Redefining Success: Navigating Academic Pressure in Middle & High School

As parents, caregivers, and educators, we need to ask ourselves what we truly want for our children. Is “getting into a good college” the sole definition of success? Are we willing to sacrifice their physical and mental health, happiness, and love for learning for a vague future payoff?

Let’s Talk About It: Academic Pressure in Middle & High School

Martin Moran, the Lead Designer of Middle and Upper School at Bennett, was recently on a panel hosted by Neighborhood Parents Network that addressed academic pressure in middle and high school.

Watch the panel below to hear from Moran, along with representatives from Walter Payton College Prep, Whitney Young Magnet High School, and British International School of Chicago, South Loop, to learn how Bennett and other Chicago schools are approaching mental health and the rising levels of anxiety and stress in teens. 

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  • Martin Moran, Lead Designer of Middle and Upper School, Bennett Day School
  • Anna Carey, Assistant Headteacher, British International School of Chicago, South Loop
  • Sarah Moon-Sarudi, Assistant Principal of Student Support, Walter Payton College Prep
  • Tiffany Brownridge, Counselor, Whitney Young Magnet High School

See below for a recap of Moran’s responses:

Question: How can parents prepare their students for the growing academic pressure that can come with entering middle or high school?

It’s got to start with conversations between you and your child

The ability to speak openly about this is really important as there are many misconceptions when it comes to school and “success” among students and parents. For example, I was listening to a podcast this morning that referenced a study by economist George Bulman that found little to no correlation between overall grade point average (G.P.A) in high school and their future success as defined by graduation rates or income.

As educators, parents, and caregivers, it is our collective responsibility to start an open and honest dialogue with our kids about the stress they experience in school. Talk with them about productive stress vs unproductive stress. It’s crucial students learn to differentiate between productive stress, which can motivate and drive growth, and unproductive stress, which can lead to anxiety and burnout. These are crucial conversations to have, especially since many students aren’t talking with their peers about this and are just trying to manage their way through it.

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Help your student find their purpose

The most important conversation to have with your kids is about the idea of purpose in terms of what they’re doing in their life. Oftentimes in school, students get stuck in this position where they’re working towards something that may 3-5 years off. It’s easy to get into this rut where they’re thinking, “I’m doing this all for high school,” or, “I’m doing this all for college.” It’s hard to stay motivated when the destination is years away, and it’s actually easier to get stressed out in these types of situation.

So when you’re having conversations with your child, ask them why they’re doing what they’re doing every day. Purpose is something they need to find in the short term. If they can find that daily purpose, that sense of I’m doing this because it matters to me right now, this has been shown to help support work ethic and physical and mental happiness.

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Question: How are schools creating a community culture amongst students and faculty that values students’ mental health and acknowledges the stresses they are facing? What types of programs should parents want to see their school offering to create this culture?

Schools need to be proactive, not reactive

Schools need to be better about proactively addressing academic pressure vs. managing students after the mental health or stress has already played itself out. We need to ask ourselves: what elements of school are systematically created to intentionally promote healthy lifestyles, and what elements of school are directly causing the stress?

In school and work life, there seems to be a false association between working hard, finding success, and being miserable. Parents and students alike seem to think that if they’re not anxious, stressed, and unhappy, they’re “not being challenged.” It’s time we question this warped sense of normality.

I know this is easier said than done, but I hope my colleagues at other schools can take a step back and reflect on the structures currently in place that directly contribute to academic pressure. How can we get in front of this instead of responding to the stresses that we’ve unfortunately helped create?

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Bring the focus back to learning, not getting an “A”

At Bennett, we’ve eliminated grades as a means of assessment, relying on competency-based feedback and narrative assessments. In 20 years, I’ve found there are as many definitions of an “A” as there are teachers, which leaves kids in a position where they both get stressed out about their work, but spend all their time just trying to figure out what the teacher wants rather than on learning.

Since colleges are moving towards holistic assessment, this is something K-12 and Higher Ed are collaborating on. We’re one of over 450 schools around the country using a competency-based transcript, which allows us to better assess student progress over time.

We’ve used this transcript over the last several years and saw a 100% college acceptance rate last year with our first class of graduates. Bennett graduates are now thriving at places like Northwestern University, University of Southern California (USC), Michigan State University, Claremont McKenna College, The American University of Paris, and more.

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We also partner with Challenge Success to survey and understand the well-being and mental health of our students, and only 14% of our kids worry about tests, quizzes, and assignments. It’s wonderful to see that our students are not worried about these things and still succeeding in the system of school and beyond.

I’m hopeful and confident that more schools will join us in making structural changes to the elements that are both ineffective in the learning process AND causing stress to students.

K-12 schools need to take the lead

To be clear: the stress, anxiety, and anguish that schools are causing kids to have about college that are ruining their adolescent years is not being caused by the colleges. I have had conversations with college admissions officers – they will follow our lead. So we must lead.

I’m optimistic about the future, but K-12 schools have to take it from here. That’s what we have done at Bennett Day School, and not only are our students succeeding wildly in the traditional markers of school success (as defined by university admission), but they’re also healthier, happier, more seen, understood, and engaged along the way.

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We cannot be reactive in our responses and only deal with the symptoms of student mental health crises. Schools have to own the fact that they have played a role in creating these crises and fix the systems that are detrimental to student health.

Everyone wants the best for their kids, and for many, that’s defined by “getting into a good college.” Are we willing to sacrifice their physical and mental health, happiness, and learning engagement in the hopes that someday it might pay off in some vague way? 

Want to learn more about Bennett Day School? Plan your visit to Bennett.