Education

Even before coronavirus, high schoolers felt stressed

They say they're under pressures adults just don't understand

Jazsime Vanpelt, Iowa City High School student (Photo by Jhakyra Banister)
Jazsime Vanpelt, Iowa City High School student (Photo by Jhakyra Banister)
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Looking back, Jazsime Vanpelt wishes she would have done her freshman and sophomore years differently.

Checking her grades multiple times a day, loading too many extracurriculars onto her schedule and heeding unnecessary pressure to do well in school created stress and anxiety in and outside of the classroom.

The pressure wasn’t from Vanpelt’s parents. She did it to herself, the Iowa City High School senior said.

“I would like to freak out if my grades went down, even a little bit,” Vanpelt, 17, said.

Making good grades is but one of several pressures high school students interviewed for a new IowaWatch High School journalism project said. Others include feeling a need to stay connected online; trying to compete with positive images and happy news people post about themselves on social media; dealing with extracurricular activities either in or out of school; time management; family matters; and preparing academically and financially for college.

Today’s high school students face an array of complex problems they say adults in their life do not fully understand. These pressures existed well before new ones piled on this spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic that closed schools, sent students to distance learning and created more pressures.

“It doesn’t always seem like parents and teachers are receptive to a student when they say that they’re struggling,” Jeff Conner, an Iowa City West High School teacher, said. He teaches chemistry and a physical science class for students struggling in school for reasons ranging from being English language learners to being motivationally or emotionally challenged.

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“That makes me sad because it takes a lot of guts to come out and say that you’re having a hard time,” said Conner, a 2005 West High graduate. “To have that blown off, it discourages people from doing that again in the future.”

The students’ concerns mirror those reported in a Pew Research Center study that showed seven of every 10 high school students in the United States consider mental health among their peers to be a serious problem.

Mental health topped the list of stressors teens reported seeing in their fellow students during the Pew study, involving 920 youths ages 13 to 17 and conducted Sept. 17-Nov. 25, 2018. The study had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.8 percentage points.

Three of every 10 teenagers are affected by an anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

“From a database perspective we definitely are seeing more incidents of depression and anxiety, particularly among our youth,” said Megan Foley Nicpon, a professor of counseling psychology at the University of Iowa. “It’s concerning.”

When asked to describe problems they see among fellow classmates, a little more than half of the teens in the Pew study said bullying or drug addiction. A little less than half cited drinking alcohol and poverty.

The study showed that six of every 10 of the teens responding said they felt pressure, personally, to get good grades. That, by far, exceeded other personal concern like looking good and fitting in socially, which concerned almost three of every 10 responding teens, and being involved in extracurriculars and being good at sports, which concerned two of every 10 responding in the study.

“I have an older sister and she was really, really good at school because she was also really enjoying it. I don’t really enjoy school that much so I don’t find motivation all the time to do well,” said Favour Alarape, 16, a junior at Iowa City West High School.

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However, Alarape said, “I feel like I’m putting more pressure on myself because I feel like I have an obligation to still be good and fight the stereotypes around black people.”

Vanpelt said she was able to dial back the stress she had been putting on herself.

“Freshman year, I would say that I did a lot of things that I really did not care about, just to be able to say, ‘I was in that.’ But now I do not do that,” she said.

“Junior year, I feel like that was the year that I kind of backed off myself a little. And, I kind of started figuring out who I am and more of what I wanted, and not what expectations I felt like people had for me,” Vanpelt said.

“The only person that I need to be better than is the person that I was yesterday.”

Social media stress

A 2018 Pew Research study found that 95 percent of teens report having access to a cellphone and that 45 percent said they are online almost constantly.

It’s not a stress-free hobby. Rather, it feels like a social requirement, said students interviewed by IowaWatch.

“We have to check social media all the time because we don’t want to miss out,” said Claudia Chia, 18, a senior at Iowa City West High School. “And I think adults don’t really understand that because they think, ‘Oh, you’re on your phone all the time.’”

Chia said she would feel left out if she wasn’t caught up on trends and memes because that’s what her peers are talking about.

West High School English teacher John Boylan said social media has created more stress for today’s students than existed before.

He said constant connectivity makes it difficult to enjoy the moment,

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”It’s just literally never a thing I had to worry about,” Boylan said. “When my friends and I were hanging out we were just out doing stuff, and we were very rarely talking about stuff other people were doing.”

