent, teachers reported that students were more awake, and students reported that they felt better.

Other changes have also been enacted to improve the balance for PHS students. “Based on the students’ feedback, we implemented a longer lunch break, unstructured time to meet with teachers, and we have piloted a testing schedule,” Baxter added. “This year we are asking about students’ perceptions on homework, limiting AP courses, and mandatory free periods.”

The results of Tuesday’s survey are expected in early February, and Baxter hopes to see progress in physical and emotional wellness with students experiencing less stress and enjoying more sleep and greater school engagement. As PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane wrote, the charge and challenge has been to “get passion and motivation for mastery that our students experience with their after-school activities into the regular school day.”

Pointing out some of the ongoing work on balance and wellness at PHS, Baxter noted, “In addition to continuing with our later start time and various bell schedule changes, we are prioritizing the importance of a sense of community and the relationships that our staff has with students and families. One initiative this school year has been revamping our homeroom by having formalized planned activities that focus on gratitude, executive functioning, equity, and wellness.” 

Baxter also explained that a committee of teachers, administrators, students, and parents is examining the school’s Advanced Placement offerings. They are seeking a balance in students’ academic programs, acknowledging the value of AP courses but questioning “how many is too many for our students and their course loads.”

“Students do not learn well when they are under stress,” Cochrane noted in response to the 2016 survey results. “None of us do. Students learn best when they connect personally with the material they are studying, when they are appropriately challenged to apply their learning, and when they have time to reflect on what they have learned.”