Stress and the AP/IB Student

USF researchers have looked into the impact of stress and pressure on high-achieving students transitioning to high school.

By Barbara Melendez

USF News

TAMAP, Fla. (Oct. 2, 2013) – For all students, the transition from middle school to high school means increased pressure and stress. A heightened version of these challenges comes with the territory for both Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) students, in particular. How else can high-achieving students hope to excel in rigorous academic programs en route to college?

Concerned parents and teachers sometimes wonder: Is the pressure too great? Is the stress too much of a strain? Might it lead to emotional meltdowns?

Two USF researchers in the College of Education wondered as well and decided to find out. In essence, they set out to determine whether participation in an accelerated curriculum increased stress and/or could be associated with psychological problems.

Based on their research, Associate Professors Shannon Suldo and Elizabeth Shaunessy-Dedrick have come to the conclusion that the demands made on AP and IB students by and large do not pose problems and, in fact, can provide some surprisingly constructive outcomes.

In a recent article in the “Journal of Advanced Academics,” they published their findings and discussed the main effects of time, gender and academic program in the context of their prior research on these students’ adjustment during the transition to high school.

It turns out that “ninth-grade students in the IB program reported more perceived stress than students in general education, at levels higher than what was present before the students began high school. Despite this increase in stress, the psychological functioning (life satisfaction, psychopathology, and social anxiety) of IB students was statistically similar or superior to the mental health indicators reported by their peers in general education,” Suldo said.

In an earlier study in 2006, Suldo and Shaunessy-Dedrick compared 122 students in IB programs with 176 students in the general education program at a high school in Florida.

“Despite the stress, which was definitely there, they were thriving. Traditional links between stress and poor functioning did not hold up. We were pleasantly surprised,” Suldo explained.

Was this just some kind of anomaly?

The two researchers set out to either confirm or contradict their findings last year. Data from self-report questionnaires were collected from 480 students (freshmen through seniors) in AP, IB or general education at four high schools this time. Findings were published in a recent article in “Psychology in the Schools.”

“We extended our research to bring in a bigger sample and after this study, we saw it wasn’t a fluke,” Suldo said. “We replicated our findings exactly. The good news is that these AP and IB students, too, were doing really well in spite of their elevated stress.”

In their current research project, funded by the federal Department of Education’s Institute of Educational Sciences, they hoped to find out why these students excel socially and emotionally. Is there something about the process of rising to meet tough expectations that makes a difference?

“We wanted to isolate those student behaviors and environmental factors that contribute to why some students do well and others do not. By identifying effective coping strategies successful students use to manage their academic demands, we can apply findings to the creation of interventions that will be helpful in further developing and supporting student success,” she said.

The elements that appeared to have an impact on AP and IB students’ ability to thrive were attachment to their teachers and school, as well as feelings of pride in what they were accomplishing in mastering their subject areas, motivated by their academic achievement and their hard work. And, according to Suldo, they managed their stress in sophisticated ways, by efficient time and task management along with turning to their families, to study groups and to their friends for support, when needed.

“They also knew how to take breaks and return to their studies. They knew how to keep focused on the benefits of being involved in college-level courses. What we were seeing were mature ways of coping. Having a full plate seems to force them to develop these skills earlier,” Suldo said.

Now that they see stress and pressure more as motivators rather than aggravators or harmful, Suldo and Shaunessy-Dedrick plan to put together curriculum supports and train teachers to use them.

“Many kids in AP and IB are great teachers and provide excellent advice on good responses to stressors,” Suldo said. “With what we learn from them we can put in place supports and pro-active methods that other students can possibly use.”

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563