One day last week at Lexington High School, teachers wore red clown noses as they stood before their classes. Students blew bubbles in the quad, the outdoor common area, before school. Music played over the loudspeakers between classes, and teenagers danced in the hallways.
“Kids just got to be kids and play,” said wellness teacher Julie Fenn, standing in the quad where students had drawn on the pavement with chalk. “It’s been fun to see even our big boys blowing bubbles and laughing.”
This was the school’s second stress-reduction day, designed to help some of the state’s highest-achieving students manage the anxieties that can breed at competitive schools. Lexington High consistently is ranked among the top academically in the state, and its students receive with some of the state’s highest SAT and Advanced Placement scores.
The effort to bolster students’ emotional health has grown both in the town and the school system. Local parents, educators, and faith groups formed the Collaborative to Reduce Student Stress about three years ago, and the School Committee made stress reduction a priority. Teachers have been working with students on mindfulness techniques.
Lexington is not the only area community to look into ways of reducing stress in students. The district took notes on efforts in Needham, which has worked for years on the issue. Acton-Boxborough Regional and Belmont are also among the districts that have administrators trying to find ways to change school culture, at least a bit, to make it less competitive, less tense.
“We really are trying hard to get after this stress that the kids feel, and giving them some ways to get after it in healthier, appropriate ways,” said Stephen Mills, superintendent of the Acton schools and the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, whose students also have very high SAT scores.
On some Saturday nights, the high school holds socials with movies, basketball, pizza, and ice cream. It no longer publishes the honor roll in the local newspaper, and stopped naming a valedictorian and salutatorian for graduation.
In a 2011 survey, 89 percent of Lexington High students reported that the atmosphere at the school encouraged academic competition. The anonymous survey also found 40 percent reporting that they were under “a lot of stress,” and 11 percent of students said they felt “extreme stress” in school, a number that had dropped since 2004.
The survey also found 83 percent of the students said family and friends would support them if they had problems.
“The stress level in Lexington, and in particular at Lexington High School, is alarmingly high,” said principal Laura Lasa.
The school has tried to address the problem by getting rid of weighted grade-point averages (that gave extra points to AP and honors classes), and by allowing students to limit the number of exams or papers due on a single day.
But Lasa believes there is more to be done. Educators are rethinking the kind of homework they give, and also whether to consider limiting the number of AP courses a student can take during high school.
Zach Strohmeyer, senior class president and a member of the school’s social and civic committee, which helped create the stress-reduction day, said the atmosphere at Lexington High is not all bad.
“Everyone has extreme goals and they want to do really well, and stress is a part of that,” said Strohmeyer. “It’s just important that we recognize that it’s there and have ways to deal with it.”
During last week’s event at Lexington High, Vanessa Savage blew bubbles in the quad, and meditated with her classmates. She liked the reprieve from the school’s usual seriousness. But she was dubious that one day — even a day with yoga, free smoothies, stress balls, and rubber ducks — could change the school culture.
“I think it’s good that they’re trying to reduce the stress,” she said. “But I think they promote it, too, because it’s like the mentality that if you don’t take AP’s, you won’t go to college, or you won’t get into the Ivies.”
“That’s the LHS mindset,” agreed her friend, Alaina Chin.
“It’s really bad,” Savage said.
In Lexington, educators are explaining the difference between good stress — the kind that helps students accomplish more — and bad stress, the kind that makes it harder to learn. If homework is a power struggle, they tell parents, then they are not giving their children a chance to fail. They encourage students to sleep enough, eat healthy foods, and try yoga.
The Collaborative to Reduce Student Stress was formed after a series of house meetings at Temple Isaiah asked parents what issues most concerned them about their children.
“Was it drugs; was it sex?” collaborative member B.J. Rudman recalled from the discussions. “It was stress.”
The issue had touched his own family. About seven years ago, his daughter was so overcome by the stress at Lexington High that she switched to a private school.
“She hit the high school and she was just overwhelmed by it,” he said. “And I don’t think her case was alone. It wasn’t an isolated case.”
The collaborative, which made a presentation to the school board earlier this year, notes that stress does not only come from school. Students set high standards for themselves. And some parents pressure their children to perform well in school, and take Advanced Placement classes, to sweeten their college applications.
But the group is encouraging the schools to evaluate the amount and type of homework students receive, and to consider policies setting limits on students taking Advanced Placement courses. Students who take several AP classes at once have hours of homework each night, Rudman said.
“You have kids staying up until 2 in the morning to do their work,” he said.
The collaborative looks at not only reducing stress but building resilience in students.
Savage, a sophomore, knows well the stress that administrators are trying to reduce. She started last fall with Advanced Placement biology on her class schedule. But she became so anxious about keeping up with the work that she talked to her doctor about it.
Savage said her doctor told her, ‘ ‘‘I didn’t take AP bio. And my daughter got into Harvard Med and she didn’t take AP bio. You’re fine. Don’t worry about it.’ ”
Savage dropped the class.