Grade pressures

Powerschool, an online program where students’ grades are stored, makes those grades accessible in real time.

Do poorly on the first test, and it shows up with a poor grade early in the class. Do well on the first test but not as well in the second, and the drop in a grade shows up.

Parents can see their child’s grades in real time at Powerschool, but that can lead to them misinterpret their child’s progress and any problems with grades, said Karen Meyer, who teaches math at Iowa City West High.

“Let’s say that we put in just a homework assignment of 10 out of 10, then it’s an A+,” Meyer said, referring when she puts grades into Powerschool. “But yet that doesn’t show the picture of them when the quiz comes in, and that’s a B. And then the question is, ‘Why is my child not doing well? They got an A+ on this, but they got a B on that?’” Meyer said.

“It doesn’t show the whole picture.”

Growing up in Nepal, Bivan Shrestha’s parents had high expectations for him in school, the West High sophomore said.

“The ways they were taught and raised about how education should be done, how we should live day-to-day, is really different to the way I do it,” Shrestha, 16, said. “They expect me to act a certain way, and I act in a way that they don’t like. They don’t really understand that it’s just me being a normal person, normal teenager in the society we live in today.”

Previously, his parents had pushed him to go to an Ivy League college, he said. “Slowly, over the years they’ve realized that there’s less importance to that. They just want me to succeed, but not overburden myself,” Shrestha said.

West High School social studies teacher Dominic Iannone said that, while pressure on students to succeed is great, students are active participants in a competitive culture.

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“I hear students complaining about that culture. And then I also hear them putting it on each other,” Iannone said. “They’re not just like victims of the culture, they’re also perpetrators of the culture. So if we really want it to change we have to find a way to have a conversation about that student population as well.”

Societal demands

A 2015 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics said rising global temperatures are affecting children’s health, mentally and physically. Young people stress about a threat they see in community and global instability, mass migrations and increased conflict. They wonder how people will do things such as grow crops and choose where to live.

“Climate anxiety is hard to stop,” said Avery Wilson, an Iowa City High School senior. “Because, for lots of things I feel anxious about, I can talk myself down and realize that they’re irrational thoughts. But for climate, it’s not irrational. It’s a real thing that’s happening.”

Jill Humsten, a science teacher at City High, said several students have talked to her outside of class of their worries about climate change.

“It’s really disheartening for students who see the problem, have been hearing the problem since they were little, and still feeling like nothing’s happening,” she said. “I think maybe, as an adult, we understand that change takes time. As an adult, you understand the process of change, whereas young people see the need for something to happen and want it to happen right now, because it should happen right now. It’s just the wheels of change don’t move fast enough.”

Demands for more

Iowa City West senior Sarah Hamed, 18, works as a server at a hotel and retirement home. She said classwork takes a back seat to earning money to support herself.

“I’m not going to quit my job to put my studies first. I already know I’m going to college, I’ll be fine,” Hamed said. “I just don’t really think it’s necessarily appropriate for a teacher to decide what’s more important in a student’s life, because they don’t know what it’s like back home or in their social life or anything like that.”

Students IowaWatch has interviewed have talked about receiving mixed signals when it comes to working while in school. On the one hand, they are told their classwork is most important; on the other hand, they are told to save money for college.

But saving, the students said, requires working if their parents don’t have resources to fully spend on college.

Plus, college-bound students need more than good grades to get to college, interviews showed. Volunteering and other extracurricular accomplishments boost a college application.

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Along with the roughly five hours it takes to study for her two advanced placement and three honors classes, Alexandra Curtu, a West High School sophomore, is involved in a multitude of activities that occupy her time each day: tennis, both school and club volleyball, Business Professionals of America and Iowa Youth Congress, to name a few.

She often takes a nap after one of her activities and wakes up about 3 a.m. to do her homework, Curtu, 15, said.

“Sometimes I don’t sleep very much, but that’s fine. It’s hard sometimes because I’m pretty tired all the time but I guess you just get used to it,” Curtu said. “I think sleep is important but I also think my other activities are important, and you can’t have everything.”

“High School Pressure” is an IowaWatch High School journalism collaboration with the award-winning Iowa City high school newspapers The Little Hawk and West Side Story, at City High School and West High School, respectively. IowaWatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that focuses on investigative journalism and training the next generation of journalists. This project was supported by a grant from the Community Foundation of Johnson County. Find us and support us at iowawatch.org.

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