Between class, homework, and extracurriculars, high school students spend much of their lives at school. As Anna, a student at Crosstown High, an XQ school in Memphis, TN, explained, “I would describe it as something I do almost every single day. I naturally think about school at all times.”
This time is supposed to give students the confidence and skills they need to succeed after graduating. But feedback from students paints a different picture of what high school is really like—one that centers around stress. Just how stressed are high school students? According to a recent Yale study, almost 75 percent of high school students feel negatively about school.
Students are the experts in their own learning. They know what’s not working, and they know what they need for success. One of our XQ Design Principles is Youth Voice and Choice: the belief that students should have the power to shape their own learning. To transform high school and improve students’ experience, we need to listen to what students have to say—and follow their lead to take action.
Students Want More from High School
When researchers from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and Yale Child Study Center asked students to describe how they feel at school, their answers had a clear trend: most students are disengaged, missing out on opportunities for meaningful learning and connection. Students most frequently reported feeling stressed, bored, and tired. Researchers also found that students reported having these negative feelings 60 percent of the time while at school.
The Yale study was conducted in 2019. Since then, the pandemic intensified stress and fatigue for students. De’Von, a senior at Washington Leadership Academy—an XQ school in Washington, D.C.—summed it up: “Stress has impacted us a lot during quarantine, which is a different high school experience than everybody in the world who previously went to high school, and who will go to high school in the future.”
Why Do Students Think High School Needs to Improve?
If you ask students about their high school experience, one word stands out: stress. As the Pew Research Center reports, the majority of teenagers today see stress, anxiety, and depression as major problems impacting their peers. We’ve surveyed the research and talked to students to come up with some of the main causes of stress.
Students consistently mention academics as a key source of pressure. The problem is not only having too much work—it’s having too much work while also feeling that the work may not actually be supporting learning. Daniella, a student from PSI High—an XQ school in Samford, Florida—explained, “I wish that they understood the amount of work that we end up getting, and how it doesn’t really help us for real life.”
Excessive homework is a prime example. De’Von described the disconnect between how adults might imagine students’ homework, and what’s happening in reality. “I can’t come home, do my homework for an hour, and hang out with my friends. My homework takes about four hours, five hours.”
This academic pressure can be particularly intense for students taking on other responsibilities outside of school, like working or caring for family members. Anna described her experience balancing a job with school: “I end up struggling with time to do anything for myself or anything with friends.”
Cultural & Social Dynamics
Students bring their life experiences into the classroom. When schools aren’t prepared to meet the needs of students from a variety of backgrounds, the disconnect can be a source of major stress. For example, several students from XQ school DaVinci RISE High in Los Angeles, CA described the unique struggles Latinx students often face in high school—like language barriers, immigration problems, and fears of deportation. Schools can support students as they are through culturally responsive teaching, yet not enough students experience this approach.
High school students also face the pressure of navigating teenage social life. “Everyone is really finding themselves in high school. And so friend groups and friends fluctuate so much,” explained Ava, a senior at Crosstown. For high schoolers today, these social pressures are especially intense thanks to social media. A 2019 Mayo Clinic study linked spending excessive time on social media to higher rates of depression in teens. As Anna explained, “There’s that pressure to have social media, or be a certain person or have certain things, on top of just being good at what you’re supposed to do at school.”
Concerns About the Future
High school should empower students to feel confident about the future. But for many students, this isn’t the case. Daniella explained, “There’s no real-life classes or electives that we should be taking. So students won’t learn about taxes and stuff. Mainly the focus is just statewide tests.” Daniella also expressed concern that high schools don’t do enough to prepare students for careers, instead presenting college as the only option.
College itself is also a major source of stress. Crosstown senior Ava cited the college application process as the most stressed she’s ever been—especially thanks to college entrance tests. Recalling her own experience getting diagnosed with a test-taking-related learning disability, Ava explained, “It’s just stressful because there’s a stigma. Like, if you work hard enough you can get a certain score. But that’s not true.”
Toxic School Climate
When schools don’t have an intentional culture to deal with challenges that arise within the community and support students during hard times, students feel the impact.
Daniella explained, “I would say that what students don’t like about high school, too, is definitely the environment. Like if … something happens to a school, it takes a toll on the whole school and the school has to deal with a bad environment.”
High schoolers today also deal with constant exposure to crises on a large scale. A recent APA study shows that large-scale issues like gun violence and sexual harassment have significant impacts on teenagers’ mental health. Students bring these stressors to school with them, impacting the school climate as a whole.
How Does School Stress Affect Students’ Mental Health?
Consistent stress has deep consequences. For high school students, excessive stress can lead to anxiety, depression, and self-harm.
Daniella explained how the patterns of stress she experiences from school work take a toll on her mental health. “Sometimes I will put myself in a situation where I will just sit there and continue to do every single homework that I have to do. And it will be hours and hours, and I will not get enough sleep and then … my mental health will go down.”
