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Sink or swim: Coping with the pressures of a selective school

Selective schools
There's a lot of pressure to succeed for students in selective schools. Source: Shutterstock

As public schools that cater to high-achieving students, selective schools remain a popular choice for the many parents seeking an environment that will help their child succeed.

Studying among a group of gifted students can help keep adolescents on their toes, but the highly competitive environment can also come at a cost if the pressure isn’t handled well. 

Some selective schools may have a history of students gaining entry to the world’s top universities, and later go on to have successful and financially-rewarding careers – sometimes in ‘tough’ fields such as medicine or law. 

However, when a students’ self-worth is tied to their achievements, the pressure to succeed in every part of school life is exacerbated.

Step into the lives of students at selective schools

selective schools

Students at selective schools can feel happy and comfortable if the right actions are taken. Source: Shutterstock

Selective schools are typically results-oriented, which can push students to perform their best and cause significant emotional and mental distress if they’re unable to cope. 

In an NBC15 report, high school senior Emma Johnston told Ivanhoe she takes “AP Calculus, AP Physics II, and AP Gov.”

But if other activities, such as a part-time job, sports and community service, are thrown into the mix, sleeping before midnight becomes a rare occurrence. 

“But if I have a test the next day or I’m not super confident on the material, it could be two or three in the morning,” said high school senior Grace Koppelman.

It’s a different challenge for students who feel they don’t fit the mould of students at their school. 

Last year, Liesl Chen, a former student of James Ruse Agricultural High, wrote on SBS: “I didn’t want to pursue medicine, nor law. Yet, I felt like I had to because that was what ‘James Ruse students did’”, she said.  

The selective high school in New South Wales, Australia, has been dubbed a “genius factory” and has consistently educated students who produce outstanding academic results. These students also dominate the state’s top medicine, law and engineering schools.

Chen wrote that she was passionate about the arts and chose subjects like Japanese and drama for her senior years.

“In a school so intensely focused on academics, the creative arts are unfortunately looked down upon by some students.” 

Speaking to the Ivanhoe, Nina Kumar, CEO of Authentic Connections, a non-profit group, said students from high-achieving schools often suffer higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance use and rule breaking, among other things.

At some schools, the rates of anxiety are six times higher than the national average, she adds.

Surviving and thriving in selective schools

selective schools

Strong social support can help students cope with stress and pressure. Source: Shutterstock

While there are numerous benefits to attending selective schools, how can parents and teachers help students cope and excel in a stressful academic environment?

Kumar explained that good social support and parent-child relationships can help. Parents should keep a balanced view of their kids’ accomplishments, including less emphasis on external goals such as getting into a prestigious college or a high-paying future career. 

Instead, parents can talk about the benefits of a class or activity, such as whether it’s fun, if it brings them joy and whether it helps them connect with others. This additional support can help them cope while they navigate the high school years.

While the final year in high school isn’t easy, Chen believes that studying subjects students are interested in makes it all the more enjoyable. 

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