Overachieving Students Hear a New Message: Lighten Up

Annie Austin, left, and Ike McCreery, both 16, participate in an after-school meditation class at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda.
Annie Austin, left, and Ike McCreery, both 16, participate in an after-school meditation class at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. (Photos By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Eleven students are breathing deeply in the darkened classroom at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. They're relaxing their facial muscles, loosening their bellies and trying to focus on the soles of their feet.

It's not the kind of after-school activity one would expect at this Washington area high school known for academic rigor. But these days, some educators and parents are trying to teach students at Whitman and other top schools a new skill: how to dial it down, pull back and relax.

In a region where the high school experience has evolved into an advanced placement-fueled academic arms race, parents and school officials are starting to do the unthinkable: They're saying no to adolescents who want to load up on AP courses, schedule eight-period days and join the school newspaper, track team and high school band at the same time.

Instead, they're encouraging them to take honors instead of AP courses, instituting homework-free weekends and changing class schedules to give students time to breathe and regroup between subjects. And at Whitman, they're teaching them to meditate.

There has always been stress in students' lives, but parents, counselors and experts say there is more today than ever. And teens say most often it is schoolwork and college applications that are putting them on edge.

In a 2005 poll, conducted by The Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, more than half the D.C. area adolescents surveyed -- 58 percent -- said school was their biggest cause of stress. About 35 percent of local teens said they experienced stress frequently, compared with 27 percent of teens nationwide.

"People make it seem like you can't be competitive if you don't take a thousand AP courses," said Elaine Singerman, a junior at Oakton High School in Vienna. "It's like our educational system is eating us alive."

At Whitman, the effort to calm students has taken the form of weekly meditation sessions. Every Wednesday, meditation instructor Jonathan Foust leads the group through a series of breathing exercises -- a 60-minute respite from homework, taxing extracurriculars and the daily stress of being a teen.

On a recent day, a mix of boys and girls in hoodies and T-shirts gathered in Room C-124. After they arranged their desks in a circle and the fluorescent lights were dimmed, Foust went around the room and asked them about their stressors. Schoolwork was No. 1 on everyone's list.

Foust then led the students through the exercises: encouraging them to take deep breaths, clear their heads and relax their arms. He had them meditate sitting down and standing up. When a series of announcements over the PA system threatened to break the reverie, Foust gently reminded his pupils that being able to screen out such noise is critical to the art of relaxing.

"It helps you escape for a while," said Sammi Massey, 14.

By the end of the hour-long session, one student was so relaxed -- or, perhaps, so exhausted from a long day at school -- he fell asleep.

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