High-achieving schools can be high risk to mental health

There is increasing evidence that children attending high-achieving schools are at higher risk for maladjustment, emotional problems and substance abuse compared to national norms and that this risk continues throughout the lifespan (National Academies of Sciences, 2019).

It has long been recognised that exposure to conditions such as poverty, trauma and discrimination create high risk environments for adolescents.  And rightfully we are concerned about that and put resources into trying to address these factors.

But perhaps counter-intuitively and even perversely, attendance at high-achieving schools has recently been added to a “high risk” list by a report released in America on health equity for children (National Academies of Sciences, 2019).  The definition of high-achieving schools is not given in this report, but it is noted that such schools are often but not always associated with affluent communities, and can be private or public.

The report references peer reviewed studies conducted internationally, including in  America, Norway and Germany.  It is likely that the same trends could be found in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Parents, caregivers and learners often believe that attendance at a high-achieving school is a guarantee of success, and a much better place to learn that the other environments.  But we know that this is not always, or even mostly, the case.

The report offers that the reason that high achieving schools are “high risk” is the chronic stress that children experience to achieve well at school and in their extra-curricular activities.  It also references a study which found that high-achieving schools create lower educational expectations of the self due to social comparisons with a largely talented student population.

Of course we know that attendance at high-achieving schools is not the whole picture.  Indications are the pressure to succeed can start as early as preschool.  We also know that children in high-achieving schools can have chronically stressed and high-achieving parents.  That is not to say that there are not protective factors in place which mean that some children attending high achieving schools are just fine.

In conclusion, I would encourage you to have an open mind about where is the best place for your child to be educated.  And for us all to be mindful of our young people and their mental health, whatever school they attend.

National Academies of Sciences, E. a. M. (2019). https://doi.org/10.17226/25466


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