√ Choose a Leadership-For-Change framework. Addressing school stress is essentially culture work, and changing culture has been described by John Kotter as “an absurd act of daring.” Indeed! It does not matter which particular leadership for change framework you subscribe to—my favorites are Collins, Kotter, Boleman/Deal, Lencioni, and Hefitz/Linsky—but rather that you choose and adhere to a proven plan of action. Addressing school stress is neither simple nor a quick fix, but making progress on it will positively impact the entire school experience, and the wellbeing and future success of your students.
√ Create a Stress Task Force and secure administrative support. One person, even if it’s the school principal, cannot do the stress work alone. It takes a team of people that is patient, persistent, adaptive, bold, and focused on action and results. Ideally, the Task Force would consist of credible and influential students, parents, and teachers, and include at least one school administrator—the group should be no larger than 15. The stress work will push up against sacred cows (e.g. homework; e.g. assessment), so it is critical that the higher powers know of and support the work of the group. Give permission to the school community to talk about the dark side of school achievement.
√ Know the particular nature of your stress culture. One shouldn’t throw spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Effective schools know the ins and outs of the stress of its students, its sources (school, parents, self, college) and match strategies accordingly. Study your stress culture through quantitative measures, such as a stress survey (see survey samples here), and through qualitative measures, such as anecdotes, student testimonials, and focus groups.
√ Acquire and disseminate institutional knowledge on stress topics. The gamut of stress topics include homework, scheduling, extra-curriculars, assessments, cheating, perfectionism, the psychology and physiology of stress, the stress cycle, learned helplessness, adolescent suicide, among others. The school needs to gain institutional knowledge on these topics, and teach the school community about it. In doing so, everyone in the community will be properly informed to make good decisions in support of student learning and wellbeing. (Link to Chapter 2 of the dissertation: Literature review)
√ Choose from a bevy of possible strategies. There are many proven strategies that can improve a student’s resilience toward stress, assist parents in being a support rather than a cause of stress, and prevent schools from unwittingly perpetuating a stress culture by its practices. Strategies have been divided into three silos—school, parents, and students—and intended to be coordinated by the school (though any individual or group can promote it).
√ Commit to a school-wide Wellness Plan as the primary antidote to unhealthy school stress. Not all stress is bad. Eustress is healthy stress, which leads to higher performance (Yerkes-Dodson curve). Young people cannot be shielded from stress. However, where unhealthy, chronic stress (distress) exists, we should battle it as we do a virus or sickness: cope with symptoms, go to the root cause for eradication, but also empower the patient. Wellness has many dimensions, and here is the diagram that I subscribe to (as it relates to school):