The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 16, 2010

Carefree high school days? Not really

While many like to think of high school as a carefree time before the real business of adulthood begins, the reality is that most teens experience stress. As students head into the season of college decisions, proms, MCAS testing and finals, academic and social pressure mounts. This year, anxiety may be heightened by a recent string of local teen deaths. Two suicides one a current and one a former Concord-Carlisle High School (CCHS) student, and the death by accidental drug overdose of a college sophomore from Carlisle have offered a barrage of sad news throughout the school year. In addition, a difficult economy, tougher college admissions, and media reports of wars and terrorism may be sources of stress.

Recent increase in stress

CCHS Principal Peter Badalament is concerned that stress is too much a part of high school life. “Parents have high expectations,” he says, and “students have high expectations for themselves and want to do well.” Sleep is often a casualty as students struggle to excel in activities, sports, and homework.

CCHS Adjustment Counsellor Kelli Kirshtein notes that she has been a counselor for 14 years, “and in the last three I have seen an upsurge in the number of students being hospitalized” for emotional issues. “In a recession there’s an uptick [in depression] in all age groups,” she adds. “Kids have raised antennae as to what’s going on and are anxious about the future.” This year has been particularly difficult because of the tragedies involving victims who were known to many students. “It underlines that life is uncertain, and that makes kids anxious,” says Kirshtein. “They need reassurance that these are rare events, not linked events.”

School support services

At CCHS, Concord Academy, and Minuteman Career and Technical High Schools, special efforts are being made to ameliorate stress and help students cope.

At CCHS the school’s response to a student tragedy is relatively informal and emphasizes the support services that already exist. Kirshtein says, “We don’t want to sweep it under the rug” she says, but “we also don’t want to over-dramatize or call too much attention” that can encourage copycat attempts. Students are made aware that counseling and support services are available if needed. “Some want to talk about it and some don’t,” she says.

Jeff Desjarlais, Director of Health and Wellness at Concord Academy, also has experience dealing with tragedy. Last year a student took her life after a night of drinking, and this year a former student committed suicide. Desjarlais says that the school has three mental health counselors and when tragedies occur, extra counselors are called in. After the most recent tragedy, he immediately received a call from CCHS counselors offering their help. “When incidents occur, these communities hang together,” he says. In these cases, he adds, “It’s important to reinforce what we’re available to do all the time.” Concord Academy provides a required structured program for health and wellness, and resilience training is included. “Stress is not a bad thing,” says Desjarlais. “Without it we’d still be in bed. It’s how you manage it that matters.”

James Laverty, Principal at Minuteman, notes his school recently hired an adjustment counselor who will join a staff that already included a social worker and clinical psychologist. He says it is a misperception that stress is not a factor at Minuteman. Academic requirements are comprehensive, with honors level courses. This year, the valedictorian was accepted at MIT, and “that would not happen without strenuous academic programs,” he says. “What helps our kids is that they are not sitting at a desk everyday, 180 days, seven periods per day,” he adds. “Every other week they work on their career project.” Whether cloning a carrot in biochemistry or building a house in carpentry, “this is five hours of doing something they really want to be doing.” But, he says, “In today’s society there’s a lot of pressure on kids. All educators need to be concerned.”

CCHS student stress survey

Recently the CCHS implemented an online stress survey. Although only 360 students of 1,200 have taken it so far, early results show that most students rate their own stress on the higher end of the scale. Homework is overwhelmingly the prime stressor, with 56% estimating they spend two to four hours per night on assignments. Most report six to seven hours of sleep, which Badalament calls “a healthy amount,” but 16% report less than 6 hours. Currently only a few seniors have taken the survey, and Badalament expects the “less than six hours sleep” percentage to rise when their responses are incorporated.

Identifying stressors, reducing stress

In February, Badalament dedicated the monthly faculty meeting at CCHS to discussing how to reduce student stress. Students were invited to share perspectives, and the faculty considered a number of ideas. It was determined that homework blackout weekends would not work, as there are too many events that might qualify. Instead, teachers agreed to try not to assign lengthy assignments over vacations and at the end of marking periods. One of the difficulties with a blanket policy, Badalament says, is that each committed faculty member believes what they do is important and should take precedence over other activities.

Another difficulty is differing parental expectations and student needs. At the April Principal’s Coffee last week, the parents of one student appeared to complain about the de-stress policy, believing some teachers were using it as an excuse to set low standards. Having just returned from a college visit, the mother said, “It was a reality check that expectations at the university level are very high.” Badalament agreed to clarify the policy, “I never said ease up altogether.”

At a later meeting, Badalament spoke of some other initiatives at CCHS to deal with stress. For many freshmen, learning the high school ropes, including how to advocate for yourself, can be a major stumbling block, “Some suss it out, but some have a lot of difficulty.” Freshman Advisory, which has been in place for three years, has proved very successful in orienting incoming freshmen. It takes place before school starts in September, and offers games and team building exercises with the help of upper class leaders. Badalament would like to expand upper-class mentoring continuing into the school year, making mentors available to provide general advice on “how to do school.”

