Student survey reveals culture of stress
Half of Los Altos High kids can't sleep; most say they're burned out
Los Altos High School senior Sarah Loebner had pulled an all-nighter to finish her senior class project, a research paper and presentation every student must pass in order to graduate.
When she got to class, it seemed like she was the only one who had been so pressed for time: "How is everyone else on top of this?" she wondered.
Loebner's final report was 18 pages — three pages longer than necessary. She was concerned that if she didn't pass, she would not graduate, though she has already been accepted at several competitive universities. By the end of it all, she said, she hated her topic: She had written about happiness.
Students at Los Altos High School are some of the highest-achieving in the nation. And while most will go on to attend a junior college or four-year university, a survey of students taken by fellow students last spring indicates that success has a price: too much stress.
The survey was developed by Girls for Change, a socially minded student group that took on the issue of student stress last school year.
"We spent pretty much the whole year talking about stress," said Judy Prothro, LAHS counselor and an advisor for the group.
In partnership with Stanford University, the group put out a survey to 1,400 students asking about their feelings on their school and home experiences, extracurricular and paid activities, school culture, stress and how they felt about the future.
Nearly half of the students said they have regular difficulty sleeping. Nearly a third reported sometimes cheating in school, while 57 percent said they felt burned out often or even daily. Over 40 percent reported participating in extracurricular activities because it looked good on a college application.
"It validated what we expected," Prothro said, adding that counselors have seen increasing numbers of students who "hit the wall" or become physically ill from stress.
"It's all driven by the competition for colleges," said guidance counselor Dafna Tarle. "Kids are doing more and more and more."
Several students from Girls for Change took precious time out of their lunch period Monday to sit down with the Voice and discuss the results of the survey, and their own personal experiences with stress.
"The mindset in general of our community is, 'What haven't you done yet? What more can you be doing?" said junior Lauren Biglow.
During the single lunch period, the girls talked about signing up for Advanced Placement tests, pulling all-nighters to finish senior research projects and planning for college visits. Two students had to leave early for a meeting — preparation for a two-week trip with the school choir.
"We're so focused on where we will be," said junior Anna Bekker, referring to the pressure students feel to prepare for college, get good jobs and build successful, happy family lives. "You're wondering, 'When am I going to get there?'"
"People don't know how to just do nothing," Tarle added. "It's sad to me to know a 15- or 16-year-old that doesn't know how to have fun ... to just chill out."
Rewa Bush, a sophomore, said education isn't enjoyable when the focus is only on memorizing bits of information, passing tests and making a grade, instead of the "joy of learning."
"It's painful," she said. "How many kids do you know that like school?"
"It's really easy to over-commit," Biglow said. "And you don't know until the middle of the year ... you hit this wall."
By then, she said, it's too late to back out of activities, classes or other responsibilities: "You feel like you're letting people down." Her peers nodded in agreement.
"If you're hitting that limit for the first time you feel like the world is ending," Biglow said. "You dwell in it."
And that all that pressure leads to feeling isolated, they said.
"There are so many people going through it. You're not alone — but it feels like a lonely place," Tarle said.
Bush said she was most surprised by the survey results indicating that so many students were getting physically ill from stress.
"I used to go to a really low-stress school," Bush said. But at Los Altos High, "By the middle of my freshman year, I started getting headaches."
The stress is making young people outright unhealthy, she said. Tarle and Prothro noted that a number of students have dropped out of traditional classes and turned to independent study because of the pressure.
The students acknowledged that the pressure of getting into college is not going away. They said the next step, therefore, is to open a discussion on the issue of stress.
The girls have formed a new group, called "Challenge Success," which is their own version of a Stanford group dedicated to informing students, teachers and parents about the effects of stress. Its members are looking specifically at ways to begin changing school culture.
Following in the model of Castilleja School in Palo Alto, Challenge Success will hold its first-ever "dialogue night" for students and parents to attend together. The evening will feature skits highlighting how simple interactions, like a parent nagging about grades, can create high pressure situations for students.
"The dialogue night is to address those messages that are freaking people out," Loebner said.
She pointed out that while most students feel they need to fit into a specific "box," in reality most do not. The focus of Challenge Success will be to make it easier to "step out of the box."
"It's probably way more enjoyable to not be in the box at all," she said.
E-mail Kelsey Mesher at email@example.com