Spreading like a Disease, Academic Burnout

Skyla Thomas and Sofi Ridgway

As the second semester comes to an end, summer feels so close yet far. For many students, motivating themselves to finish the school year feels impossible. Physical and mental burnout could be due to mental health, a lack of self-care, over-commitment and nonessential assignments.

Tami Wall, one of Redwood’s guidance counselors, helps students navigate high school. 

“Learning how to manage time is a day-to-day responsibility. But the [Redwood school administration] does not want people to avoid school or avoid responsibility, because it then makes it more stressful for them,” Wall said. 

Avoidance is a regular response to burnout but what leads to burnout and lack of motivation?

In an April 2023 Bark survey of Redwood students, 39 percent of the students at Redwood believed their main trigger for burnout and lack of motivation was ‘useless’ assignments. Walking into class and being bombarded with a 7-page assignment due at the end of class practically begs students to copy and paste their answers from Google. Wall agrees that  “useless” assignments are never the goal of Redwood’s curriculum. 

 “I can tell you, it’s not the goal of our school to have useless points or assignments, that’s not what a grade should be,” Wall said.

This frustration in class often increases the number of students skipping. An October 2022 Bark survey revealed that 52 percent of students previously skipped class without a parent’s approval. The ability to skip class increases as students gain independence by getting their license. But many students skip class to avoid tests, projects and assignments and overtime this work piles up. 

“I think the amount of missed instruction happening at Redwood, Tamalpais [High School] and Archie [WilliamsHigh School] is a really large issue in our school district and it puts hardship on the whole system,” Wall said.

Illustration by Anna Youngs

The lack of interest in school adds to burnout but the over-investment in school also contributes. This can be through sports, advanced placement (AP)/honors classes or obsessing over college from such a young age. In the April 2023 Cub Bark survey 9 percent of students viewed over-commitment as their main source of burnout and 15 percent said it was due to sports. 

Nicole Graydon is a Track and Cross Country coach at Redwood who has experience with overly committed students.

 “[A student that] was valedictorian a few years ago was a four-year cross country [athlete]. And she ended up only being on three-year track and field because she was trying to be valedictorian. She had way too many APs,” Graydon said.

In order to maintain valedictorian status, the student was unable to run track her senior year. Whether your goal is to be top of your class or not, many students struggle with being overly devoted to school, especially in junior and senior year. The pressure to make yourself unique to colleges is extreme everywhere, especially at Redwood where college and GPA are highly focused on. Deanna Haurie, an interning Redwood psychologist, has seen how stress about college comes as early as freshman year.

 “Students often come in stressed about being on top of their grades. Plus that they need to get a 4.0 or higher and it can be really intense for a first-semester freshman,” Haurie said. 

 According to Niche, a market leader that connects colleges and schools with students and families, 95 percent of students and parents agree that students at Redwood are competitive. A competitive environment can allow students to thrive and feel motivated to do their best. However, when having a 4.0 becomes the ‘norm’ at Redwood, it can feel like a never-ending cycle of exhaustion. Wall deals with many students that are overwhelmed by this underlying pressure to achieve what this ‘norm’ is at Redwood. 

“Acceptance rates of colleges going down have been affecting students and how they look at their colleges,” Wall said. 

Especially at the end of grading periods or the second semester is when student’s stress begins to rise. 

“At the end of each grading term is when students see their final number grade published and that can tend to create some feelings of inadequacy. Students tend to really tie that number to who they are as a person and [think] that it somehow reflects on their work habits or internal abilities,”  Haurie said. 

 In order to combat this issue, students load up on community service, sports and clubs to make themselves stand out to colleges. Managing all of this and maintaining good grades and mental health is incredibly difficult.  When doing extracurriculars it’s hard to know when enough is enough.

“Your sport should be your outlet and when it stops being [that] you should stop [the sport],“ Graydon said. 

When school gets more difficult, many students lose track of their priorities and start valuing grades over mental health. In the Bark April 2023 survey, 26 percent of students viewed lack of sleep as their main contributor to loss of motivation and burn out. 

The most important thing for performing and feeling your best is treating yourself well. Having the Wellness Center at Redwood is an amazing resource that students can and should take full advantage of. 

Redwood nurse Mayalani Callaghan works with students with physical effects from mental health issues. 

“There’s some kids that come into the wellness center and want to go home. You can see the bags under their eyes and they can barely keep their eyes open,” Callaghan said. 

Second semester can be a time of excessive stress for many reasons. These expectations of high achievement can be an underlying problem for many students’ mental health issues that we see very regularly. After spring break there are eight straight weeks of school without a break. Those remaining weeks are packed with finals, AP testing and overall stress. It’s very important that we address and try to solve some of these recurring trends: losing interest in school, lack of sleep and stress leading to loss of motivation. Learning to figure out where your priorities are and then putting those first is important to your overall well being. The better your mental health is, the more you can thrive in your high school experience.