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The pressure of being a high-achieving student: What the research says

The pressure of being a high-achieving student: What the research says

5 min read
  • Stress management & well-being

Your high-achieving students’ successes are definitely cause for celebration, but what can easily go unseen is the intricate web of challenges and pressures that come with those achievements.

This blog aims to peel back the curtain, using research to explore the specific obstacles high achievers face, and the stress management techniques that can hopefully help relieve some of that pressure. Read on to learn more about:

  • The stress of being a high-achiever
  • What the research says
  • How high achievers deal with stress
  • How to support high-achieving students

Are high achievers stressed?

The short answer is often yes. A study by the University of South Florida found that high-achieving students reported significantly higher levels of stress than their peers. This stress often stems from academic pressures, the drive for perfectionism and high expectations from themselves and others.

High achievers face several unique challenges. They often grapple with the fear of failure and the pressure to maintain their high-achieving status, and they may also experience social isolation due to perceived differences with peers.

What does the research say?

Although research has shown that a little bit of stress can actually help improve academic performance, too much stress can lead to negative consequences for high achievers. So, how does stress impact these students?

The effects of stress

A study from Wesleyan University examining the effects of stress on high-achieving high school students placed a focus on symptoms such as lack of concentration, irritability and fatigue. It was found that a significant number of students reported experiencing these stress-related symptoms on a weekly basis. Notably, stress levels were strongly linked to physical symptoms like headaches and stomach aches and affected students’ sleep patterns and meal quality.

The study also explored students’ exercise habits and their psychological well-being, revealing that the more stressed students are, the less they tend to exercise. Stress levels were also found to have a considerable impact on academic self-perceptions and motivation. This research emphasises the complex relationship between stress, well-being and academic perceptions among high school students.

Perfectionism

Recent research has also examined the complex link between academic perfectionism, intellectual abilities and achievement in high-ability students. The research showed that these students often have strong self-regulation and motivation linked to perfectionism, contributing to their academic success. However, they also found that excessive perfectionism could increase the risk of depression in high achievers, highlighting the need for tailored support for both underachieving and gifted students, focusing on addressing perfectionism in academic settings.

Societal pressures

In a study exploring how pressure to excel impacts students’ well-being in High-Achieving Schools (HASs), the researchers found that social comparisons and negative feedback on social media are consistently tied to symptoms like depression and anxiety for high achievers. Additionally, they noted that negative feedback may lead to rule-breaking behaviour. The researchers emphasise the importance of strong parent-child relationships and the necessity of interventions to reduce harmful social comparisons in HASs.

A study conducted by the same researchers also included a comprehensive examination of the mental health challenges that students in HASs often face. It highlighted the increased risk of substance abuse and other issues, pointing out how factors such as family dynamics, peer influence and societal pressures can affect students’ well-being. The researchers emphasise the importance of using research-informed assessments and interventions to tackle these issues.

We will teach your students to thrive under pressure with key stress management skills. Ideal in the lead up to exams.

How do high achievers deal with stress?

High-achieving students often employ various strategies to manage stress. Some opt for proactive approaches like time management and planning ahead, whereas others may resort to less healthy coping mechanisms, such as overworking or ignoring the stress.

Recognising and comprehending these coping mechanisms can play a pivotal role in how teachers, alongside parents and guardians, extend their support to high-achieving students. Through this understanding, a more tailored and effective approach can be established to assist these students in effectively managing stress and promoting their overall well-being.

How to support high-achieving students

Teachers can play a pivotal role in supporting high achievers in managing stress effectively. Here are some strategies from our blog, 6 ways to reduce stress, that you can integrate into your teaching practices to help your students navigate their high-pressure environments more comfortably…

  1.  Remove uncertainty – Encourage students to draw parallels between current challenges and past experiences. This familiarity can breed confidence by reducing the uncertainty that often accompanies new or stressful situations.
  2.  Be proactive – Emphasise the importance of being proactive rather than reactive. Encouraging students to plan ahead, such as organising their revision schedule before exams, can significantly lessen stress levels by minimising procrastination.
  3.  Reframing – Guide students to view challenging tasks as opportunities for growth rather than threats. This shift in perspective fosters the value of learning and improvement over the fear of judgment or failure.
  4.  Focus on the best-case scenario – While it’s wise to be prepared for various outcomes, dwelling on the worst-case scenario is counterproductive. Teach students to focus on the potential benefits of success, which can inspire creativity and a more open approach to learning.
  5.  Encourage open communication – Stress the importance of not facing challenges in isolation. Encourage students to seek support from their network, including teachers, family and friends. A strong support system can act as a stress buffer, enhancing resilience and performance.
  6.  Promote quality sleep – Highlight the critical role of good sleep in academic performance and stress management. Students who sleep better have been found to get significantly higher grades (about half a grade difference). Students should be made aware of how adequate rest can improve their mood, concentration and overall ability to cope with stress.

Final thoughts

The pressure of being a high-achieving student is a complex issue that requires careful consideration. For teachers, it is vital to recognise and address these pressures by creating nurturing environments that cater to the needs of all students, including those excelling academically.

While the strategies discussed serve as a good foundation, it is crucial to remember that every student is an individual with distinct requirements that may differ. By fostering a supportive and understanding atmosphere, you can help all students thrive and reach their full potential.

Equip your school staff with the skills to best support their students’ well-being and stress management in the lead up to exams by booking a Stress Management for Students Teacher CPD workshop today!


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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