The Unintended Consequences of Academic Pressure

I don’t have to tell you that the pressure to “make the grade” is greater in our society today than it’s ever been. For some strange reason, American adults have chosen to give one, single evaluation to our students of their worth…and it’s an academic report card.

In our 2017 Focus Groups, we asked students what their greatest source of stress is, as teens. Several answers came up, including parents fears and expectations as well as social media posts that cause FOMO. Number one on the list, however, was:

“Academic Pressure to Perform.”

Where Did Academic Pressure Come From?

Over the last thirty years, there has been a steady climb in this academic pressure in North America. Today’s students don’t remember a day without:

  • Standardized testing in schools. They are all competing on a single test. They all know they’re up against peers for enrollment spots in college.
  • Highly competitive colleges. Certain schools only take an elite tier. Schools have communicated a scarcity paradigm to push students to apply early.
  • Parents worrying about scholarships and reputation. Moms and dads are anxious about their children getting into a prestigious university for “bragging rights.”
  • Too many seem to believe that getting into the right college equals getting into the right job. They feel the perfect college leads to the perfect career.

What the Pressure Has Done to Many Teen’s Self-Esteem

What we may not have calculated is what this is doing to the psyche of a high school student.

A little competition is good for people. It keeps us alert and in pursuit of progress. Too much, however, negatively impacts students’ emotions; the stress of this competition turns sour and they stop performing at a peak level. An anxious student is not clear in their memory and logic. The pressure has an adverse effect.

May I offer some simple reminders as you coach your students?

  1. Encourage hard work, but communicate their value apart from their grades.
  2. Talk about “doing your best” not about “outdoing your peers.”
  3. Help them construct a self-image that goes beyond classroom performance.
  4. Remind them that ultimately employers seek talent and work ethic, not straight A’s.
  5. Teachers who put relationships before results…usually get better results.

One teacher who partners with us spoke to me about this issue. He said he’s made a point to affirm the value of his students, outside of their academics. It has been revolutionary for some. In fact, he received this note from one of his students:

“I just wanted to thank you for the other day for telling me that I mean much more than my Grade Point Average. I have to admit, I am the type of person who is badly obsessed with my GPA. I feel my grades define my self-worth. I don’t know why I think that way. This is obviously toxic because if my grades aren’t the highest, it will immediately affect the way I think of myself, which is happening right now. You probably think this is crazy…[but] I find it hard to erase the thought so it continues to stress me out. 

“Having someone tell me that I mean more than the numbers of my GPA is something I really needed. Funny thing is, I actually cried after class because of it. It was the nicest thing someone has said to me in the longest time and it helped me realize that I really do have much more meaning than a report card. It helped in both my academic view and most importantly, my worldview as a person. It made me feel the happiest I have been in ages and reassured me that I really am actually worth something.”

That teacher had no idea the difference he was making until he got this note.

As always, I am arguing for perspective. Balanced perspective. Let’s build students who can stand the rigors of a tough class, but who are emotionally healthy enough to face a poor grade from time to time.


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The Unintended Consequences of Academic Pressure