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Starting high school: Stress that can last

Facilitator Melissa De Riggi, shows students some methods of dealing with stress.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

The transition from elementary school to high school is fraught with anxious moments: finding your classes in a bigger building, meeting new classmates and getting your locker opened on the first try. New research has found that the shift is highly stressful for about one in four students, and many more than that could use help coping.

Researchers at McGill University tracked 800 students over three years as they made the transition into high school (in Quebec, high school begins in Grade 7), and discovered those who are highly anxious engaged in "maladaptive" behaviours. About one in three of the stressed students reported overeating, others drank alcohol, smoked and did drugs, while a few said they hurt themselves on purpose.

Lead investigator Nancy Heath, a professor of human development and child psychology at McGill, said her preliminary results apply to students making the transition into high schools across Canada, usually in Grade 9, and speaks to the need to teach young people coping strategies when they're about to experience some kind of change. All of these students will face even bigger challenges with a competitive university admissions process, high tuition and an uncertain job market.

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"When kids are saying, 'I'm highly stressed,' we need to take it seriously and start teaching them ways to start managing that stress," Prof. Heath said. "Otherwise, they're flailing around and some of them are engaging in really problematic behaviours."

The study involved students who began attending Montreal-area, English-language high schools three years ago. Prof. Heath said a growing body of research is showing that moving to a new school, usually larger with more academic and new social demands, is associated with significant stress.

Students in the study rated themselves on a 10-point scale, and were assessed repeatedly. The survey found that those who were highly stressed when they entered high school continued to be anxious into the following year. Some of that stress stemmed from conflict with families and friends, or academic anxiety. But Prof. Heath said students entering high school are also anxious because their peer group has been broken up.

About 80 per cent of the students surveyed had not been been taught any stress management techniques.

For those involved in the study, as a way to thank them for their participation, Prof. Heath and her graduate students now run an hour-long workshop in the schools teaching teenagers ways to manage their stress. Prof. Heath said other school boards have expressed an interest in running a similar workshop. Students are told about celebrities who have struggled with significant stress levels, so they know they're not alone. They learn how to relax each muscle group, for example, and are provided with websites to help them manage stress and mental-health problems.

Sierra Nadeau, who participated in the study and attended a workshop earlier this week, said she had panic attacks when she started high school.

"I was really scared. The night before, I did not sleep, which was pretty bad. I spent the whole night staying up worrying about it," said Ms. Nadeau, 14, and a Grade 9 student in Lachine, Que.

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She wished the workshop had been offered earlier. "When I'm stressed out, I tend to just give up on things, and this would have helped," she said.

Elizabeth Dhuey, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Toronto who has studied school transitions, said researchers are still trying to understand why students have difficulty with the transition, whether it's the move itself, a new kind of school environment or the age when the change occurs. The effects of a difficult transition, however, can last for years. Learning techniques to manage stress, even if it's for an hour during the school day, could be beneficial over the long term, she said.

If they're anxious "they stay at this lower trajectory," Prof. Dhuey said. "So, when they're entering university, they're at a lower trajectory [as far as academic achievement] than people who didn't have a difficult transition."

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About the Author
Education Reporter

Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More

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