By Timothy Quinn
Chief Academic Officer and Dean of Faculty
Article after article documents the ways adolescents are struggling with mental health. It’s hard to identify one clear cause, but there seems no doubt that several factors are contributing to the alarming rates of anxiety and depression that young people are now experiencing. Gun violence. COVID-19. Climate change. The erosion of democracy. Overexposure to technology and social media.
Schools are responding, and those that can — like Miss Porter’s — are adding mental health services and working to integrate social-emotional learning into the curriculum.
But are schools themselves contributing to the underlying problem?
What about excessive homework that keeps teens up till the wee hours of the morning even though they need to wake up at 6:30 a.m. to get to school? Is that homework truly necessary to build essential skills? What if students feel that all they are is their GPA? Or that their entire future hinges on perfect or near-perfect grades? This is an enormous amount of pressure, and schools can relieve it.
Although we can support our students by providing greater access to mental health counseling, it is critical that those of us who lead schools also change the way we operate. Here’s what high schools should do:
- Change their schedules: Start school later like all the research says we should and schedule fewer classes with more breaks between them.
- Adjust student workloads: Teenagers have extracurricular obligations, need eight hours of sleep, and deserve some down time. No more than a max of two to three hours of homework per night. Homework should be meaningful, relevant, interesting, and ungraded.
- Adapt better feedback and grading practices: Student work is more than a letter or a number, and students are much more than some combination of those things. Provide transparent, actionable feedback and make sure to use grading systems that prioritize growth rather than perfection.
I am proud to report that Miss Porter’s School is doing all three. But perhaps the most important thing schools can do is help students see that the rest of their life is not dependent on how they perform in high school. I often think that for many students, the stress comes not necessarily from the amount of work, but from the belief that their entire lives are riding on how well they do it. That’s an enormous amount of pressure, and it is based upon a false premise.
Now is a good time to remind students that “where you go is not who you will be” — wise words from columnist Frank Bruni, who spoke on this topic at our school a few years back. It’s fine for students to strive to go to a top-tier college, but it is more important they pick the college that is right for them. Above all, college will be what they make of it, and where they go does not, will not, and cannot define who they are and what they may achieve.
Organizations like Challenge Success and the Mastery Transcript Consortium are working to support schools to do all of the above. But schools must take the initiative on their own to change if they are truly to put care for students as whole individuals at the center of their work. Change is hard, but our students’ well-being is riding on this, and so there really is no option but to take action.