Among 4,256 Warwick Public Schools students in grades 3-12 surveyed in a Spring 2017 report produced recently by the Rhode Island Department of Education, a vast majority feel at least a little stressed about going to school, and a majority worry more than a little about their grades.
The survey, in total, questioned 113,000 parents, teachers and students from grades 3-5 and grades 6-12 from each school district on various issues pertaining to levels of anxiety about being in school, their pride in attending or working in their particular school district and their perception of how the schools in Rhode Island are being operated.
Most numbers reflected encouraging trends in student perception, including the fact that 91 percent of students in grades 3-5 felt that teachers are “quite” or “extremely” respectful towards them, and that 88 percent of students in grades 6-12 felt that it was quite or extremely important that they do well in school.
However the case could be made that high rates of stress and anxiety regarding school in general and about grades reflected in the survey is a troubling trend in the wrong direction.
Statewide, 80 percent of students in grades 3-5 felt that school was at least slightly stressful (79 percent in Warwick), while 29 percent found it “quite” or “extremely” stressful. In these elementary school classes, an alarming 41 percent of students statewide “almost always” worry about their grades (34 percent in Warwick), while a full 81 percent at least sometimes worry about them. Only 8 percent of elementary school students in Rhode Island “almost never” worry about their marks.
These stats balloon in the junior high and high school age group. Statewide, and in Warwick too, only 7 percent of 6-12 graders answered that school was “not stressful at all,” while a full 50 percent reported that school was “quite” or “extremely” stressful (54 percent in Warwick). In total, 93 percent of students in Rhode Island from grades 6-12 felt at least slightly stressed just by going to school.
Similar to their elementary classmates, 41 percentage of 6-12 graders statewide “almost always” worry about their grades, however a higher 89 percent worry about their grades some of the time. Only 4 percent of junior high and high school students “almost never” worry about their grades (versus 5 percent in Warwick).
Should these numbers sound an alarm? Or are they simply a reflection of a time period that is inherently stressful for kids?
“In a way I’m not surprised that students are stressed,” said Dr. Jennifer Connolly, Director of Special Services for Warwick Public School. “I think when you’re in high school you’re learning and striving and accomplishing and developing, and that is not always easy. I think outside of school, the teenage years are stressful years.”
The survey does, however, indicate that stress levels increase significantly for teens when they’re at school versus their out of school life. In Warwick, 41 percent of students in grades 6-12 at least “sometimes” feel nervous outside of school. While at school that number jumps up to a majority 55 percent.
Connolly said that Warwick is implementing district-wide policies that strive to address the issue – and that reflect rapidly changing educational times – such as facilitating more blended learning through 1:1 Chromebook initiatives and Promethean Boards, and moving away from traditional, whole group instruction towards instruction that is tailored to each individual student.
“If you’re being instructed at your individual level, I think that in and of itself reduces anxiety,” Connolly said.
However another element of stress for students in school has nothing to do with instruction, but rather the culture that technology has wrought on children during their formative, and most emotionally vulnerable, years.
“You used to make your mistakes during development and growing up and that was part of it,” said Dr. Brian Lucier, clinical psychologist and partner at the Center for Psychological Wellness in Warwick, in a previous interview about technology use amongst students. “Today some mistakes, because of these technologies, might prove irreparable. You can’t hope for time to diminish the memory, because there’s no such thing anymore with the Internet. It’s there forever.”
A large scale study published in Pediatrics last year indicated that major depressive episodes – meaning periods of at least two weeks where a child experienced a consistently low or depressive state of mind – have increased by 37 percent in children aged 12-17 the past decade, and has been rising especially high in female students. Reports have indicated that 19.5 percent of girls experienced at least one major depressive episode in 2015, while just 5.8 percent of boys did.
These stats coincide with the increasing popularity of social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which have been exponentially increasing in users, especially those under 18, since the mid-2000s.
Anecdotally Darlene Netcoh, who is entering her 30th year of teaching, has noticed this increasing anxiety in her classrooms over time, and agrees that technology could be a significant factor.
“Maybe it’s a product of our modern age, where there’s no downtime because everyone’s always connected with their devices,” she said. “Kids used to go outside and run around and play.”
However Connolly was not prepared to say that the current generation is significantly more stressed than any previous generation of students who have passed through Warwick Public Schools.
“I think it's so hard to measure. It's hard to say that objectively,” she said. “I think every generation has its challenges and its stressors...I think it's hard to say for certain that any generation is more stressed than any other. You would have to look at data over time and I don’t know that we have that.”
Connolly did add, however, that the results of the survey were valuable and important, and that all school personnel must be attentive to the needs of each student to ensure that they are given the best chance to succeed.
“I think it’s important that all adults in children’s lives are supportive and that they make sure they have coping strategies to be healthy and be successful learners,” she said, adding that Warwick strives to support social emotional development in students through positive intervention behavior reports and early warning systems that attempt to identify students who are in trouble. “We really try to take a proactive approach with students.”
You can view the full data of the survey, statewide and by district or individual school, by following THIS LINK and clicking through on the "View State, District and School Results Here" button.
The Warwick data for grades 3-5 is provided below, and the data for grades 6-12 is below that (Not supported in all browsers or on mobile devices):