January 31, 2013

From pets to 'recess': High school stress relief

Across the country, schools are trying to ease the stress of students. In Maine, two schools have converted classrooms into "wellness rooms."

The Associated Press

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In this Jan. 18, 2013 photo, Chanhassen High School students relax during their 20-minute "recess" in the commons area Jan. 18, 2013 in Chanhassen, Minn. Chanhassen is among a small but growing number of schools that has homework-free nights scattered throughout the school year along with the "recess" breaks two days a week where students chat, catch up on homework, rest, play games like hackie sack or grab a snack. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

click image to enlarge

In this Jan. 18, 2013 photo, Chanhassen High School students relax while another plays a computer game during a 20-minute "recess" in the cafeteria commons area during a stress break Jan. 18, 2013 in Chanhassen, Minn. Chanhassen is among a small but growing number of schools that has homework-free nights scattered throughout the school year along with the "recess" breaks two days a week where students chat, catch up on homework, rest, play games like hackie sack or grab a snack. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

She calls her hectic schedule "the new normal."

"You keep telling yourself that it will prepare you for the future," Kaplan says. "It's just sort of how it is."

She, too, has had anxiety attacks related to her workload, she says. And some parents say school shootings, including the recent massacre in Newtown, Conn., only worsen the stress.

"My son came home from school and said, 'I'm really worried this could happen at our school,'" says Jane Robertson, a mother of a 16-year-old in Belfast, Maine. She's also a chiropractor, who helped start one of the wellness rooms in her area. The first one opened in Camden, Maine, after a spate of suicides more than 10 years ago, she said.

Overall, a recent national survey of adolescent mental health found that about 8 to 10 percent of teens ages 13 to 18 have an anxiety disorder. And of those teens, only 18 percent received mental health care, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

School officials across the country, meanwhile, say they're seeing a steady uptick in mental health referrals, often stress-related. Timothy Dorway, a principal at a high school in Chanhassen, Minn., just outside Minneapolis, is among them. He says such referrals have doubled since his school opened in 2009.

"We're asking these kids to do things that we don't even ask adults to do," Dorway says, noting sports and academic requirements that often leave them sleep-deprived.

Besides the mental health issues, he noted that students from his school have been in car accidents after falling asleep at the wheel - one of them on the way to school, at 7:45 a.m.

All of it led him and his school community to come up with a motto - "Balance, Perspective, Growth" - and to look for ways to put it into practice.

Now, Chanhassen High is among a small but growing number of schools that has homework-free nights scattered throughout the school year. Two days a week, students at Chanhassen also get a 20-minute "recess" break in the morning. Some play hackie sack or grab a snack. They chat in the hallways, catch up on homework or rest.

The break is a time "to let all the information of the day settle in my mind," says Zach Anderson, a junior at the school. "We need time to think."

The changes at the school have not come without controversy. A few parents see the break as a waste of time that could be better used at the beginning of the school day.

"Let them sleep in, or get a better breakfast, or come to school at the usual time to talk to a teacher if they need to," says Karrie Shroyer, a mom of a sophomore at Chanhassen High.

When it comes to homework, she says the school would better serve students by cutting back on what some view as an inordinate amount of "busy work," repetitive work that students who've mastered the concepts may not need to do.

"Are we trying to hide the real problem with a simple fix?" Shroyer asks.

Raychelle Lohmann, a professional counselor and author based in South Carolina, says any step schools take to reduce stress for students is a "step in the right direction."

But she says parents, too, need to keep their own expectations in check, even for young children.

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