UMass Amherst: The Magazine for Alumni and Friends

Fall 2008

Stress Case Scenario
Coping with stress at Needham High School
By Andrew Varnon ’00G

Stress Case Scenario
Paul Richards ‘94, principal of Needham High School. (photo by John Solem)

Giving a brisk tour of Needham High School and its just-completed $63 million renovation, principal Paul Richards ‘94 lists the hallmarks of the archetypical affluent suburban student driven to get into the best colleges: enrolled in all the toughest classes and participates in five or six extra-curricular activities, including editing the school newspaper. By all accounts, oversubscribed. “Colleges want to see that you’re challenging yourself,” Richards said. “What’s a myth is that you have to be perfect.”

Five years ago, Richards came to Needham High from a more relaxed school in Nantucket. It was a culture change. “It was like night and day,” Richards said. Like other suburban high schools, Needham has a driven culture of academic success. Over the past five years, more than 90 percent of students have gone to a four-year college. Last year, 229 of the school’s 1,400 students took 399 Advanced Placement exams and 93 percent of them received a score of three or better out of five. But with all that, Richards could sense an imbalance.

Parents were complaining about the amount of homework, teachers were concerned about their own stress levels and the stress on their students, and nurses and counselors reported a few students who were hospitalized or missing school because of stress. “I sensed when I got here that it was the elephant in the room,” Richards said.

Richards found the work of Stanford University researcher Denise Pope, whose 2001 book Doing School profiled students who instead of enjoying school were doing it to get into a good college. Richards went out to California to attend one of Pope’s Stressed-Out Schools (S.O.S.) conferences.

Although Richards has been the public face of the Needham High initiative, the school has a 23-member Stress Reduction Committee, which includes students.

The school embarked on a project to try to reduce stress, partnering with the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital to offer students yoga classes, workshops, and counseling about managing stress. Richards says it’s important to note that the program does not aim to eliminate stress, because some is good, but instead seeks to give students more control over their high school experience and skills to manage the pressure.

“Students need to have a personal revolution in themselves,” Richards says. “They need to say this is not going to go on anymore. Once they’ve made that decision, we can help them.”

Richards said in the three years since the school started taking on the issue, he’s noticed that students seem more willing to talk about stress, but the committee is still trying to figure out how to measure improvement.

The committee has conducted a number of surveys of students and parents, developed a website for the community to keep tabs on the effort, and it is working on a schedule of “homework-free” weekends.

As of last year, Needham was one of about a half-dozen schools east of the Mississippi taking part in Pope’s S.O.S. project. But the idea is gaining steam. When The New York Times profiled Richards and Needham High’s efforts to ease student stress last year, the local community realized it was a national issue.

Richards says the issue is part of a broader societal concern about the health of adolescents. The effort to address stress in the school environment and teach students how to balance it is designed to better prepare them for their lives ahead, he says.

stress reduction

When Paul Richards took the post of principal at Needham High School five years ago, he quickly sensed that students, educators, and staff weren’t coping well with the school’s notably stressful environment. A survey conducted in 2006 confirmed Richards’ suspicions; some of its findings are highlighted below. The survey was the work of the high school’s Stress Reduction Committee, which has the task of both reducing the inherent stress and helping community members find healthy ways to cope with it.

  • 57 percent of Needham High School students label the culture as “sink or swim.”
  • 71 percent of female students report spending three-plus hours a night on homework.
  • It is widely believed that stress has led to an increase in hospitalizations, cuttings, and other health-related maladies.
  • 44 percent of students said they are willing to “suffer” in high school to get into the college of their choice.




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