Interview with Needham, MA, High School Principal, Who Has Taken Numerous Steps to Reduce Stress

Today’s interviewee is Paul Richards, who is in his fifth year as principal of Needham High School in Needham, Massachusetts. During his tenure, he has studied and surveyed student stress and tried a variety of measures aimed at reducing it. The father of a kindergartner and first grader, Richards is leaving Needham high at the end of the 2008-2009 school year to become the high school principal at the American School in London. (Take a look at the school’s web site where you can read the Needham Stress Reduction Committee’s materials. They have compiled a very comprehensive resource list.)

Interview with Paul Richards, Principal of Needham High
by Sara Bennett

” Schools need to look at their own practices.They need to educate teachers, parents and students on the culture of stress.”

–Paul Richards, principal, Needham High, Needham, Massachusetts

Is stress really a problem for high school students?

Yes. In the twenty years since I was a high school student, the demands on students’ time have increased dramatically. The problem is created by the culture. Many parts of school culture in suburban schools are very positive and show definite links to achievement. But there’s an underside to it which affects both the physical and mental well-being of our students.

The affects are individualized. For some kids, it can be academic stress–too many AP classes, too much homework, too much competition. For others, it can be the overscheduling afterschool–homework competing with piano lessons or sports or community service. For some kids, it’s social stress.

At Needham High, we’ve chosen to focus entirely on academic stress because that’s our business. At the same time, we’ve been very clear that the parents have a big stake in reducing the stress. Many students will say that the primary stress comes from their parents’ expectations, namely name-brand colleges, high grades, and resumes full of accomplishments and activities.

What is the school’s role in creating stress?
Schools need to look at their own practices to see how they contribute to the amount of stress students face. They need to look at the way they use grades, rankings, GPAs, how much homework they assign.

What kind of steps have you taken to reduce stress?
We stopped publishing the school honor role in the newspaper a few years ago. We’re rewriting our homework policy this year. We’ve helped students with their schedules. When students sign up for courses, they map out their week, including how many hours they’ll be in the classroom, hours of homework, hours on extracurriculars, hours on personal hygiene, etc., to make sure they haven’t overloaded themselves.

We’ve had several parent assemblies, we’ve spoken to 8th-grade parents, and we’re going to have a community forum to share techniques.

The students developed a contract that they have their parents sign so the parents won’t look at the electronic grade book. Our system allowed parents access to the electronic grade book and some parents were a little too close to it, monitoring their children’s progress every day.

We’ve talked to the parents about why they shouldn’t micromanage, about how it’s important for the students to become responsible over the course of the 4 years so when they go to the college they can handle it and not be at their parents’ doorstep. These days, even graduate students and adult employees are coming back to their parents for help. We need to end that.

We’ve also been very active in providing stress management techniques. We partnered with the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, which runs programs in schools wanting to teach kids stress management techniques. Last year, 150 sophomores and juniors took part in their workshops. This year, they worked with the entire sophomore class.

And, our primary goal has been to move towards standards-based learning. That’s considered good practice–measuring kids against standards rather than seat time or homework completion. One of the benefits is it deemphasizes grades, and that’s a part of the stress equation. Some teachers have started grading with rubrics, which still translates to a bottom-line grade, but deemphasizes the 20 or 30 grades in a term, where every single piece of work counts.

One thing principals can do is determine what our relationship will be with the College Board. Some schools have dumped AP courses so that they can cover material in more depth. Still, we are stuck with state-mandated tests and, as a school, you have a legal and ethical obligation to cover the material that’s going to be on the test.

When students feel that their education is authentic, and when they have a good relationship with their teacher, they report feeling less stressed by the work, even if there’s a lot of it.

Any parting thoughts?
The sinking feeling in my gut is that we’re producing a generation which can perform very well on what we give them. They can study for a test and regurgitate the material, but the creativity, the individuality, the innovation, continue to be pushed aside. My sinking feeing is we’re producing a generation that will have the wrong skill set for what society really needs.

13 Comments on “Interview with Needham, MA, High School Principal, Who Has Taken Numerous Steps to Reduce Stress”

  1. FedUpMom says:

    Paul Richards said:

    **********************
    The sinking feeling in my gut is that we’re producing a generation which can perform very well on what we give them. They can study for a test and regurgitate the material, but the creativity, the individuality, the innovation, continue to be pushed aside. My sinking feeling is we’re producing a generation that will have the wrong skill set for what society really needs.

