How to Help High-Achieving Students Manage Stress

School administrators at Howard County Public Schools (HCPS) in Maryland were surprised to learn that high-achieving students wanted to get rid of class rank—a measure of student success that weighs higher-level classes differently when calculating grade point average. The class ranking system created an unnecessary burden, students said, and discouraged them from taking the classes they really wanted. 

“Kids were telling us, ‘I know I need to take AP math instead of art because it impacts my class rank, even though I love art,’” said Kami Wagner, a counselor at HCPS. “Class rank doesn’t mean anything in the college admissions process, so removing it was our attempt as a school system to communicate to our high-achieving students that we value them equally.” 

From enrolling in multiple college-level classes to filling their weekly schedules with extracurricular activities, high-achieving students are propelled to undertake rigorous paths of study in the pursuit of excellence—sometimes at the expense of their own mental health. For those in highly competitive academic environments, general academic performance and the college application process can result in chronic stress. And when unforeseen events like the COVID-19 pandemic or major natural disasters occur, temporarily transforming educational experiences, student stress can be exacerbated as teens adjust and adapt to new norms in life and in school. How can students, parents and educators work cohesively to implement strategies to help manage stress without impeding on pathways to achievement?

Traits of High-Achieving Students and Stress Factors

According to the National Association of Gifted Children (NAGC), high-achieving students often have a number of characteristics that influence how they respond to stressors, which can include:

  • Ambition, persistence and goal-oriented behavior
  • Diverse sets of interests, abilities and passions 
  • Heightened sensitivity and emotional depth 
  • High expectations of self and others
  • Strong self-awareness
  • High energy and enthusiasm 
  • Intellectual risk-taking and curiosity 
  • Tendency to compare self with peers 
  • Desire to positively change the world 

But how high achievers experience stress can depend on where their motivation comes from, explained Shelagh Gallagher, a lifelong educator in gifted education, fellow at the Institute of Educational Advancement and member of the NAGC Board of Directors. If they are diligently pursuing their true passions and pacing self-determined goals, a healthy amount of stress can serve as a vehicle for self-fulfillment. But if they push themselves too hard, stress has the potential to overwhelm and become difficult to cope with. 


“It’s important for students to understand the line between pursuing excellence, which facilitates creative production, and perfectionism, which can be damaging.”

“When it’s expected of high achievers to be perfect and always deliver the best results just because they are high achieving, that can create self-doubt,” Gallagher said. “It’s important for students to understand the line between pursuing excellence, which facilitates creative production, and perfectionism, which can be damaging.”

A student’s intrinsic drive to succeed may also be largely shaped by a number of external factors.  

Factors That Influence a Student’s Drive  

Schools

According to Gallagher, school culture plays a role in influencing how students approach their education. This can lead to high-achieving students becoming consumed with wanting to accomplish so many things at once and pursue every opportunity, which can be stressful. “Schools tend to reinforce fast thinking over reflective thinking. Teachers call on the first hand raised, and tests are timed,” Gallagher said. “So schools have a reward system in place for students who do more.”

Parents

Wagner said that she noticed parents and families of high achievers tended to impose a narrow scope of what defines success on their children, establishing a disconnect between what students actually want and what others want for them. 

“It’s this idea of, ‘I will only be accomplished if I go to the best college, but there’s only a limited amount of success to go around because it’s so highly competitive,’” she said.

Colleges

Parents and teachers aren’t the only ones perpetuating the myth of a singular track to academic success: Gallagher asserted that most top-tier colleges expect students to load their schedules with the most AP courses, score the highest marks on standardized tests and maximize their time outside of school with leadership roles, extracurriculars and community service projects in order to increase their chances of admission.

Balancing all of these demands while trying to navigate their individual journeys toward success can lead to burnout and shift their focus away from personal growth.

How Has the Pandemic Exacerbated Stress Experienced by High-Achieving Students?

