College & Workforce Readiness

Stressed-Out AP Students Are Focus of New Curriculum

By Brenda Iasevoli — August 23, 2017 4 min read
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High school students who take advanced courses experience more academic stress than students in general education courses, research by University of South Florida education professors has found. Now a curriculum designed by the same professors aims to provide these students with more support.

For the past 13 years, USF college of education professors Shannon Suldo and Elizabeth Shaunessy-Dedrick have been researching ways to support high-achieving students who may not know how to handle the stress of taking what are essentially college-level courses. With the help of their colleagues in the education school, Suldo and Shaunessy-Dedrick have identified the coping mechanisms of successful students—the ones who manage to handle stress and get good grades—in Advanced Placement classes or International Baccalaureate programs.

Their studies have borne several takeaways:

  • Successful students tackle stress head-on by managing their time or by seeking help from family, teachers, or tutors.
  • These students practice positive thinking in the face of stress, giving themselves a pep talk or telling themselves to look on the bright side.
  • Perhaps most surprising, students who do the best are involved in more extracurricular activities.
  • Students who avoided asking for help, or who slept more or skipped school to avoid facing the stress didn’t fare as well.

These findings inform the development of a curriculum for students who are tackling rigorous content. The Advancing Coping and Engagement (ACE) program will be tested at 16 Florida high schools in the 2017-2018 school year. USF researchers will deliver the lessons to 9th graders taking IB Inquiry Skills or AP Human Geography at eight of the schools, then compare the results with those at the other eight schools where students did not get extra support. The lessons will focus on how to develop an interest in school, seek out a teacher’s help, and learn to manage time better.

So how do you teach these skills? One of the students’ favorite lessons, according to Shaunessy-Dedrick, involves attempting to “time manage” a hypothetical student with a long list of school work and household chores to do for the week. Students must decide which tasks should be prioritized and which ones can be eliminated. They might also have to bargain: Maybe they can get a sibling to walk the dog this week, and in return take the garbage out for the sibling the next week.

“Remember, these are only 14-year-old kids,” said Shaunessy-Dedrick. “These things might be second nature to adults, but kids need coaching because they are basically taking college courses at younger ages, before they’ve developed problem-solving skills. We have to teach adult-level skills to kids taking adult-level classes.”

To convince students of the need to develop their interests at school, the professors share data from their studies. A graph showing that students who are the happiest and do the best academically are involved in a minimum of 10 hours a week of extra-curricular activities can be pretty convincing, according to Suldo.

She said the next step is to help students brainstorm which clubs or sports might be good for them, and then guide them through the steps to get involved. For those who may be getting conflicting messages about taking on too many extra activities, the professors talk them through it.

“Why do you think students involved in two or three activities are doing better than students involved in one or two?” Shaunessy-Dedrick asks students. “What we come up with is you have to structure your time differently when you are involved in activities, so you learn to become a better time manager. You develop a network of friends, so when you are out at band practice you might talk with a fellow student about what’s going in that AP Human Geography class, or you might make plans to get together with band mates to quiz each other.”

Students will complete a survey twice a year, in September and April, about their extracurricular activities, stress levels, and feelings toward their teachers. Researchers will also review students’ grade point averages and AP exam scores to measure the curriculum’s success.

Now more than ever, says Shaunessy-Dedrick, students need the supports that this new curriculum provides. She pointed out that students taking AP courses 20 years ago were different from those taking these classes today. There was a time when AP courses were not so widely available, when only students with parents who had taken college-level courses were advised to take them. What’s more, the tests and curriculum are getting progressively more difficult.

“As someone who is steeped in gifted education, I am used to the world thinking that students who have the cognitive skills are not necessarily in need of support,” said Shaunessy-Dedrick. “Rightfully so, there is a stress on helping a different population of students for different reasons, and we don’t begrudge those who work with them, but this support [for high-achieving students] is also dearly needed.”

Image by Miguel Angel on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.