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From pets to ‘recess’: High school stress relief

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(AP)
In this Jan. 14, 2013 photo, Douglas Berg, a social worker at Prospect High School, (left) and guidance counselor Lynn Thornton stand in the school’s office with Junie, a “therapy dog,” at the school in Mount Prospect. Stress, anxiety and panic attacks are on the rise at many U.S. high schools, due to heightened academic expectations and troubles at home made worse by the shaky economy. So some schools are trying unconventional methods, such as therapy dogs, to help students cope.

MOUNT PROSPECT (AP) – The four-legged member of the counseling team at the high school in suburban Chicago waits patiently, as a crush of students fills the hallways. Her tail wags with the first pat on the head, then another and another.

“Puppy! Ohhh, puppy dog!” one teenager croons, as he affectionately tousles the ears of the 18-month-old golden retriever. Junie began her role as a therapy dog at Prospect High School less than 4 months ago.

It’s just one of a number of ways high schools across the country are trying to address what some call an epidemic of stressed-out, overwhelmed students.

Some schools now offer yoga classes or teach relaxation techniques in the classroom. Others, from California to Minnesota and New Jersey, are instituting homework-free nights or are offering a bit of free time between classes – the equivalent of recess for teenagers.

“Things cycle for them so quickly. So it’s hard for them to be able to develop the patience, or the ability to think something through and to realize that it may take some time for it to get resolved,” says Douglas Berg, a social worker at Prospect High in Mount Prospect, where he and other staff are seeing more students hospitalized with anxiety and panic attacks related to stress.

Some might question whether a dog in the school corridors, or a 20-minute break, addresses the deeper issues at hand. But many school officials say they have to do what they can to alleviate the growing pressure to achieve. That pressure, they say, has only been heightened by the commonly held belief that it’s tougher than ever for a young person to make it in this economy.

More than ever, a college degree is seen as a must. So more students are taking college courses in high school, and even more are enrolling in rigorous “advanced placement,” or AP classes to try to earn college credit. Add year-round sports and after-school jobs and volunteering, as a way to bolster the college application, and many students say they have little time for anything else.

Prospect High counselor Lynn Thornton ponders the question of expectations, as she pets Junie.

Educators are feeling the pressure to perform, too, she says. 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.

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