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Unpacking the Rise of Academic Stress in Today’s Students

James Uitermarkt, teacher at Eastern Christian School, shares insights on how to approach pressures on students from a Christian worldview.

In the United States, more high school students than ever before are taking college-level and advanced/honors courses. The academic achievement race for advanced/honors high school students is continuing to escalate, with the ultimate prize as admission to a top-tier college or university. Financial concerns may be one reason why parents and schools push their students to take college-level advanced courses. As college tuition costs in the United States have skyrocketed in recent decades, there may be increasing academic pressure for students to work harder in high school to achieve opportunities for scholarships and to earn college credits.

As a Christian high school social studies teacher with twenty-six years of experience, I have witnessed notable changes in the stress and anxiety levels of teenagers and have wondered why pressures on students are distinctly higher than in my generation. While pursuing a master’s degree in education from Dordt University, I chose to focus my thesis on studying high school students’ perceptions and experiences with academic stress and honors/advanced courses at Eastern Christian School (North Haledon, NJ). I would like to share what research studies at the national level have revealed about this issue and offer some insights on how my colleagues are responding to these concerns, as we strive to approach this from a holistic Christian worldview.

A primary mission for all schools is to train and equip students for academic and personal achievement, offering students a wide variety of curricular programs in pursuit of those goals. In preparing the twenty-first century students for their future, many American high schools have focused their curriculum on “college readiness.” Academic excellence is a worthy goal for students, and schools need to be challenging all students to achieve, based on their unique abilities and skills. However, it is also important to realize that academic pressures have intensified for many students as American high schools have increased their Advanced Placement and dual-credit course offerings.

The immense growth of AP and dual-credit curricular programs has sparked serious discussion a examination of students’ stress and anxiety levels. While some academic stress is healthy for young people’s cognitive development, high levels of stress and anxiety for students can be detrimental to adolescents’ physiological and psychological well-being. The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey in 2014 revealed that teens’ stress levels during the school year far exceeded what students believed to be healthy and were consistent with adults’ average stress levels. Furthermore, teenagers reported that school was their main stressor, along with concerns about getting into a good college/university and deciding what to do after high school. These findings are concerning to high schools and parents alike, as teenagers reported academic-related issues as significant and unhealthy causes of stress.

The culture of American high schools has been described by experts as a “pressure cooker,” one in which advanced/honors students typically experience excessive workloads, crammed class schedules, and increased academic competition with peers. Indeed, the norm for advanced/honors students includes increased and potentially detrimental anxiety and stress levels. In pursuit of the all-important GPA, class rank, and test scores, high school students, along with parents, teachers, and administrators, have reoriented the priorities for schools to demonstrate academic rigor and success.

Surveys and interviews I conducted with high schoolers over the course of my research revealed similar findings to studies across the United States. Students consistently reported increased academic pressures for high performance, while also noting that their ambitions to attend a prestigious college/university were a major driver for their stress.

I would encourage Christian schools to critically examine their goals and purposes for advanced/honors classes as part of the overall mission of the school. While academic achievement is important for all students, schools need to be more responsive to the increased stress and anxiety levels for teenagers today. For example, adding to your school’s academic and college counseling staff provides increased support and mentoring services for all students. Being cognizant of students’ social-emotional health is a vital part of preparing young people for service in Christ’s kingdom.

In a modern society that is incredibly competitive and demanding, we as Christian educators should continually strive to meet the unique learning needs of all young people, including our advanced students. All Christian schools offer a distinctive learning climate that honors the diverse and multifaceted gifts of our students, while also affirming them as image bearers of God.

My research has changed my perspective on not only the students whom I teach, but also the potential harms that American high school academic culture has had on millions of high-achieving students. My colleagues and I continue to push for a reorienting of high school culture that includes healthy learning challenges, pushing aside excessive and unhealthy expectations for academic perfection. Striving for excellence should not just be equated with good grades and high test scores; excellence in Christian school education must take a holistic approach that focuses students’ hearts and minds to the sovereignty of God over all aspects of His creation. We need to focus on educating young people with kingdom purpose, who are called by God to serve and love Him and our neighbors, transforming the world for Christ’s ultimate glory.

James Uitermarkt is currently a high school social studies/history teacher at Eastern Christian School in North Haledon, New Jersey. Prior to moving to Jersey, he served at Christian high schools in Chandler, Arizona and Coral Springs, Florida. In 2021, James earned a master’s degree in education from Dordt University, with his thesis focused on analyzing academic stress levels for high schoolers. Contact to continue the conversation on this important issue.

James Uitermarkt at a recent commencement, reminding the audience that an Christian school education uniquely takes a holistic approach that focuses students’ hearts and minds to the sovereignty of God over all aspects of His creation.

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