How to Reduce High Schoolers’ Stress and Workload, Even if They are Completely Swamped

How to Reduce High Schoolers’ Stress and Workload, Even if They are Completely Swamped

Help Your Teen Stress Less at School

Students are reporting higher levels of stress than ever before. The weight of their future world weighs daily on their slumping shoulders. And well-meaning parents advise them to take on ever more because they know the real world benefits of acceptance into a top tier college. But it doesn’t have to be this way.How to reduce high school stress and work load

Have you ever uttered the words, “Man… kids just have it harder these days.” Turns out that it’s true.

According to a recent survey, only 18% of teens cited a low-level of stress during the school year, while a whopping 27% claimed to face extreme stress during the academic year.

The weight of decisions that they have been told to believe will affect the “rest of their lives” hangs over their heads like a squawking albatross as they rush from concert band recital, through a full day of school, lacrosse practice, and volunteer work at the animal shelter. Does it seem like your child is busier than you? Is that holding them back?

Their lives have gotten increasingly complex. Setting aside the struggle of coming to age with a real and virtual front to put on, kids today still have it harder.

As society demands more from our top students and the hyper-competitive college admissions process forces curious and ambitious teens to take more AP classes and SAT Prep courses than they can handle, busy is the new normal. But is always being busy healthy?

Busy isn’t a badge of honor it indicates a lack of priorities. At one point in my career, I was teaching full-time, tutoring, freelance writing and trying to get my personal blog off the ground. I was busy all the time, and I thought this meant that I was doing well. This would surely lead to success, right?

Wrong. What it led to was burnout. By overextending myself I only had brief moments of excitement at doing a task well before the next item on my to do list would come creeping into my mind.

I was always busy but getting nowhere, like the driver constantly switching lanes in bumper-to-bumper traffic. It gave me something to do, but didn’t help the situation at all. My constant obligations spread me thin and exhausted me until I quit my job teaching history to high schoolers.

The Need for Nothing

I needed the reboot. It reminded me of the importance of negative space in graphic design.

Negative space refers to the space around the subject of the image. A good example would be the WWF Panda logo. Negative space is just as important to the overall design as the image itself, but upon first glance it is often overlooked and under-appreciated.

Well, in my life I wasn’t appreciating my negative space. I needed the lack of inputs to process my thoughts, emotions and learned material. Instead my mind was constantly on to the next task, much like the stressed out high school students I used to teach.

To manage my self-imposed busyness I first turned to productivity and time management tips. Powering through my tasks to complete as many as possible with newly learned techniques. I quickly saw my efficiency rise, but my effectiveness still moved at a snail’s pace.

The answer to doing more is not always to do more at whatever the price. Lack of sleep, inevitable procrastination only to rush through assignments, and constantly inefficient cramming habits may get you through the day, but at what cost? For my students and I, life passed by in a bleary-eyed slog towards the weekend, only to see the weekend flash by in the blink of an eye.

Efficient Is Not the Same as Effective

That is when I learned the difference between doing something efficiently and doing something effectively. Efficiency is overrated. Effectiveness is what matters in the long run.

To be effective you need to learn how to use your focused mode of thinking (the method we think of when we study) and your diffuse mode (the negative space analogy, a lack of inputs, to allow new, creative problem-solving neural pathways to form).

Sure students can go on banging their heads against the desk, falling asleep while reading their textbook, and generally hating their life, with the foolish idea that everything will be magically better in college. Or they can get a handle on their learning methods now.

If you find that your child is always waiting until the last-minute to study for an exam, stressed about the piles of work they have to do in short amounts of time, and always struggling just to stay afloat, it is time for them to learn how to learn effectively.

Focus on the Process not the Product

For starters, have your child focus on the process and not the product.

Students often avoid beginning a task because they know the required work it takes to complete it. So instead they follow subtlety ingrained avoidance cues to allow themselves to be distracted from the task at hand like checking their Instagram feed, making a quick Snapchat video about having to do their homework, or get up to get a drink or snack before they have even begun.

These are all completely normal responses to hard work, yet the fact remains that they also add to the stress level of students. The student becomes anxious because they haven’t started yet, and the task grows ever larger, so they look for new ways to put it off. This cycle continues until finally, due to looming deadlines, they cannot put it off anymore.

Generally, the work suffers, the information is not retained and the cycle starts up again once a new assignment is given.Break this cycle by having your child focus on the process not the product.

When they have a five-page English response paper to write, their focus immediately jumps to the finished work: the outcome. This makes them even more unlikely to begin because they know how long it takes, and how difficult it is, “to write a paper like that.”

Instead, have them sit down in as much of a distraction free zone as possible for twenty-five minutes with the only goal being to write for twenty-five minutes straight. This forces them to shift from product to process.

Students are bombarded with tasks throughout the school day.  Teens and teachers alike tend to focus on the outcome. It is quantifiable, gradeable, collectable, terminable.

It is not often in high school that the assignment is to write for thirty minutes straight. It is to answer a specific question, finish a worksheet, solve all the problems. Kids understandably go into “efficient mode” and just focus on getting to the end as quickly as possible.

The Payoff

By focusing on the process of working, the student can simply focus on writing, thinking, learning not “getting it done” which will allow ideas to flow more freely. It reduces the pushback about beginning a “negative” behavior and as most students will tell you, once you get going it’s not that hard.

It’s not just for writing assignments either. This could be used to begin conquering sine, cosine and tangent functions in math, or starting to edit their history project.

After twenty-five minutes have passed, allow for a five-minute break where they reward themselves for the hard work they just completed (this is important in building the process over product model into a default habit). When the break is over, it’s simply another 25 minutes of process, not product.

This is just one way to combat the alarming amounts of stress that our kids face in school nowadays. To learn more ways for your child to put down their phone and pick up a pen, sign up for my free mini-course on the New 3 R’s of Learning How to Learn.

Michael Wagner


About Michael: Michael Wagner founded Epic Mentoring after teaching high school history for 7 years, traveling throughout the world and writing extensively about life, fear and purpose. His goal is to transform how students study, learn and live. To find out more about Michael and his vision for students visit

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