Stress in Schools

Fall 2007

By Sue Porter

If you want to learn something about your school culture, ask a newcomer. While the new member of your department may not be able to direct you to the supply closet, he or she can tell you things about your community that you have long since forgotten, or maybe just want to forget — like how ridiculous some of the school's customs are. A perceptive newcomer can tell you about the pecking order, whether the community is kind and caring, and how people actually treat one another. Newcomers have too much on their plates to worry about the mission statement or the strategic plan. They just want to survive.

Over the past decade, I've talked to hundreds of new teachers, and, throughout this process, I've heard a lot about independent school culture, some of it good, some of it not so good. Here's one important thing I've learned: people in schools, students and teachers alike, are often stressed out — that is, they are hampered by excessive stress in ways that negatively affect their physical and mental health.

Stress: The New Cultural Currency

Wow, you say, like that's news. You know this already; you live it every day. But here's what you may have forgotten, and here's what the newcomers have taught me: life isn't supposed to be this stressful. Stress isn't supposed to pervade almost all aspects of the school experience. At best, stress is supposed to be a side effect, not the main effect of our work. But this is rarely the case today. I've learned from the newcomers that many schools accept stress, and I mean chronic stress, as inevitable, and that for many communities stress is one of the most valuable commodities. Think about it. When was the last time a colleague (or a student, for that matter) talked about a restful night's sleep or a stolen moment of peace during the school day? Even if these things are to be had, it's no longer acceptable to talk about them. The message I'm getting from the newcomers is this: if you're not stressed, or overworked, or generally harried, you're not doing your job. So get with the program and get stressed out.

I have noticed that stress is one of the few, and, in some school communities, the only emotional experience that gets discussed in any detail. It's okay to be stressed; in fact, it's a point a pride. To talk about that stolen moment of peace is akin to admitting weakness or dereliction of duty. In this way, I believe stress has become an important part of the cultural currency of independent schools, and, perhaps, of the culture at large. For some, a stressful community equals a productive one. Parents especially can get caught in the grip of this logic. While, on the one hand, they rail against how hard their children work, on the other hand they take pride in the very system that stresses their children out. Parents can be very invested in keeping the grindstone grinding. To be not stressed in our culture suggests we aren't fulfilling our potential, and fulfilling potential is one reason parents choose independent schools.

Recently, I spoke with a group of educators who reported that stress at their school is almost intractable because students are determined to maintain it at all cost. Many students believe stress distinguishes them from students at rival schools, and, thus, their investment in stress is high. This phenomenon of secondary gain can make dealing with stress in schools very difficult. The greater the secondary gain (what adolescent doesn't want to feel distinguished?), the less likely that students will see the need to change, regardless of how much they complain.

I see this phenomenon in the adults working in schools, too, but, for them, it has less to do with feeling superior to each other (although this can be part of it) than with compensating for imbalances in the rest of their lives. Teachers often fall prey to workaholic lifestyles — whether by accident or by design — in which stress is a measure of success. I once heard a teacher complain/brag that she literally had no time to open her mail. This teacher was also a department head, and had been for many years, so much of her burden was of her own making. And, yet, this is precisely what her head of school wanted to hear. This kind of "sacrifice" on the part of teachers turns quickly into martyrdom, which doesn't help anyone in the community; we all know how stressful it is to be around a martyr.

So, chronic stress is a given in many independent school communities. But should it be?

What's So Bad About Stress?

It's easy to make stress a whipping boy in today's world. In fact, given its high profile in school culture, I'm often slow to respond when students say they're stressed out. Why? First, it is my contention that because stress is so accepted, and even de rigueur (what student brags about feeling relaxed before a final exam?), students often use the term loosely. When a student says he or she is stressed, I want to know precisely what he or she means. There is no shame in being stressed, but try feeling depressed or hopeless or fearful; that's another story.

Second, stress is not an inherently bad thing; we need a little stress to perform well. Educators understand this, which is why we set deadlines, give tests, and evaluate performance. Some measure of stress is essential for success, but chronic, unrelenting stress is not. The body is designed to feel stress at times, but it is also designed to recover from stress, to relax. As educators, we should factor in recovery as much as we do preparation and performance, and, therefore, we should approach the issue of stress reduction with the same interest and determination we do all of our subjects. If we don't, the stakes are high. For individuals, chronic stress leads to reduced performance, irritability, physical illness, anxiety, and depression. For communities, chronic stress breeds bitterness, selfishness, and burnout.

