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Social Causes of School Anxiety

Many teens we interviewed for our series on teen stress report intense social conformity in the culture. While the sense of being judged has always been part of adolescence, a near-constant stream of images about what you’re supposed to look like gives teens no respite. Judging isn’t just in school hallways, it’s equally harsh online.

Social Causes of School Anxiety

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Worried teenage girl sitting in a classroom

It’s common for kids of all ages to experience school-related stress. This is often most apparent at the end of summer when school is about to start again, but it can occur year-round. Where do the stress and anxiety come from? Social, academic, and scheduling factors play a major role, as do hidden environmental stressors.  


While most students would say that friends are one of their favorite aspects of school, they can also be a source of stress. Concerns about not having enough friends, not being in the same class as friends, not being able to keep up with friends in one particular area or another, interpersonal conflicts, and peer pressure are a few of the very common ways kids can be stressed by their social lives at school. Dealing with these issues alone can cause anxiety in even the most secure kids.

Things have changed in the world of bullies. The good news is that the days of teachers looking the other way and parents leaving kids to deal with bullying on their own are mostly over. Many schools now have anti-bullying programs and policies. Though bullying does still happen at many schools, even those with these policies, help is generally more easily accessible than it was years ago.

The bad news is that bullying has gone high-tech. Many students use the Internet, cell phones, and other media devices to bully other students, and this type of bullying often gets very aggressive. One reason is that bullies can be anonymous and enlist other bullies to make their target miserable; another reason is that they don’t have to face their targets, so it’s easier to shed any empathy that they may otherwise feel. There are ways to combat “cyber-bullying,” but many parents aren’t aware of them—and many bullied kids feel too overwhelmed to deal with the situation.

1. Forget about speed. Focus on accuracy.

Being good at something means you “get it” right away, right? Wrong. Rushing is a surefire way to guarantee mistakes. Scientists have studied experts in every field and found that to become great, those experts focus their practice on only one thing: accuracy. The people who become world-class go as slowly as they need to make sure that every move is 100% correct. They know that with more and more practice, they’ll get faster at that skill. (In fact, your brain is wired to make you faster at the things you practice.) Slow down and focus on doing the work correctly.

Students spend a lot of time stressing about how much they have to do. It gets them no closer to mastering the material, and it’s no fun either. Talk about a lose-lose. So, take your attention off how much work you have to do and put it on work you can do. Pick one vocab word and learn it. Do one problem from your math homework. Doing anything you can to chip away at that assignment will get your attention off the stress and back where it belongs.

3. How do you do the thing you love?

What’s your favorite thing to do? It can be playing video games, skateboarding, dance, or even a certain subject in school. Whatever you choose, it’s the thing you can happily do for hours without noticing the time fly by. You get better at it all the time, but practicing never feels like work. Here’s the good news: improving at any skill requires the same steps: breaking things down, practicing small pieces, and being persistent without letting emotions get in the way. That means you already know how to work very successfully–and keep it stress-free. Take the way you work at the thing you love doing, and start working that way in the thing you hate doing. Pretty soon, the process will become painless, and your grades will start to soar!

If you’re at soccer practice and your ankle starts hurting and swelling, you likely wouldn’t run harder . You would rest it, elevate it, and ice it. That pain tells you to stop what you’re doing. If you’re at an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet and your stomach starts hurting, and you start to feel sick, would you push through the next stack of pancakes? Not if you’re smart! Your stomach is signaling you that it can’t handle more, and you change your behavior accordingly. So why don’t we listen to our brains in that same way? When our brains get overwhelmed and stressed out, they’re telling us to stop what we’re doing and change our approach. Consider why you’re stressed, try a different tactic, forget about the stakes and refocus on the work. Rather than just grinding through the stress, use it as the valuable feedback it is.

A car that’s running smoothly and a car that’s clunking and has smoke pouring out of the hood may both get you to school…but you wouldn’t consider them equally desirable. The clunker needs to stop, cool down, and get a tune-up. Students need to start giving the same attention to their brains. If your gears are grinding, that’s a warning sign. We’ve seen plenty of students start from A ’s but burn out before the finish line.

So take it from the scientists. Stop bragging about your all-nighters. Stop letting stress run your life. It’s only getting in the way. It’s time we all changed our idea of what being a good student looks like. A stress-free school experience isn’t just a nice idea; it’s essential to you achieving your academic best over the long term.

The nonstop talk about college made them feel like their futures didn’t matter, fueling feelings of inadequacy and frustration.

“I just found a lot of this stuff meaningless, ‘cause I never realized when I was going to actually use it in my everyday life,” Brandon said. “It felt like they were trying to prepare you for college. They wanted you to go to college and I’m like, ‘I’m probably not going to go to college.’”

“But every other teacher’s like, ‘Oh yeah, you got to get good test scores, got to get good grades to go f—ing college!” Shawn said, his voice rising. “And it’s like, maybe I don’t want to go to college. Maybe I want to go to trade school or something.”

“Normal high school time made me feel more stupid I guess because it was like all based off of memorization and not like any like actual life skills,” Shawn continued. “It’s like, ‘Oh, you need to remember this or you’re not going pass the next quiz.”

Many of the others agree. “Normal” high school just didn’t have meaning for them. It felt very institutional. The word “warehouse,” “factory” and other institutionally tinged words come up frequently in our discussion.

Shawn said the “factory” environment of a normal high school was preoccupied with “do this when I tell you to do it,” whereas Brady High is “Hey, what do you want to do after this? School’s not going to last forever. So what do you want to do? How can we help you with that?”

The students had suggestions for educators back in their old schools.

With teachers at their regular high schools too busy, classes too big and their grades bottoming out, Dominic, Paris, Jakob, Shawn, Brandon and Ellie eventually had enough. Their new school works to accommodate each individual students’ needs through modified schedules, shorter terms and relevant curriculum.

Brandon: “Just be more accepting of stuff that you’re into. Just be more accepting of who your [students] are. A lot of teachers, like, they’ll see you’re wearing a certain person on your shirt and they’re like, ‘Oh look at this fricking ghetto kid that’s like a wannabe gang banger or something like that.’ You know? And then, just, in reality, you either just like their music or you just don’t like their music, you know?”

Ellie: “Reaching out to the students. Like, when you know there’s a kid who’s struggling, you’ve seen their grades, you’re a teacher putting their grades in the grade book, reaching out and being like, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ You know? Like, ‘If there’s anything I can do to help you, let me know. Like, I want to help.'”

Jakob: “A lot of teachers are really uptight and they stress out a lot over, like, the littlest things that a student could do. The main thing that I would tell the teacher is just to relax, you know?”

Dominic: “I would just say just be down-to-Earth. I mean realize that obviously as a teacher and as students there’s like a human connection, you know. There’s a reciprocity, there’s like just a genuine humanness.”

Shawn: “Be more down-to-Earth. There was only a couple teachers I knew that cared about the students. And it’s like, ‘Hey, how’d your weekend go? Hey, how you doing?’ Not like, ‘I’m just going to be a robot and pretend you don’t exist.'”



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