The following was written By Peter Segall For The Outlook
Unrealistic expectations can put undue pressure on students in the San Marino Unified School District, giving rise to stress and anxiety.
That was the message at a community forum presented last week by the local Partnership for Awareness, an organization that arranges for experts to speak to school parents about the health and social challenges facing their children.
A panel that included Superintendent Dr. Alex Cherniss, San Marino High School Principal Mary Johnson, Intervention Counselor Laura Ives and Police Chief John Incontro spoke to parents at SMHS’ Webb Theater about how environments at high-performing schools such as San Marino High School can be overwhelming to teens.
The forum, titled “Your Pressured Teen,” was the first in a series planned by Partnership for Awareness. It sought to help parents identify the signs of stress and anxiety and help their children through challenging times.
For students, the pressure to succeed often comes from parents, their peers and the students themselves, parents were told. It’s the way success is defined that can be problematic. Cherniss, Johnson and Ives agreed that “unrealistic expectations” are the main causes of students’ stress problems.
Johnson urged parents to “wipe out perfectionism” and help students to understand that there are many avenues to success.
She noted that the school has received feedback from college admissions counselors who said that “when we see one San Marino High School application, we feel like we’ve seen them all.” She said this was because students and their parents felt there was some formula that guaranteed entrance to the best colleges.
Often that formula included taking an excessive number of advanced-placement or honors classes, far more than most students can handle.
“It’s not a formula that works,” she said. The students who are more likely to stand out in college admissions are those who “followed their hearts and interests.”
The San Marino Unified School District has taken several steps to address the problem of student stress, said Cherniss, who noted that it launched new programs for students and teachers, and is also working with organizations such as Partnership for Awareness to educate parents.
Last year, Cherniss added, the district launched its Student Mental Health Academy, a six-week program for teachers. Staff members are trained on how to identify at-risk students and the behaviors that may be indicators of stress and anxiety issues.
The high school has a program in which upperclassmen mentor freshmen, enabling students to discuss issues with each other, Ives said.
Students now have coping skills and mental health education as part of their health curriculum, too.
Another panelist, Police Chief John Incontro, said his department has an “outstanding relationship” with the school district and that the police have had very little contact with the student body — a good thing, he noted, as it meant problems were minimal. When police and students do interact, it is usually because of issues related to pressure, he said, citing a case of a girl who ran away from home last year because of stress related to the Student Achievement Test.
Incontro also talked about another troubling manifestation of intense pressure: bullying. Students under pressure find ways to act out and release some of their anxiety, he said, oftentimes lashing out at students who are perceived to be weaker than themselves.
He told about one case of bullying that ended with a former student being arrested and the victim’s family moving out of the city.
Johnson reminded parents that they “are the primary educator of [their] children,” and that how parents react and deal with stress will influence their children. She urged parents to “acknowledge what’s there” and embrace their child no matter what.
“Kids always survive if they know you love them,” she said.
The next Partnership for Awareness talk, titled “The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous and Smart About Money,” will be held Monday, Oct. 17, at 7 p.m. at the Huntington Middle School Auditorium. It will feature Ron Lieber, a Wall Street Journal personal finance columnist.