Study: Majority of students’ feelings about high school are negative

Flickr; Jessica Cross

AUTHOR from K-12 Dive

Naaz Modan@NaazModan


Feb. 7, 2020

Dive Brief:

  • High school students experience mostly negative emotions toward school, with feeling tired among their biggest complaints, according to a new nationwide study by Yale University’s Center for Emotional Intelligence and Child Study Center.
  • Stress and boredom were also among the top reasons students felt negative toward school, according to the survey of 21,678 U.S. students.  
  • But high school students also commonly experience positive feelings of happiness and excitement, though those were reported in much smaller percentages, and the researchers said neither of those feelings are linked to learning or achievement. 

Dive Insight:

Zorana Ivcevic Pringle, director of Yale’s Creativity and Emotions Lab and an author of the study, said while students being tired was no surprise to her, the pervasiveness of the emotion among students was. “It was overshadowing everything else,” Pringle said. “Close to 60% of the time, students are saying they are feeling tired.” 

And while positive emotions of calmness, happiness and relaxation were also among top emotional experiences, those feelings are “not the kinds that are most valuable for learning and growth.” Emotional experiences most relevant for learning, Pringle said, are interest, curiosity and pride (once achievement occurs) — all of which ranked low. 

Negative feelings were experienced more frequently by female, younger, low-income and minority students as opposed to their male, older, well-off, white counterparts. 

The frequency of negative feelings students experience, the authors write, is “likely to undermine students’ attention, motivation, and ability to learn and thrive.” The authors suggested a cultural shift in schools that emphasizes and supports self-care as something that could benefit students’ learning, health and overall well-being. Pringle suggests a greater emphasis on social-emotional learning as a way to give students tools to better regulate negative emotions. 

Once the “tired” emotion is addressed, Pringle said, the other negative emotions are likely to fall in line. “Once they are feeling more rested, they will be better able to pay attention, they might be more interested, less bored, and less stressed.” 

In an effort to ensure students are well-rested, more districts are implementing later school start times, which Pringle noted as a possible solution. The Seattle, Minneapolis, Houston and Fairfax County (Virginia) districts are among those that have moved some or all of their school start times to allow older students to start later. Whether districts save or lose money from such changes differs on a case-by-case basis. But studies suggest the bell shift has resulted in teens getting more sleep, which has in turn improved grades and attendance. 

And just last year, California became the first state to mandate a later start bell. While there will be logistical challenges — including transportation, adjusted costs and rescheduling after-school activities — other states will likely follow. 

Students and parents have helped drive the movement. In California, for example, parent and journalist Lisa Lewis penned an op-ed on the issue in the local paper. And often the smoothest transitions, experts have noted, come only after consulting key groups including parents, students, teachers and other school staff members impacted. As schools make room for growing student activism and civic engagement, including students in discussion of how they feel about school is one place to start.

Recommended Reading:

  •  SCIENCE DIRECTHigh school students’ feelings: Discoveries from a large national survey and an experience sampling study