    ***********************

    Absolutely right. We are creating a generation of passive, soulless, conformist drones at a time when we need creativity, innovation and bold ideas (but really, doesn’t that describe all times?)

    Read The Price of Privilege, by Madeline Levine, for more on this.

    It’s why I have such mixed feelings when I hear that girls are “out-achieving” boys. What exactly are these girls excelling at? They’re working insane hours, with no time set aside for themselves, and not just at low pay — at no pay! They’re putting all their energies into doing what they’re told and trying to make their bosses (teachers) happy. Then they graduate into the working world where they are routinely taken advantage of.

    There was an article recently in the NYTimes by a young woman complaining that she and her recently-graduated high-achieving friends weren’t doing well in the work force, and among other things, didn’t know how to negotiate a raise. Well, of course not.

    Not that work for pay is the be-all and end-all, either. Our whole culture needs to slow down and appreciate all the important aspects of life that are not summed up by a score on a test, a grade on a report card, or a number on a pay slip (these are becoming rarer all the time in any case.)

    OK, momentarily stepping off my soap box —

    June 5th, 2009 at 10:03 am
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  2. Cheryl says:

    As a teacher and a parent, I’m all for no homework in elementary and reduced homework in middle/HS. However, as a former honor student and parent of a gifted child, I believe this business of removing all competition and not publicly honoring good students is BS. The football players got their pics in my hometown paper every weekend during the season. I got my name published in a list on a back page three times a year because I made honor roll. I mean, seriously. We should not stop honoring those who do well because it might make those who don’t feel bad. Please. That kind of thing is one of the big reasons our education system is failing.

    June 5th, 2009 at 6:35 pm
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  3. stressed_out_student says:

    Wow.
    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    Absolutely right. We are creating a generation of passive, soulless, conformist drones at a time when we need creativity, innovation and bold ideas.
    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    I certainly hope not. I like to think that I’m more than a conformist drone, but I can see where you are coming from. There are a lot of students I know like that, which is kind of scary. I guess we really are being controlled creatively. When I asked my humanities teacher if I could present my findings in a powerpoint/movie, she looked at me as if I was a droid, then repeated, ‘all work is to be presented exactly as described in your booklet.’
    Jeez. Don’t get your knickers in a twist. You’d think I’d asked her if the moon was made of cheese, and could we take a field trip there?
    stressed_out_student
    year 9, age 14

    June 6th, 2009 at 2:38 am
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  4. stressed_out_student says:

    by the way, it was FedUpMom i was quoting there.
    (i really like your ideas~ i’m kind of a newbie around here)

    June 6th, 2009 at 2:40 am
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  5. Mom Is Teaching » Blog Archive » Let’s Talk about More Homework says:

    […] of my favorite websites, Stop Homework has a great article or ten but one in particular about a school system that is doing their part in reducing stress and by doing so they are attempting to reduce […]

    June 10th, 2009 at 3:59 am
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  6. Trusted.MD Network says:

    Underground Moms…

    I guess I’d have to say I am an underground grandmother, as my youngest will turn 21 in December. But I was definitely a free-range mother, and do what I can to support my two stepsons & daughters-in-law in fear-free……

    September 1st, 2009 at 9:23 pm
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  7. Sara Forras says:

    Well, if you have to do homework, it just got a whole lot easier. There is a new site called http://www.domyassignment.com
    It allows students to collaborate online to complete homework faster. 100% free, and like having your own tutor 24/7.
    Post questions and get answers in video, audio, picture or text format. Great new site for students.

    September 4th, 2009 at 2:37 am
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  8. kapsul kulit manggis says:

    After I originally left a comment I seem to have clicked the
    -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now whenever a comment
    is added I receive four emails with the exact same comment.

    Is there a way you are able to remove me from that service?

    Many thanks!

    October 9th, 2014 at 6:31 am
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  9. Sara Bennett says:

    If you send me a private email and tell me where you left the original comment, I will do my best to turn off that notification. sara@stophomework.com

    October 9th, 2014 at 12:03 pm
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    November 7th, 2014 at 1:56 pm
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  11. Lula says:

    Great post.

    November 18th, 2014 at 4:14 am
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    November 28th, 2014 at 4:54 am
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  13. Jual Boneka Online says:

    Excellent post. I will be dealing with a few of these issues as well..

    December 16th, 2014 at 5:13 am
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