Burnout is not only an issue in the adult world, it is also a big problem for high school students. The demands that are placed on students – not only in school, but also in university – are extremely high, leaving little to no free time for the students and dumping unmanageable stress on them. High school burnout is more common than you’d think.
I am a teacher and during exam period I often see students as young as 13 or 14 break down in tears, because they did not achieve the desired grade or because they are so stressed that they drew a complete blank, despite having studied for hours. It is heartbreaking to see this.
Before we discuss methods to deal with high school burnout, let’s look at the causes first. By eliminating the causes – or as many as we possibly can – burnout can be prevented.
What can Cause High School Burnout?
- High expectations
- Too many extracurricular activities
- Too much homework
- Pressure from school
- Maintaining a social life
- Applying for colleges and universities
I am going to keep this one short; it sort of explains itself. We do expect too much from our students. Although I am all for learning – obviously; I am a teacher, after all 😉 – I find that sometimes we raise the bar too high. One of my students had an 8 as a final grade in my subject. I think that an 8 is good. Nevertheless, she burst into tears.
I asked her what was wrong and she told me that her mother wanted her to have a 9 or 10 and that she would get mad at her for “just” getting an 8.
The same goes for teachers who are expecting so much and forgetting to listen to their students. No one believes the excuse “the dog ate the homework”, but we are dealing with human beings here who may or may not have issues, and sometimes life does get in the way. Assuming that your students are always lying is not the way to approach them.
I think it is important to listen to them and give them the benefit of the doubt. I have seen students break down in tears because a teacher refused to accept her or his homework. Reason? The teacher’s name was missing on the front page, or the students were not using the right folder. I mean, seriously?
It could have taken them 3 hours to prepare this assignment, but it is refused for a silly technicality. Can you understand the frustration? I do not see what we are teaching the student with that.
I often hear students tell me that straight after school, they have lunch, then they have perhaps basketball or soccer training, then French, ballet, jazz, piano, you name it. Although I think that it is great for them to learn an extra skill or pursue their hobbies, I find that most students have their afternoons stuffed with activities, to the extent that they leave home for school at 6:30 in the morning and only get home around 6, 7, or even 8 pm – from Monday to Friday …
Where is the time to enjoy their adolescence? How can they find time for themselves? After that very long day, they have a quick dinner, and then around 8 or 9 pm they can finally start doing their homework, which they finish around 11 pm, or midnight, or even later than that … That sounds pretty stressful to me.
This particular situation is more an issue that is created by both parents and the school. As wonderful as it is to have a child learn so many skills, he or she needs a time out. School is like a full time job, so stick to the extracurricular activities that your child thoroughly enjoys.
Having too many extracurricular activities is not always what the students want, adding to a huge workload and less time to do their homework. I am not against expanding their interests in afternoon activities, but cramming each afternoon with so much work isn’t helping either. There has to be a healthy balance.
Too Much Homework
That one is self-explanatory too. It is a fact that students have way too much work, much more than most can handle. Most of my students spend 3 to 4 hours on homework on most days of the week. While I am not against homework, I think that there should be a healthy balance here too.
The way students are bombarded with homework and afternoon activities, we are setting them up for burnout. This is my opinion, based on years of working with adolescents in junior high and high school.
I am certainly against dumping homework on them every single day. So, I limit my homework assignment to once a week – or even once every ten days – and I often give projects that they can work on at home and in school as well. I prefer class activities (individual or in groups) where they can learn.
Pressure from School
Yes, we know that one. The school and teachers often burden the students with a little too much. I remember when I was in junior high school (in Belgium). I was a good student. I had 8s, 9s, and 10s, in all my subjects, except for physics and chemistry.
I failed physics in every bimester and chemistry was not my forte either. I simply did not understand my physics teacher. He spent every class with his back to us, writing on the board and explaining these formulas. He might as well have spoken Chinese to me – I did not understand anything.
My chemistry teacher was a sweet lady who really cared about her students, and she often took me aside to explain things to me, but it was still hard.
Although I had excellent grades in all other subjects and I was known to be responsible and always doing my homework, I was told that I would fail the year and repeat the whole school year if I did not get a better grade in either physics or chemistry.
I did not know what to do. I knew that physics was a lost cause. The teacher might have been a genius, but he did not know how to explain. Even today, after all these years I just remember the back of his head, not his face 😉
Chemistry, however, was another story. I knew that I could make it there, perhaps get a 6. So, I studied all weekend, 10 to 12 hours per day. I studied it all, not to memorize, but with the purpose to understand. Once I understood how it worked, I knew I could do it.
