School officials across the country, meanwhile, say they're seeing a steady uptick in mental health referrals, often stress-related. Timothy Dorway, a principal at a high school in Chanhassen, Minn., just outside Minneapolis, is among them. He says such referrals have doubled since his school opened in 2009.
“We're asking these kids to do things that we don't even ask adults to do,” Dorway says, noting sports and academic requirements that often leave them sleep-deprived.
Besides the mental health issues, he noted that students from his school have been in car accidents after falling asleep at the wheel — one of them on the way to school, at 7:45 a.m.
All of it led him and his school community to come up with a motto — “Balance, Perspective, Growth” — and to look for ways to put it into practice.
Now, Chanhassen High is among a small but growing number of schools that has homework-free nights scattered throughout the school year. Two days a week, students at Chanhassen also get a 20-minute “recess” break in the morning. Some play hackie sack or grab a snack. They chat in the hallways, catch up on homework or rest.
The break is a time “to let all the information of the day settle in my mind,” says Zach Anderson, a junior at the school. “We need time to think.”
The changes at the school have not come without controversy. A few parents see the break as a waste of time that could be better used at the beginning of the school day.
“Let them sleep in, or get a better breakfast, or come to school at the usual time to talk to a teacher if they need to,” says Karrie Shroyer, a mom of a sophomore at Chanhassen High.
When it comes to homework, she says the school would better serve students by cutting back on what some view as an inordinate amount of “busy work,” repetitive work that students who've mastered the concepts may not need to do.
“Are we trying to hide the real problem with a simple fix?” Shroyer asks.
Raychelle Lohmann, a professional counselor and author based in South Carolina, says any step schools take to reduce stress for students is a “step in the right direction.”
But she says parents, too, need to keep their own expectations in check, even for young children.
“We're seeing parents who are putting their preschoolers in tutoring programs,” she says. “The intentions are good. But we're missing the important point, to let them develop and play” — even in high school.
She says parents also have to model the behavior for their children.
“I'll be honest. I'm guilty. I don't take a day off,” she says. “But at some point, we just have to stop — and prioritize — and teach our children to do the same.
“We have to give up this `go, go, go' mentality.”
Lisa Lawrence, a mom in Austin, Texas, said she realized this when her daughter, now a sixth-grader, told her she felt like “nothing she did was ever good enough” for her mom.
“It sent chills down my spine,” Lawrence says. “I think I felt that way growing up.”
So she's backed off. And so has Dorway, the principal in Minnesota who's also a dad.
After his son's seventh-grade band concert last year, he recalls watching three kids “running down the hall, literally stripping out of their band uniforms with basketball uniforms underneath.”
“This is insane,” he says. So once the homework issue is further examined, he's vowing to take on the “holy grail” of issues at his school — the packed practice and game schedules of student athletes.
Back at Prospect High in suburban Chicago, counselor Lynn Thornton ponders the question of expectations, as she pets Junie, who is sitting next to her in a school counseling office.
Educators are feeling the pressure to perform, too, she says. And while raising standards can be good thing, she wonders if we've taken things too far by making “high school the new college.”
“I really don't see it changing,” Thornton says, “until maybe colleges would really step up and say, `Hey, you know what? You guys teach high school and we'll teach college.”
Until then, students will find Junie at their beck and call, often on the counseling office couches.