Schools Battle Student Stress with Creative Strategies

Schools use mind-body relaxation techniques to help kids fight anxiety.

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At Needham High, Principal Paul Richards and his staff have been waging a battle against student stress for years. (Needham High is a U.S. News silver medal school.) A 2006 survey of more than 1,100 students at the school revealed that stress from academics and parental expectations contributed to some students cheating, drinking, and even physically hurting themselves through "cutting," or self-mutilation. Fifty-seven percent of the respondents labeled the school's culture as "sink or swim," and nearly three quarters of students said they took time off from school to cope with stress. Forty-four percent said they were willing to "suffer" in high school to get into a good college. Since then, the school has eliminated class ranks and no longer publishes an honor roll in the local paper. Richards also formed a "stress-reduction committee," which is composed of administrators, teachers, parents, and students. The committee has floated ideas that include homework-free weekends and vacations. "Not every kid is stressed out, and not every kid is stressed out by the same thing," Richards says. "For some kids it's having too many AP classes, for some it's pressure from home, and for some it's pressure from themselves and from their peers."

Most recently, specialists with the Benson-Henry Institute have been working with Needham High students who are stressed and have agreed to participate in several stress-management studies. In the late 1990s, after riots in South Central Los Angeles, the institute studied the response of middle school students to "relaxation training" and found that regular exposure to the training boosted students' work habits, attendance, and academic performance. Since then, the institute's specialists have been studying the response to similar relaxation techniques at urban and suburban schools in the Boston area.

Jenny Huezo-Rosales was one of 60 Needham High juniors who signed up last year for stress-management lessons, which were held nearly every day for two months during gym class. The 17-year-old was enrolled in "accelerated" and honors courses, wrote for the student newspaper, performed on the school's step team, and played varsity softball. Yet she worried that her credentials would not impress admissions officers when the time came to apply to colleges. "Because we don't have class ranks, I was always comparing myself to other students who were doing really well in school," she recalls. "Sometimes, I couldn't sleep and I was grumpy around my friends."

At the workshops, Huezo-Rosales and other students learned how stress affects their mood and behavior. They picked up techniques that include muscle relaxation, deep breathing, and learning how to visualize goals to help them combat stress. Preliminary findings show that the training helped students lower their anxiety and boosted their spirituality and self-esteem. This semester, some 200 sophomores have agreed to participate in a separate study that will consider the affect of the stress-management techniques on grades and attendance. "Our goal is to make sure that students are in a good place to learn and that they are healthy, both emotionally and physically," Richards says. "We are trying to recognize that high school is a rigorous experience and that there are things students can do to help manage it."

Now a senior, Huezo-Rosales says she feels more happy and relaxed at school. It has helped that four of the seven colleges where she applied have responded with offers of admission. Her main worry now is finding enough scholarship money. But she remembers what she learned during the mind-body relaxation workshops whenever she stresses about it. She closes her eyes, takes several deep breaths, and imagines being in a place that brings her happiness. For her, that place is her grandmother's house in the family's homeland of El Salvador. "It's so sunny and warm there," she says. "It makes me forget about all my troubles."