So, I studied and studied until the figurative light bulb over my head suddenly turned on. On Monday I got a 7 in my exam. My chemistry teacher was so proud of me, and I passed the school year.
So, those were nearly 24 hours of studying for a subject I do not need in my current work, even though I had excellent grades in all my other subjects. That was an enormous amount of pressure on a 12-year-old girl. Although this happened some time ago, situations like these still apply today. They cause unnecessary stress.
Being a teacher myself, I am demanding with lazy and/or disruptive students, but when a student always does his/her work, never disrupts the class, and always achieves high grades, I do not see why I should be adding to stress like it was done in my school during my student days.
Exams create much pressure for students. Hours of studying, until late at night or the early morning hours. They hardly sleep, they are stressed and nervous. I am pasting here a comment on one my previous posts.
This comment was left by a university student and it says enough. There is no need for me to explain anything else, except to say that we must work on improving school and studying assignments, and especially, listen to our students.
Although I usually do not share comments that are left on my website, this particular comment left a lasting impression on me and I felt compelled to share it in this article.
Maintaining a Social Life
There is also a lot of social pressure, trying hard to fit in, having the “right” Facebook profile, getting lots of likes and comments on posts. That can also cause a lot of stress. A social life is of the utmost importance to an adolescent, and not fitting in can lead to anxiety and stress, depending on each individual, of course.
Some girls approached me and told me about other students who were mean to them for silly reasons. It was stressful for them to have to deal with this treatment every day. They were afraid to walk near those guys, in case they would say something hostile again. I reported it, and the school psychologist dealt with the situation.
Since the girls were so terrified of the consequences of me reporting it, I requested that this was handled with discretion, and that’s what the psychologist did. Those boys never knew that their victims had talked to me or that I was involved.
It was solved with group activities the school psychologist did with the whole group, and when I talked to those girls later they told me that everything was fine now and that the boys treated them with respect. I also observed them being nice to those girls, so all was well.
Being a teenager is not easy, and there is a lot of social pressure. If you “mess up” in your class, you can suddenly become the group pariah, which is difficult to deal with for a 12-year-old or for any adolescent.
Applying for Colleges and Universities
This is another process that can be stressful. You need to have certain grades in order to qualify for a scholarship. If, for some reason, you do not manage to get those grades, this can create another mental breakdown and lots of tears.
A student – who was usually well-behaved and who always had good grades – in high school once disrupted my class so badly that I kicked her out. Then, I went outside to talk to her and she just broke down, telling me how she could not handle it anymore. She was drowning in homework, had just gone through bimester exams; now, semester exams started barely a week later, and she was so sick of it all. She did not have the energy to study anymore.
Her voice rose in anger and frustration. I did not reprimand her for raising her voice. I just listened, and then we talked. Later, she apologized for her outburst, but the main thing was that she had let it out.
She seemed to feel better for it. I let her back into the classroom and she was calmer now, but I felt bad for her. I knew how hard she always worked for her grades, and she had gotten to a point where she just could not deal with it anymore. This stress was augmented by the need to have high grades to qualify for colleges or universities of her choice.
That student graduated three years ago, but she sometimes still sends me emails when she has questions; and she has told me that she always thinks of me fondly. For a teacher, this is a beautiful compliment, and it always warms my heart. 🙂
Is it Possible to Fix Some of These Issues?
Yes, it is.
- First of all, we – as teachers and parents – must create reasonable goals, making sure that they can be attained without sacrificing the student’s time and/or mental health.
- As students, you should stick to deadlines and avoid procrastination.
- Students should also have enough sleep, at least 7, 8, or 9 hours per night.
- If you’re not popular in school it is not the end of the world. Find your friends, the ones you share common interests with or with whom it just clicks. They are around there, and they are probably also looking for a good friend.
- Reserve time for enjoyable activities during the week.
- Take breaks during the day, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
- Make sure that you eat healthy and drink enough water, especially during exams. In exam periods, it is also important to have enough sleep.
- On the day of exam, have a healthy breakfast. Bananas are good for the brain; they contain vitamin B6 which improves concentration. Chocolate gives you energy. Just make sure that it’s dark chocolate, not milk chocolate. The darker the chocolate, the less sugar it has and thus it can give you more energy.
- While you take your exam, sit comfortably. That is important to help you relax. You must be relaxed. So, avoid hovering over your exam with your nose glued to the paper. That is an extremely uncomfortable sitting position and it will only increase your stress levels.
- Ask the teacher if you are allowed to chew gum while you are taking your exam. Despite the rule of no gum, the repetitive chewing provides relaxation. So, it’s best to check with the teacher if an exception can be made. Explain the reasons for your request.
I hope that this can help in some way. If you have any additional tips, please let me know in the comments.
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