The Causes of Stress in Schools

Hang out in the faculty lounge and you will hear many theories about the causes of stress. Faculty think the administration is nuts. The administration thinks the faculty is the problem. And everyone blames parents, or students, or A.P. classes, or the schedule. Hang out in the student lounge and you will hear similar rants: it's the parents, or teachers, or homework load, or the college admission process. Clearly, many things about school life feed the stress load. That said, I believe most independent school students, at one point or another, experience excessive stress based on one of the following three phenomena: lack of sleep, perfectionism, and a pattern of thinking I call "futurism."

Lack of Sleep

Lack of sleep is an obvious bugaboo for teenagers. Biological clocks shift during puberty and, therefore, most teenagers stay up and get up later than they did as young children. Most school schedules are not compatible with the adolescent biological clock and so most students operate without enough sleep. Lack of sleep is as stressful to the mind as it is to the body, so it is no small issue when most of our students routinely get fewer than the 9–10 hours of sleep recommended by the American Pediatric Association.


Perfectionism is widespread in our independent school communities. A generation ago, it was okay to be good at some things and not others. Students could take pride in their accomplishments in poetry, for example, and not deride themselves for an average grade in calculus. Those days are gone. The poet who doesn't perform mathematically now gets tested, and invariably the results allow for some kind of accommodation. I don't mean to diminish real learning differences and styles, or testing for that matter, but I wish to emphasize that psychological and educational testing is sometimes driven by the notion that students should be good at everything, especially if they are good at some things. I know of one parent who had her child tested because he received a B+ in math; because the rest of his grades were A's, she assumed he had a learning problem in this one area. It was true her son had a problem; it just wasn't in math.


Another source of stress in today's students is something I call futurism, which is closely tied to perfectionism. Futurism is a preoccupation with the future and a corresponding inability to enjoy the present. Ironically, adolescents are often accused of being not able to think about their futures, to consider consequences, or to delay gratification. All true, but welcome to the paradoxical world of today's teen. At a shockingly early age, kids start thinking about their futures, specifically about what college they should attend. I once had a sixth grader tell me between sobs that she needed to be perfect. "Why?" I asked. "Because you can't get into Harvard if you're not perfect, and my mom told me I need to go to Harvard so I can become a neurologist and take care of my family."

Recently I asked a group of 10th graders what runs through their minds before they take a test. One student responded, "If I don't get a good grade on the test, I won't get a good grade in the class. If I don't get a good grade in the class, I won't get into a good college. If I don't get into a good college, I won't get a good job. And if I don't get a good job, I might end up homeless."

This is futurism, and it is rampant in our schools.

It is necessary for students to think about what's on the agenda for tomorrow or next week; teaching them to organize and to plan is a big part of our work. But their brains simply can't make meaning of a future that exists years in advance. Futurism is less a concern about the future than it is a comment on the present, a present that is spinning out of control.

Seeking Solutions

So what's a school to do? We can't regulate bedtimes or thoughts or aspirations, nor can we substantially reduce the amount of pressure students feel. But we can address the issue of stress and accept that it's a reality for most of our students. This is their world, and we must help them deal with it.

Here's the good news: we can. Schools can begin by providing support services to deal with a range of mental health issues, including stress. We can also follow the lead of some schools and consider a shift in the start of the school day in an effort to accommodate the teenage biological clock. In addition, we can examine and enforce workloads to ensure that students can reasonably meet the expectations we set for them.

Any of the above suggestions will jumpstart a school's response to stress, but I believe we can do even more. A growing number of schools are choosing to turn to experts in stress reduction for answers to the stress we see in today's student, and The Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at the Mass General Hospital ( is one institution devoted to helping educators do just that.

