Om Schooling

A meditation on mandatory yoga classes, homework caps, sleep specialists, and other well-meaning (if possibly misguided) initiatives that have put elite local high schools on the front lines of today's war on teen stress.

By Abigail Jones | Boston Magazine |

Their chatter is audible from the hallway, where I stand peering through a window at 14 high school girls sitting on a circle of yoga mats inside the new wellness studio at Newton South. Most are shoeless, and wearing comfortable sweaters and sweatshirts. Michelle Coppola, one of the eight wellness teachers the school has brought in since 2003, motions me into the room. Soft music is already playing.

This is Newton South’s Centered Self class, and, as the name suggests, it bears little resemblance to the AP English and advanced chem that are the more typical province of today’s ambitious high schooler. As we assume our cross-legged positions, Coppola doesn’t waste any time: Since Centered Self meets only twice a week, every moment counts. She asks us to close our eyes and breathe deeply; everyone complies. (I peeked.) Over the next 45 minutes, we will also write in our journals, discuss the “fight or flight” response, practice our breathing, then break into pairs to talk about it all.

As Ruthie Bolotin, an energetic junior, and I sit face-to-face on one of the yoga mats, she tells me that during a simple biofeedback exercise—in which Coppola had us monitor our heartbeat for 15 seconds while thinking of something stressful—her pulse raced from 16 to 24. Ruthie had focused on a difficult situation with friends. “Then I thought of the beach,” she says, putting her hands in her lap and smiling. “I dig this class.”

This, of course, is not how most of us remember high school.

And yet this is the new reality for many top-tier local schools striving to help students manage the pressure and anxiety that fill their adolescent existence. At Newton South, that means required core wellness courses (two per year) for freshmen and sophomores, while juniors and seniors choose from among such burnout-battling electives as dance and ultimate Frisbee. Centered Self has become one of the most popular offerings, with up to 30 students in each section, while yoga/Pilates, new this year, already boasts six classes of 20 to 27 students each. The goal of the whole program, says wellness teacher Todd Elwell, is to give students a break from the grind of academics and teach them how to deal with issues like self-esteem and pressure. Even when they’re playing ultimate Frisbee, the aim is less catching and throwing, and more “cooperating with other kids in a meaningful activity.”

At Lexington High, students can choose yoga and stress management to fulfill graduation requirements, and are now allowed to opt out of certain fourth-year classes, including science and math, in favor of others that interest them more. Wellesley High School added yoga to its fitness program a few years ago, and has also taken away midyear exams, which has helped to alleviate what guidance director Thom Hughart calls “the s-word.” And at Dana Hall, an all-girls prep school across town, students cannot receive more than 45 minutes of homework a night for each class (excluding APs), and there is a master calendar that lets teachers stagger tests. Boarders are free to take a mental health day (except the school calls it a “personal wellness” day) once a year; all students get “homework consideration” on nights when there are major school events; and the phys ed curriculum now includes the seemingly obligatory yoga. This year the school also brought in a “sleep specialist,” who talked to students about dealing with insomnia, and presented tips on “quieting the mind” and getting adequate rest. At the Commonwealth School in Boston (which has introduced its own anxiety-fighting workshops and, during exams, a classroom dedicated to relaxation and breathing exercises), headmaster Bill Wharton goes so far as to say that stress management is as important as academics. “If we’re not giving students the psychological tool kit to cope with the demands we’re placing on them, that’s tantamount to not issuing them pens and paper,” he says.

But such programs have not been without controversy. Over the past year, the most famous—Needham High School’s Stress Reduction Committee (SRC)—has been working toward instituting homework-free weekends and vacations, while before that the school added yoga classes, coordinated exam schedules, and, in 2006, stopped publishing the honor roll. In response, local and national media, not to mention many Needham parents, have blasted its creator, principal Paul Richards, for being too soft. As a result, Richards now has to “manage” his press; he declined to be interviewed for this article, saying the school wouldn’t be ready for more exposure until the fall. “Ironically, coverage loses credibility for this work with some teachers at the school,” he said via e-mail.

Needham senior and SRC member Nick Simmons-Stern says the negative publicity is unfair. For one, many students were indifferent to the honor roll—”It’s the parents who want to show off their kids in the newspaper that care,” he says. Now Nick and a few friends from the football team even take yoga classes outside of school. “It started as a joke,” he says, “but I like it a lot. It’s relaxing.” Nick’s father, Bob Stern, sings the SRC’s praises. “The more communication from the school, the better,” he says. “I see Richards’s efforts as being really superb.” Still, he’d like to see other steps, like more funding and a smaller student-teacher ratio—anything that could bring “less stress overall and, more importantly, less stress that goes wild,” he says.