When high-achieving students internalize stress, it can take a toll on their mental health and lead to unhealthy behavioral responses, such as:

  • Underachievement in school work 
  • Loss of interest in passions
  • Nonresponsive attitude
  • Withdrawal from peers
  • Poorer hygiene
  • Substance misuse 
  • Development of eating disorders 

Being forced into virtual classrooms has limited socialization, which can be a unique challenge for high achievers who rely heavily on receiving validation from their peers, Gallagher explained. 

“When you’re 1 in 100 as a high achiever, it’s hard enough to find that social connection with like-minded peers who understand these shared life experiences,” said Gallagher. “To be separated from them has a tough impact.”

Aside from the socialization aspect, switching to online learning has also upended many students’ entire approach to classroom engagement. A 2020 study analyzing how COVID-19 has affected gifted students’ well-being reported that many high-achieving students felt that remote learning was not intellectually stimulating, lacked active participation and hindered their ability to fully optimize their potential. 

How Can Educators Help Students Manage Stress?

Although stress can feel overwhelming in the moment, there are opportunities for students to practice self-care. Educators can help by addressing stress-related concerns for students, Wagner said. 

“Continuing to shove work down their throats is not the answer,” she said. “Otherwise kids won’t show up, and that’s hard to tell in virtual land.”


“Perfectionist kids really need adults in their lives who let them know that they are loved and admired even when they’re not perfect—or especially when they’re not perfect.”

Gallagher said parents and educators should be able to set realistic expectations for their high-achieving students and help them learn how to separate their grades from their sense of self-worth. 

“Perfectionist kids really need adults in their lives who let them know that they are loved and admired even when they’re not perfect—or especially when they’re not perfect,” she said. 

8 Tips for Educators on Supporting Students Through Stress

  1. Listen and hold nonjudgmental conversations.
  2. Set aside a 20-minute safe space just to talk. 
  3. Recognize patterns or lapses in work completion. 
  4. Notice when students look stressed on camera. 
  5. Expand pathways to other areas of success. 
  6. Emphasize pursuing goals over time.
  7. Affirm that imperfection is okay. 
  8. Support students making their own choices. 

High achievers are generally very grateful when provided an opportunity to sink into their learning and spend adequate time with an idea or topic that they feel passionate about, Gallagher said. And while school culture has a tendency to emphasize and narrow in on student achievement, it’s equally important to incorporate mindfulness and mental health into academic priorities. 

Gallagher used guided imagery, such as “the butterfly of transformation” exercise, to help her high-achieving students calm their active minds and regulate their emotions.

Butterfly of Transformation Guided Meditation

1

Breathe slowly and deliberately.

2

Imagine transforming from a caterpillar to a butterfly.

  • Visualize what it’s like to be in a cocoon, sheltered and safe. 
  • Envision dissolving from the cocoon and breaking free. 
  • Reform into a butterfly and spread your wings.
3

Discuss feelings toward risk-taking versus playing it safe.

Strategies for High-Achieving Students to Manage Stress

There are also student-led strategies that can help alleviate some stress. Wagner and Gallagher both said that high achievers struggle with issues such as negative self-talk and working on autopilot. According to Wagner, they also have a tendency to lose sight of themselves and do not always take care of themselves when they need to. Simple self-reflection can help students determine whether they need to engage in self-care.

Self-Reflection Questions for Students

  • “Is this healthy for me right now?”
  • “Am I working on autopilot?”
  • “Should I take a moment to pause?”
  • “Am I taking care of myself?”
  • “Can I try to take one thing at a time?”
  • “Can I give myself permission to let go?”
  • “How can I relax at this moment?”
  • “Am I speaking negatively toward myself?”
  • “What are my personal goals?”

High-achieving students may struggle to cope with the stress of studying remotely and living in social isolation while still working hard to accomplish their dreams, but it’s important they are able to take moments to check in with themselves. People in their circle can help, too, by supporting them and making sure their needs aren’t forgotten, Gallagher said.

“At the end of the day, high-achieving students want what we all want: to be seen, accepted and loved for who we are,” she said. “And if they make missteps along the way, they want to be valued as human, just like the rest of us.”

This piece was last updated January 2021.