This experience of stress can be a vicious cycle: the more stress and pressure students experience, the harder it is to find time to invest in self-care. Ava explained, “So when you’re in stress, your mind is so blurry, you’re not able to focus on certain things that might help you destress because you’re just so overwhelmed by it.”
How Can Schools Help and What Should They Do Better?
Educators and school leaders may be wondering—what can we do to help?
We put together these recommendations based on direct student input, along with successful examples from XQ schools. As you adopt these suggestions to your own school, you can use our student self-assessment tool to get input on what your specific students need most.
Hire More Guidance Counselors & Therapists
One of the most direct ways schools can invest in student mental health is to hire guidance counselors and therapists. These positions provide critical support—yet too many students lack access. As Anna explained, schools should hire more counselors, “so that students really feel like they can be at school, feel supported, and have someone that’s listening to them and not just being there because they have to be.”
Elizabethton High School, an XQ school in Elizabethton, Tennessee, recently increased mental health resources based on student feedback. Elizabethton educators worked closely with students to decide how to spend ARP ESSER funding. They opened a Student Center—a drop-in space where students can relax, study, and meet with counselors or social workers. And based on student voice, the school used ESSER funding to hire two additional counselors.
Explore our resources on ARP ESSER funding to see how your school can invest funds with input from students.
Provide More Academic Support
When asked about how their schools help them manage stress, students consistently mentioned personalized academic support. Anna explained, “My teachers offer office hours … after school for like 30 minutes. When I show up to those to make up something or just to get extra help, they’re super helpful, and I go almost every other day if I’m not going to other activities. My teachers help me out, and we work through problems together.”
Community partnerships can serve as valuable resources for one-on-one tutoring and mentorship. Ava described how Crosstown’s partnership with Rhodes College helped her college process. “They did an opportunity, it was completely free, where Rhodes students would come help us with our essays. And tell us what got them in, and give advice about anything.” Similarly, Brooklyn Lab—an XQ school in Brooklyn, New York—partnered with InnovateEDU to provide tutoring opportunities to students during virtual learning.
You can explore XQ’s resources on how to engage community partners to give your students the support they need.
Extra Credit: DaVinci RISE High’s principal reflects on how personalized, targeted academic support empowers learning for at-risk students.
Implement Social & Emotional Learning (SEL) Methods
By investing in social and emotional learning methods, educators can teach students how to deal with stress at school.
One way to emphasize social and emotional learning is to make belonging a central part of your school’s mission and culture. Even small things can go a long way to building an environment where students feel like they matter. De’Von described how teachers build this climate at Washington Leadership Academy: “For like, two to three minutes during passing period, it’s a teacher going around with the speaker, playing old school music that we all know, that we’re all dancing, singing, yelling in the hallways, and it’s honestly amazing.”
Educators should also prioritize relationships. Caring, trusting relationships is one of XQ’s core design principles for a reason: as Lauren Bierbaum, XQ’s head of data, research, and evaluation explains, “Research tells us that having even just one close relationship at school can do wonders for supporting students’ learning and development.”
De’Von said that relationships are one of the best parts of WLA. “Every student has that one core teacher who they trust 1000 percent. They know, if I have a problem, I can go to them. No matter what it is, no matter what time of day. If I have a problem, I can go to them.”
Invest in Meaningful, Engaged Learning
To combat student boredom and the feeling that school isn’t relevant to the future, schools should support meaningful, engaged learning—learning that activates student passion around topics that matter.
Ava described meaningful and engaged learning in action in a philosophy class she took at Crosstown. “There were literally some days where we’d come in and [the teacher would] ask one question and the whole entire class we’d just talk about stuff. Whether it was about race, religion, or sexuality. … It was just such a safe environment, and everyone could talk about anything. And a lot of my ideas were shifted just by being in that class and having conversations. Having that class in the midst of English, science, and history, I was able to be engaged for the rest of the school day.”
As this example shows, meaningful and engaged learning often means asking students to apply what they’re learning in class to their own lives, and incorporating issues that matter to them. It also means encouraging students to make high-level connections, building the skills they’ll need to be both college and career ready—like original thinkers, collaborators, and self-motivated learners.
Dive deep into the nitty-gritty of how to create lessons that engage students with our resources around:
Extra Credit: Read about how climate activist Jerome Foster II developed as an activist at Washington Leadership Academy
Sometimes the most obvious suggestions are the best ones: to combat exhaustion and fatigue, start later.
The Yale study on student feelings towards high school highlights an important dynamic: some negative feelings, like boredom and unhappiness, might be masking physical feelings of tiredness. To combat the negative impacts of sleep deprivation—which can include depression—the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that high schools start no earlier than 8:30 am.
De’Von emphasized how much a later start time would mean to students, saying, “If we’re in school from 6:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., from 6:30 a.m. to 11 a.m., we’re not really learning anything. And so if we have a test the next day and the teachers are like, ‘Why don’t you know this?’ Well, you did just teach it to us yesterday, but I was still half asleep because I was just waking up.”
There’s no easy solution to student stress. But by listening to student voice, educators can work with students to build a high school experience that empowers students to be their best selves.