Surely, teens have always had stress—I know I dealt with my fair share as a high schooler in the late ’90s. But in the past few years, the stakes for the overachiever have risen dramatically, as ever more talented kids aim for elite colleges. Here in Massachusetts, public high schoolers are taking—and excelling on—AP tests in record numbers. In 2006, 7 percent more students took AP exams than in 2005; since 2001, the number participating in AP tests increased by just under 50 percent. Even tests that don’t really count inspire panic: Over the past few years Jim Schreider, a private SAT instructor who works with clients in the MetroWest suburbs, has received a heady 41 percent return on his mailings for tutoring offerings for the PSAT, the dry run for the SAT that’s usually taken in the fall of junior year. He has a two-year waitlist for private instruction.

As part of its initial stress-mitigation efforts, Needham High conducted a survey of 1,121 students and found that more than half labeled the school’s culture as “sink or swim,” with 75 percent identifying academics as being a stressor in their life, and about one-third citing college placement and preparation and the expectations of parents—and themselves. (Fully 44 percent said they were willing to “suffer” in school to get accepted to the college of their choice.) Of the prevailing attitude, Needham senior Olivia Boyd says, “Everyone has to go to college, everyone has to take the highest-level courses, everyone has to do everything.”

Katie Sanders, a senior at Newton South, is one of those kids. She’s coeditor of The Lion’s Roar, one of South’s two student newspapers, and has been published in The Best Teen Writing of 2007. She’s also captain of the girls’ varsity softball team, managing editor of design for the student art and literary magazine, head officer of the Community Service Club, a candy striper, and a freelance writer. And that barely covers the first page of her résumé, which is two pages long and color coordinated, and cites nearly 20 honors and awards.
Katie is the fi
rst to admit that her life sounds like a laundry list. But she says she loves being busy; she also hopes to get into an Ivy League school, and hey, whatever it takes. She estimates it should take her three full days to complete everything she generally schedules into one, so she has learned to prioritize. She sacrifices sleep. She stopped playing volleyball this year. She also could have done without the stress unit of her junior wellness course.

“Personally, learning about stress wasn’t helpful,” she says. “I know how to relax; I just don’t have time to relax. I’m in a constant battle with the clock.” Katie would have preferred to study for a test than to “assess her stress” every day for two weeks, which was one of her assignments that term. “I can say pretty validly that everyone half-assed it.”

Though Coppola admits it’s sometimes a struggle to get kids to take her Centered Self classes seriously, she emphasizes that “wellness is not phys ed.” She pushes her students to work hard, but pointedly does not assign homework, creating time for in-class journaling instead. Elwell, for his part, acknowledges the program would work better if he saw the same students all year long—or if he saw them twice as often each semester. With only eight wellness teachers for approximately 1,750 students, he says, sometimes “children are left behind socially and emotionally,” especially at a “pressure cooker” like South. (“I don’t think stress is excessively high compared with any other school in the area,” argues the school’s principal, Brian Salzer. “The fact is that students are going through a phase of life that has a certain amount of challenge, and there’s stress that comes with being a student in a community with expectations of the Ivy League.”)

When Dana Hall’s sleep specialist visited last fall, several students asked how they were supposed get more rest when their teachers always pile on the assignments (despite the 45-minute rule for non-AP courses). Senior Jacquie Maggiore, however, was impatient with her classmates, not the school. “If you chose to go to a competitive private school,” she says, “you shouldn’t complain that your teachers are giving you a lot to do.” Closing the books at 9 p.m. is simply unrealistic, adds senior Chandler Chase: “All those requirements that prevent us from getting the seven to nine hours of sleep we need for a ‘healthy and highly functioning lifestyle’ are what high school entails.” And despite Dana Hall’s good intentions, she says, “life isn’t changing.”

One Dana Hall mom says that the 45-minute homework rule rarely applies for her own daughter, and that the homework consideration that’s supposed to provide a free pass on nights with school events isn’t being granted, “at least not across the board.” Such complaints are not unique: Needham High dad Bob Stern says he has “not seen homework-free weekends happen” as advertised. Dana Hall school counselor Beth Nakamaru concedes the success of such initiatives “varies from student to student, but the teachers try really hard.” Part of the problem, she says, is figuring out how much time students spend actually working without distractions like IM-ing.

