Stressed Students need SPACE to Thrive

This blog was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse on June 5, 2018.

The 10-month sprint of academic and co-curricular activities that we call the school year can overwhelm even the most well-adjusted students. In fact, high achieving students may be among the most vulnerable.

In Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy Successful Kids, Denise Pope, Maureen Brown and Sarah Miles of Challenge Success, make a case that we, parents and educators, have created a pressure cooker over time that may not be serving our students well today.

They offer an alternative approach to preparing students for the future without trading it for their present. As we celebrate the third anniversary of the book’s publication, the authors’ ideas and methods are spreading and taking root.

In a series of articles, I explore with you their research findings and their framework for change, which they call “SPACE.” Educators and parents interested in growing students who are happy, healthy and adaptive, read on.


The premise of the book and the motivation behind it are summarized nicely in the introduction and first chapter. The opening illustration is prosaic but it hit me between the eyes. It is the typical weekday school-year schedule for many, if not most, of our kids today.

The schedule runs from “Wake up” at 6:15 a.m. (even though I see young children already climbing onto buses in my neighborhood that early) to an entry at 11:30 p.m., which seems more like a tapering off than a conclusion: “Bedtime, depending on homework load.” In between, this lather, rinse, repeat weekday cycle is largely devoted to curricular or co-curricular commitments.


The authors use this as a set-up to talk about the one thing omitted from that schedule, sleep! It seems to be the fungible part of the 24-hour cycle that every other part of our kids’ day wants a piece of. Do you know how much sleep our high school children should be getting at night? I really didn’t. I know how much teenagers want sleep – at least during the day, but need? I wasn’t sure. The authors cite a 2010 recommendation by Eaton et al. that teens get “approximately nine hours of sleep for healthy development.”

Do the math. That leaves 15 hours, which seems like a gracious plenty to get the rest of life done, but not if we, the adults in their lives, are going to program (at least) 17 hours five days a week. Pope and her fellow researchers found in a 2013 study at what they call “high-achieving schools,” that “high school students get, on average, about six and a half hours of sleep each night.”


Lack of sleep is not the only effect. The book’s analysis links over-programming with increased stress and self-destructive behaviors in teenagers, including cutting, use of stimulant drugs and alcohol as well as cheating. And here’s where it really rang true for me, having served both in the college and independent school world:

The effects of this unhealthy stress and overload reach beyond high school; nationwide, 50 percent of college students have felt overwhelming anxiety and 30 percent reported that they felt so depressed it was difficult to function (American College Health Association 2012). Many students and parents feel they have no choice but to continue day after day at this frantic pace. They believe the prospect of a good education and future employment and security are at risk if they don’t. (Pope, Brown and Miles 2015)

As an educational administrator at both the college and K12 levels and as a parent, I have to ask myself: How have I contributed to this pressure cooker? And, now, how can we contribute to positive change?


To affect lasting change, Pope et al. focus on schools and recommend a specific process, which their organization, Challenge Success, tailors for each setting and intentionally refines over time. There are some common characteristics though:

1. Involve all stakeholders, including students, “to identify problems and work on solutions.”
2. Create a team that will see the change through.
3. Dig deep to distinguish symptoms from root causes.
4. Go slow. Pick one or two issues and learn from the process for the future.
5. Translate ideas into action with relentless focus on parent education and faculty development.

Once a school has a plan, the authors advocate accountability through benchmarking progress. As their approach is research-based, follow-up surveys and investigations are important to determine whether the desired change was actually achieved.


The balance of the book is divided into chapters that explain the framework or the lens through which the authors view the problems and the solutions. It’s easy to remember. Providing our students the SPACE they need to be kids and to grow into healthy, happy adults may boil down to this:

Students’ schedule and the use of time
Project- and problem- based learning
Alternative and authentic assessment
Climate of care
• Education for parents, students and faculty.

(Pope, Brown and Miles 2015)

So, I am starting to understand the first part of the title “Overloaded.” That is concerning enough to me. However, I want to know more about the second claim, “Underprepared.” If we are overloading our children, it would be with good intentions – right? To prepare them for college and for life. Maybe the stressful schedule is the temporary price we (and our kids) have to pay for success later.

I have a feeling that Denise Pope, Maureen Brown and Sarah Miles don’t think so. Let’s find out together.

With more than 25 years of educational leadership experience, David Rowe is the former president of a national liberal arts college and of the 9th largest co-educational independent day school in the United States. David serves as a Strategic Partner and Adviser for growth-oriented adaptive leaders in K12 and higher education. A husband and father of two sons, he and his family live in Windermere, Florida.