by Elizabeth Shaunessy
Stress can be experienced by gifted high school students who are often guided to take rigorous academic preparation, such as the International Baccalaureate Program, Advanced Placement, and dual enrollment in college while concurrently in high school. While many students enrolled in these programs of study find them intellectually stimulating experiences with others of similar abilities and interests, the demanding requirements may be relatively new to students who had previously found elementary and middle school easily mastered. Teachers and parents, then, should consider methods and strategies for integrating effective coping strategies in the daily lives of gifted and high ability learners, particularly those whose repertoire may not include these tools.
In addition to the academic challenges presented by these programs, gifted high school students are also experiencing developmental changes typical of all adolescents. The combination of being a teen and keeping up with demanding course requirements may lead to increased stress for learners. Investigations of general populations of adolescents indicate that increased stress is associated with increased levels of anxiety. Some signs of increased anxiety include excessive worrying, difficulty relaxing, shortness of breath, sleep challenges, difficulty concentrating, and avoidance of demands or social situations. There’s been little research about stress among gifted or high achieving students. However, recent studies of IB students’ well-being indicated that students with greater academic stressors than typical high school students are more likely to have anxiety than their peers in general education.
To support our gifted, a comprehensive curriculum and at-home guidance in identifying stressors and developing effective coping strategies is essential for lifelong happiness. Effective ways of coping are provided below, and this list of recommendations can be shared with parents and teachers. The list pinpoints specific recommendations to be shared with gifted learners, though these are also strategies that can be helpful for individuals who are not gifted.
Effective Coping Strategies
Appraise Life Positively
- Think about the good things in your life
- See the good things in a difficult situation
- Keep up friendships or make new friends
- Say nice things to others
- Be close with someone you care about
Time and Task Management
- Focus and work hard to just get the work done
- Plan (prioritize assignments, break work into smaller parts, pace self)
- Focus on current assignments due first
- Organize (make “to do” list; schedule time)
- Take short breaks
- Manage time (get up earlier; do work on bus)
- Work with classmates on assignments
- Work in study groups
- Acknowledge or celebrate tasks done
- Talk to parent (or other trusted adult) about what’s bothering you
- Spend time with family
- Talk to older sibling
- Go to church or youth group
- Adopt a positive attitude
- Laugh, joke, or make light of situation
- Remind self of future benefits of current course of study
- Stand by choices
- Practice to well on big tests, like FCAT, PSAT
- Talk it out with person causing the problem
Ineffective Coping Strategies
Angrily Express Emotions
- Get angry and yell at people
- Blame others for what’s going wrong
- Say mean things to people; be sarcastic
- Let off steam by complaining to your friends or family members
Attempt to Handle Problems Alone
- Be alone (shut self in room, read)
- Deny or ignore feelings of stress
- Try to handle things on your own (keep thoughts inside)
- Obsess about workload
- Physically or verbally explode (yell, swear, punch walls, fight)
Stress is a condition that all individuals experience-and gifted learners are no different in this respect. Helping educate students about the importance of examining one’s responses to stress in positive, effective ways, is a contribution parents, teachers, and others can explore with children so that they become aware of how they cope with challenges and how useful these efforts are in dealing with the complex world.
Books for further reading:
Helping Young People to Beat Stress by Sarah McNamara (2005).
Stress Relief for Teachers: The Coping Triangle by Claire Hayes (2006).
Stress, Appraisal, and Coping by Richard S. Lazarus and Susan Folkman (1984).
When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism (Antony, 1998).
Shaunessy, E., Suldo, S. M., Hardesty, R. B., & Shaffer, E. S. (2006). School functioning and psychological well-being of International Baccalaureate and general education students: A preliminary examination. Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, 17, 76-89.
Suldo, S. M., Shaunessy, E. & Hardesty, R. B. (in press). Relationships among stress, coping, and mental health in high-achieving high school students. Psychology in the Schools.
Elizabeth Shaunessy is an assistant professor at the University of South Florida, where she teaches a required course for teachers of the gifted. She also serves as Gifted Program Coordinator in the College of Education.