More Thoughts on Anxious High School Students

School leaders and teachers across the country are seeing rates of teenage anxiety and depression skyrocket. The school where I work is not immune from these trends, and it's something that faculty and administrators alike are wrestling with -- and honestly without great answers. When we approach these problems, sometimes we forget to ask the question from the other side -- why is it that the very same experiences that used to prepare students for life now seem not to be effective anymore? Maybe it's not that we are creating more miseducational experience for students, but that something has happened that has made great education less effective.

In "Flow" by Csikszentmihalyi, he talks about a strange paradox in which people actually report undergoing more optimal experience at work than in leisure, but still do not like or identify with their work. 

He thinks that this is because of pernicious myths about the relationship between the modern worker and his job that undermine and distract people from the actual positive experiences they are having. These myths tell us that work is something that we are forced to do, rather than a positive force in our lives... and actually distract us from the positive experiences that we are having, causing unnecessary resentment and angst. 

I believe that our students are also subject to a lot of mythology that is causing them to see their education as something that "happens to them" or that they "must do" against their will, thus sapping their energies. 

Csikszentmihalyi explains:

"When we feel that we are investing attention in a task against our will, it is as if our psychic energy is being wasted. Instead of reaching our own goals, it is called upon to make someone else's come true. The time channeled into such a task is perceived as time subtracted from the total available for our life. Many people consider their jobs as something they have to do, a burden imposed from the outside, and effort that takes life away from the ledger of their existence."

Administrators, parents, and teachers are always concerned we are not doing enough to teach independence. We tend to be self-critical in this; blaming our intents to help students learn as creating dependency. However, teachers and administrators helping students as individuals is something every great school has done for years and years, long before this current wave of student stress and anxiety. That support attempts to match challenges with actual student skills so that students can experience the positive experience of control and independence. We don't always get it right, but I do think that's the goal of good administrators and teachers, whether we articulate it or do it intuitively. 

Maybe the problem is not the teachers and administrators who work hard alongside students to empower them to do their best, but the persistent and pernicious mythology that school exists for purposes that are not the students' own: their future selves, social prestige, their parents' dreams, or even the school's own sense of prestige. 

In the classroom every day and also after school every day I see students who are engaged, challenged, and interactive with peers and teachers. In the moment, things look good. But I worry that despite all of this positive evidence, students still don't perceive that their education is going well. They are mis-judging their own experience, and don't apprehend the positive moments as crucial to their journey. They understand them as pleasant distraction from the larger task, rather than fundamental to the task. Instead of judging the quality of their education by the quality of the experiences they are undergoing, they are judging it according to a future that they cannot imagine, according to criteria that are not their own.

This false mode of judgment doesn't allow the students themselves to recognize the beauty of what we see every day in schools that work -- students engaged and vivacious, learning at tremendous rates, and being great friends to each other. Although they are succeeding, they feel they are failing because the wider culture (and we ourselves) have failed to direct their judgment of what counts for success in the educational experience to the right place. We depend on 'external markers' such as college admissions, test scores, etc., instead of pointing out the excellence, rich experience, powerful mentorship, and positive friendship that we wiser people see all around us, and which draws us every day back to work.

Is it possible that the answer to student stress is right in front of our faces, if we had the eyes to see it and the values by which to appreciate it? Maybe we need to remind the students in large and small ways that schools exists for them, and that the positive moments when they happen, when challenge and skill align and students solve their own problems, are not distractions from larger goals or means to larger ends, but the very meaning and function itself of an educational community.


  1. Always a pleasure to read your insightful prose!

    You mention that students are mis-judging their experiences and that school is for them. Besides tell students this, how can teaching show students that? In short, how can you get student to buy into the idea of becoming life long learners as well as connecting with their future job whatever that may be?

    Also, reading this I am reminded of a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. Calvin is angry and demanding, "happiness is not enough for me, I demand euphoria!"

  2. I so agree Jeff. The external markers have become too significant. The significance of community, growing and learning together, discovering one's strengths and celebrating our gifts- all have taken a back seat.

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