The Benson-Henry Institute (BHI) is the brainchild of Dr. Herbert Benson, author of The Relaxation Response (HarperTorch, 2000). Dr. Benson was one of the first physicians in the West to bring scientific scrutiny to traditional mindfulness practices like meditation, and he was also one of the first cardiologists to focus on prevention of heart disease through stress reduction. After more than three decades of research and clinical trials, Benson's work is now filtering into schools. The BHI launched its Educational Initiative more than 15 years ago, but it is only recently that independent schools have begun to benefit from the institute's cutting-edge research. Over the past two years, a few independent schools have participated in the BHI's "train the trainer" model of learning the relaxation response. Volunteer participants of faculty and staff undergo 6 to 12 hours of training to learn about the physiology of stress, how to elicit the relaxation response — the physiological antithesis to the "flight or fight" response — and how to introduce mindfulness and stress reduction practices to students in the classroom, the dormitory, and on the athletic field.

The folks at the BHI recognize that adult stress is just as pervasive in schools as student stress, therefore they reason — and I think correctly — that adults must practice methods of stress-reduction themselves before they can effectively introduce them to students. While the adult and student cultures in schools can seem miles apart at times, it makes sense that the stress level in one population can have a profound impact on the stress level in the other; stressed-out adults create stressed-out students, and vice versa. Adopting the trickle-down theory, the trainers at the BHI focus on the well-being of the adults in school communities, and their experience introducing stress-reduction techniques suggests that this model can help everyone manage the day-to-day challenges of independent school life more effectively.

The science behind the relaxation is easy to understand and may be familiar to those who stay current with health trends, or to anyone who's spent more than a week in California. But, as with many things in life, the theory often proves easier to master than the practice. Dr. Benson suggests that, in order for intermittent relaxation exercises to be useful, a person should develop a foundational practice of at least 20 minutes of relaxation per day. In its most basic form, this means 20 minutes of focused breathing, with eyes closed and spine erect. Learning to elicit the relaxation response at will gives regular practitioners the skill to drop into a relaxed state at almost anytime. With daily relaxation, regular practitioners can de-stress quickly and reap significant benefit from a one- or two-minute "mini," as shorter periods of concentrated relaxation are called. During the training, the BHI introduces the idea that opportunities for "minis" exist throughout the school day, and can be easily woven into the first minutes of class. This concept runs counter to what many feel is the unavoidable pace of the school schedule, but teachers who practice "minis" with their students find that students are more focused, less distracted, and more receptive to material during class. Teachers soon discover that the fear of losing a minute of two of instructional time is offset by the gain of more alert and attentive students.

Teaching students how to elicit the relaxation response is perhaps the only way we can address the problems of stress caused by insufficient sleep, perfectionism, and futurism. For example, deep relaxation can be as restorative as sleep; therefore, if students relax during the school day, even for a few minutes, they can make up for some of the sleep debt they regularly incur. In terms of countering perfectionism, the relaxation response is a powerful aid. Perfectionists live in a frenzied internal world. The relaxation response gives them an experience of calm that is absent from their constant striving, which may entice them to slow down their incessant yearning. Relaxation and mindfulness practices also help practitioners focus on the present, the perfect antidote to futurism. If futurism is the mind spinning out of control, then being present is the mind in its relaxed state.

Shifting the Culture

Theory is often easier to master than practice, and for those of us used to chronic stress, or the lure of perfectionism, relaxing can be hard work. But we have to relax. We really do. Researchers like Herbert Benson (and many others) are telling us that chronic stress is not something we should live with. Our health is at stake, and our highly stressed school cultures need to shift. Many fear such a shift will reduce performance in students, and that formerly high-achieving students will no longer do well academically if they are relaxed. This is not the case. Benson's research claims the reverse to be true, that student performance will increase with regular relaxation. In fact, everyone will benefit from knowing how to elicit the relaxation response on demand.

This shift in culture from chronic to manageable stress will look different in each school. Some may establish places on campus where relaxation can occur ("Zen dens," cropped up in one school); or design web pages where students can download relaxation recordings; or begin meetings with guided visualization, or all of the above. The cultural conversation will shift, too, as the need for regular relaxation is acknowledged and accepted as part of a healthy and productive community. I hope we will accept that, while we can't control many of the variables of our day, we can control our internal response to those variables. There will always be something to get stressed about; that's life. And the ultimate shift in our school culture will occur when we recognize that the solution lies not just in changing external circumstances. When we learn to shift our internal worlds, physiologically speaking, we will take a huge step forward in shifting the culture of our schools for the better.
Sue Porter

Sue Porter is the school counselor at The Winsor School (Massachusetts).