This winter, Dana Hall canceled an entire day of classes in favor of its third annual Ship Day, named for the campus’s Shipley Center for Athletics, Health, and Wellness. “It was a way for the girls to blow off steam and de-stress; it’s all about fun and letting loose,” says Liza Cohen, Dana Hall’s director of communications. Students could swim, work out, hula-hoop, play dodge ball and squash—even Wii—and attend a faculty talent show à la American Idol. But as much as students must have enjoyed watching their teachers’ rendition of “Oops!…I Did It Again,” Chandler and her friends would have just preferred the day off. “The idea is fun, and of course I would rather do that than go to classes,” she says. “But personally I would rather be sleeping.”

When I e-mail Will Fan, a Needham junior, to ask about an interview, he says he’d be delighted to speak with me—but “I have a violin lesson in a couple of minutes, a Chinese New Year’s to celebrate, and a history test to study for.” Luckily, he can spare some time during free period.

The Needham cafeteria is empty in the pre-lunch-hour lull. A flier on one wall announces a Valentine’s Day rose sale, reminding me how exciting—and nerve-racking—a high schooler’s social life can be. At the bell, students emerge from all directions. Nearly every girl wears Uggs, every boy tan work boots. Eventually a short, slim boy approaches, dressed in the suburban-teenage-male uniform: baggy khakis and a fleece. “Hi,” he says, “I’m Will.”

Will is on the Stress Reduction Committee. When it formed in 2007, its members, who include administrators, teachers, parents, and students, believed they were agents of change. Their mission was to help students understand and minimize stress—to reform some ingrained aspects of the high school experience. Over the following months, the SRC created the homework calendar, assigning specific testing days to each subject so that students wouldn’t get slammed with multiple exams at once; sent letters to students and parents containing suggested reading on topics such as sleep, stress, and college admissions; discussed Facebook and related time-sucks; and weighed the benefits of “meaningful homework” versus “busywork.” More recently, the committee rolled out a partnership with the Education Initiative at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, which is now conducting two four-week studies with approximately 130 sophomores and juniors. Participants meet nearly every day for 45 minutes to learn how stress affects them physically, emotionally, and behaviorally, and how to combat it. Rana Chudnofsky, director of the initiative, is teaching the kids tactics like diaphragmatic breathing, muscle relaxation, and counting backward from 10 to one. “The technique is simple,” she says, “[but] the impact could be profound.”

Despite all that, when the SRC assessed its progress this past January, the tone of the committee had changed. Members remain dedicated (last year Principal Richards attended the fourth annual Stressed-Out Students conference at Stanford University), yet their goals have been tempered by reality. “Many students understandably are discouraged by the several surveys that we have sent, [having not seen] any significant impact on stressors like their homework,” Will writes in an e-mail. “Researching school culture is a vital step to figuring out action, though it is a long process.” The committee also admitted that at times it had acted too quickly, specifically citing the removal of the honor roll from the town paper.

While Will continues to believe in the SRC’s mission, he adds that “ultimately it will be the students’ decision whether to help themselves or not.” He’s only partly right: Parents play a pretty big part, too. Even the most ambitious high schools can do only so much—at the end of the day, after all, the kid goes home. For their part, Katie, Nick, and Chandler say their moms and dads help minimize stress, but what happens when a child isn’t as motivated as these three? “Can parents tolerate that?” asks Larry Selter, a child psychiatrist at Mass General. “Or does that create such tension for them that it gets translated to the child?”

Obsessive parental worrying can preempt what children are capable of doing on their own, says Jim Hill, who’s been a counselor at Natick High for 30 years. “It can be counterproductive,” he says. “Adolescence is the time of life when kids make mistakes. If you’re always trying to prevent th
at, you’re actually interfering with some normal developmental stages.”

In one of his letters to Needham parents last August, Richards offered suggestions for helping lower their kids’ stress levels by dealing with how they feel about the college process. It’s about redefining success, listening to children, and finding the right fit, not the right brand name, Richards explained. Selter takes a more direct approach: “Parents need to take some yoga classes!” He’s serious—and Chandler’s mother, Ann Chase, can testify to the benefits of such a move. She recently started yoga and meditation. “I wake up in the middle of the night and worry about my kids…and it’s helping,” she says. “There are ways to clear out your brain.”

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