Happily, studies also find that it’s not hard to convert people to the stress-is-enhancing perspective. To do this in my own work with adolescents, I liken the demands of school to a strength-training program. Everyone understands that lifting weights to the point of discomfort is the only way to build muscle; the process of developing intellectual ability, including the ability to manage the stress that comes with it, works just the same way.
In talking with teenagers, I matter-of-factly point out that their teachers should be giving them hard academic workouts, because that’s what will transform them from wobbly middle school colts into graduation-ready racehorses.
To be sure, some days will be light on challenge and others will feel overwhelming. But I try to reassure students by telling them this: If, on balance, they are feeling stretched at school and asked to step up to a new level once they’ve mastered an old one, then things are going exactly as they should.
Parents may feel more confident promoting a positive view of stress if they recall times in their own lives when strenuous new demands — such as welcoming a baby, moving to an unfamiliar city or starting a new job — came to seem increasingly manageable. New demands call for growth, and growth is invariably stressful. And schools, by design, are in the business of cultivating growth.
But what if taking a positive view of stress isn’t enough to offer students the relief they need? Indeed, plenty of students now suffer from too much of what should be a good thing. Those carrying punishing course loads cannot lighten their burdens simply by appreciating the benefits of stress. Yet the problem for students with outsized academic demands is rarely that they can’t do the work. It’s that they never have time to recover.
Instead of trying to vanquish academic pressure, we should turn our attention to making sure students can rebound between bouts of intense intellectual activity, just as athletes rest between hard workouts.
Three years ago, Centennial High School in Circle Pines, Minn., changed its schedule to include a near daily program called a LEAP hour, for Lunch, Energize, Achieve, Participate, described by the principal, Tom Breuning, as big-kid recess. Students choose how to spend their time. They can, for example, shoot baskets, play cards, exercise, color, meet with teachers or join the Pinterest club which, Mr. Breuning delightedly reports, “is especially popular with our football players.”