He sees the fragmented school day, in which students must juggle conflicting teacher demands, as another source of stress. Although it would be difficult on the upper levels, interdisciplinary teaming, similar to the template used in middle school, may be possible freshman year. In this model, departments would meet together on a regular basis to plan out and coordinate curriculum and assignments. “We try to come up with new and innovative ways to deal with stress,” says Badalament. Students who have difficulty managing attendance or assignments can avoid detention by entering a first period Challenge Program. In this program, “We reinforce what parents do,” – organize, check homework and make sure the student is ready for school.

At the Principal’s Coffee, parents said that consistent policies would help students navigate school rules. One parent noted her son had received detention for unexcused absences that had occurred several months previously, and suggested more timely discipline. In addition, “some teachers have sign ins (for late arrivals) and some don’t” so a student does not have consistent rules to rely on. Another parent noted that teachers are not always sympathetic to prolonged absence due to illnesses. Badalament suggested parents can call guidance, the assistant principal “or me” if there is an issue with a teacher.

On the plus side, surveyed students record healthy ways of dealing with stress. Many note the importance of getting together with friends or listening to music, and 54% cite exercise as a stress reliever. Asked for ideas, some students suggested healthier food in the cafeteria, including a salad bar. Badalament is pleased that lifestyle lessons seem to be taking hold. In addition, he points out that 96% of students report a strong relationship with an adult at school.


The recent South Hadley suicide of a student who was the subject of harassment prompted a discussion of social stress. Badalament noted that students who are disciplined for harassment are informed of the school rules, and then shown a copy of the Massachusetts General Laws regarding criminal harassment. “We let them know there could be legal ramifications.” In general, he says, most students treat each other well, and fights are very few, “two or three a year, which is remarkable for a school of this size.” He adds, “That’s not to say there isn’t harassment,” and when it occurs, “that’s something we take seriously.” Cyber harassment is particularly difficult, as it is outside the scope of school discipline unless it happens in school or on a school computer. He suggests parents with concerns can talk to the school’s adjustment counselors or Concord Police Detective Scott Camilleri, CCHS liaison, who is “an outstanding resource.”

Kirshtein later emailed, “We have conversations about this all the time and incorporate talking about on-line issues with kids in counseling.” She notes that she and other staff members will be attending a conference in May that will advise how to deal with social cruelty.

At Concord Academy, Desjarlais counsels students to “wait ‘til the next day” to send emotional or dismissive text messages, adding, “Unless someone is in front of you, you are not having a private conversation.” He believes technology today is too immediate. “There have always been bullies, but now students think it, feel it, write it and send it.”

Minuteman has taken aggressive steps to confront the issue of bullying. Barbara Calarusso, author of “The Bully, The Bullied, and the Bystander,” was invited to give a talk on motivating bystanders to stop bullying. As a follow-on, last week the entire school had an extended homeroom to discuss bullying, to share experiences and strategies, and to underline where to go for help. Laverty notes that he received dozens of positive comments, “This wasn’t a teacher talking to the kids. It was an open dialog in small groups, and students were very comfortable talking.” Because Minuteman students are drawn from many school districts, much of the harassment that occurs is between freshmen competing for turf or the attention of a member of the opposite sex. “It’s not upperclassmen harassing freshmen as you might expect,” he says.

After Badalament rushed off to another appointment, parents at the CCHS Principals Coffee last week lingered to continue the discussion. A few noted bullying incidents, including a parent whose student was harassed by other members of her sports team. The parent contacted the coach, but nothing was done, and the student elected to try to resolve the issue alone. “I love the teachers at this school,” said one parent, but some felt that the range of teacher expectations, requirements and occasional unwillingness to provide needed support added to school stress. Is that part of learning, a crash course on life? Advised one mom, “I pledged not to be a helicopter parent, but you can’t back off completely. Sometimes, you need to get involved.”


Kirshtein provided these thoughts on identifying depression in your teen:

“Depression looks different in kids than it looks in adults. Kids can and do go about the business of being kids when they are depressed, and often perk up when with their peers. Parents often believe that you are only really depressed if your mood always appears down. With kids, you see more ups and downs. Also, kids may be more irritable and argumentative rather than sad much of the time when depression hits. Most important is to seek help when you suspect your teen may be suffering from depression. Talk therapy and medication are both helpful, and using them appropriately can reduce the severity of depression and also prevent or ameliorate recurrences in the future. Getting support as a parent can also help you to be there for your child, as depression affects the whole family, not just the person who is afflicted.”

At CCHS, modules on depression were included in this spring’s Health Week activities directed to students, and on-going services provide a safety net for the most vulnerable students. For example, Kirshtein points to the new “Lightship” program to assist students returning from hospitalizations by providing tutorial support, counseling and gradual re-integrating into the CCHS community. Information has also been directed to parents. Kirshtein participated in a panel discussion by the Concord Carlisle Parents Initiative last fall entitled “What Does Depression Look Like?” In February, the Center for Parents and Teachers hosted a talk by Dr. Michael Thompson, author of “The Pressured Child,” who advocated for strong connections and parental expectations that align with the reality of who the student is. ∆

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