Academic stress is rampant among high school teens: 61 percent say they face a lot of pressure to get good grades. With pressure to manage a challenging course load, excel on exams, and plan for applying to college all while balancing extracurricular involvement, it is no wonder that teens report school as a major source of their stress.
However, attending high school during a pandemic makes this all more complicated. Attending school equipped with masks and shields or online can be a distraction and interrupt the learning environment. Athletics and social activities that help teens deal with stress may be cancelled. Overall, high school teens face new levels of uncertainty due to the pandemic.
Many teens report that they experience higher levels of stress about school this year, during the pandemic, compared to usual:
“COVID has negatively impacted my grades, especially at the beginning of lockdown. The sudden change and the lack of direct interaction with the teachers makes it difficult to stay engaged and complete work on time. It has been made more difficult by the uncertainty of our terms of schooling this year, such as whether or not we will return to full online or full in person. The volatility of the situation adds more stress to students daily lives at home and at school. COVID has definitely negatively impacted myself and those around me in regards to stress about exams and general grades.”
“I feel like school used to be the first thing on my mind, and right now it isn’t as much. COVID takes up a lot of my worries and has greatly contributed to my anxiety and my depressive behaviors. With exams and grades on top of this, I just feel like I have too much on my plate to handle emotionally.”
“Besides the fear of a global pandemic and the health of my family. Being at home in not the safest environment inhibits my ability to focus fully and produce my best work. Also having my whole life reduced to my computer screen has been very ~not the greatest~ and thus I spend all day in my room on the screen ugh and basically it makes it harder to work because I feel like I melt into my screen and I get stuck.”
Other teens report that the uncertainty associated with the pandemic caused difficulty in finding the motivation to study, also leading to stress:
"I feel like I've disassociated from my schoolwork - like I simultaneously feel like it's really important and...not."
“I have zero motivation to actually do my work and the work that I do doesn’t feel substantial enough to care about. Being in classes makes me more anxious than my grades.”
“COVID quarantine has made it much harder for my mind to escape the stress because of my inability to do activities that would usually get my mind off of it and allow me to relax.”
“COVID has contributed to my stress as the huge block of time I now have in the day causes me to procrastinate. Everything is always up and down. Because we are not physically in school doing work for class feels like a day job. It is naturally harder to get work done when there is no “reward,” back in physical school the reward was having more time with your friends, but since that is gone I have felt very little motivation to work.”
How can high school students balance managing stress and maintaining motivation while dealing with the external stress of a pandemic? We spoke to a school counselor to figure out advice for high school students who experience anxiety about attending school during uncertain times.
1. “Take care of yourself first.”
On an airplane, flight attendants share the Oxygen Mask Rule: “Please place the mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others.” Without an oxygen mask, people would quickly lose consciousness. Therefore, people must prioritize putting on their own mask—otherwise they will not be able to help anyone else. This applies to putting self-care first. Students must attend to their own needs first to maintain their own happiness and mental health. Taking care of oneself is key to avoiding burnout and overwhelm. Excessive stress about school to the point where students put their work before self-care needs can be detrimental to academic performance.
2. “Carve out time to spend doing the things you love that are not school-related.”
When attending school remotely, teens can find themselves spending more time on school work and difficulty determining when to take breaks. However, it is so important for teens to channel stress productively and spend time on the things that they are passionate about. Parents can encourage teens to carve out time for breaks in their study schedules—whether this is exercise, a creative outlet, or a call with a friend, it is important for teens to find an outlet to express themselves and connect with others outside of school to find fulfillment amid isolation.
3. “Time with your friends is just as important as time spent on exams.”
With social distancing in effect, students make fewer social connections on a daily basis compared to a typical school day. This isolation can lead to loneliness. Therefore, it is time for students to get creative and find new ways to connect with friends. Encourage them to embrace technology and form study groups over Zoom. Keeping up social connections during the pandemic is so important.
4. “Keep teachers in the loop.”
For students struggling with remote work, we encourage over communicating with teachers. It can be more challenging to focus on an online class, and easy to fall behind without in-person check-ins with teachers. Therefore, students should not hesitate to send their teacher an email to ask questions or for a time to meet for extra help.
This school counselor noticed a difference in their students’ stress levels at the onset of the pandemic: “It was really hard with remote work last semester, because there was an inordinate amount of HW and studying to do. I always let students know that if they felt like something was excessive, to let me know so that I could discuss with the administration and teachers.”
However, they note that the hybrid model this year has made things substantially better. “Kids can see their teachers and focus better. So, since doing hybrid there hasn't been a marked change in more or less stress for exams.”
For help managing stress or finding motivation, students can always reach out to their school counselor—they are willing to help students manage stress and come up with solutions for any academic challenges. It is also beneficial to form a connection with a school counselor early on in high school and touch base regularly as they progress.
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