2015 News

Multiyear Study Investigates Stress in IB and AP Students

IES Grant

photo of Dr. Shannon Suldo (L) and Dr. Elizabeth Shaunessy-Dedrick (R)Dr. Shannon Suldo (L) and Dr. Elizabeth Shaunessy-Dedrick (R)

Students taking accelerated coursework such as Advanced Placement (AP) classes and the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program face many challenges with their academic work. Along with the academic challenge, a growing body of research is showing that high achieving students also face much higher levels of stress than their classmates, while having fewer support mechanisms within the school. Research being led by USF College of Education Associate Professor Elizabeth Shaunessy-Dedrick Ph.D. and Professor Shannon Suldo Ph.D., is examining the causes of that stress, how it impacts students, and what can be done to help an underserved part of the student population.

"There's an assumption since these kids are doing so well in school, they don't need a whole lot of extra support," said Shaunessy-Dedrick. "There's a misunderstanding of what the needs of these kids are, so our goal is to address something that is typically not addressed at all in school."

The seeds were planted back in 2004, when Shaunessy-Dedrick and Suldo noticed that a high percentage of students in accelerated programs had significantly higher levels of stress compared to the rest of the school population. Their research found the higher pressure academic environment produced increased levels of stress, caused increased mental health problems and reduced happiness, fewer friendships, and disengagement from school. Through the research, they also found advanced students (those with high school GPAs of 3.0 or higher and scores of 3 or higher on AP Exams) with lower stress levels had better coping strategies.

"What we heard from our school partners is 'we want to catch these kids before they are too far along in their AP and IB classes,'" said Suldo. "So now we're developing a universal curriculum for freshmen who are entering their first IB class or AP class"

The study is a four-year grant, funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the statistics, research, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Education. The grant is highly competitive, as less than ten percent of proposals to the IES are funded. This is the second phase of research in this area for Shaunessy-Dedrick and Suldo being funded by IES, and the $1.5 million grant runs through 2019. The new grant is funding research to develop interventions to support youth, and developing methods of communicating effective strategies to students that's feasible and useful.

"Because of the stress levels, all kids could benefit from better ways of dealing with stress," said Suldo.

The curriculum the team is developing will focus on good coping strategies, how to manage stress, how to connect with teachers in school through different cognitive strategies and positive behavioral strategies. The curriculum is a holistic approach to helping students. The strategies will also be shared with teachers and parents to provide a comprehensive support network for more advanced students. But the curriculum being developed will have lasting benefits beyond high school.

"These strategies will help them in high school be successful academically and emotionally, but really throughout their lives," said Shaunessy-Dedrick. "When they successfully navigate difficult high school settings, they can go on and be successful in college in high demand settings and even in workplace situations where there's a lot of stress, they'll have the skills to cope with those situations."

Over the next four years the research team will be working with a total of twenty schools spread across three districts. A total of one-thousand students will be participating in the research. It's an interdisciplinary project, which brings together researchers from the Department of Educational and Psychological Studies (EPS) and the Department of Teaching and Learning (T&L), including four tenure-track professors, two post-doctoral fellows and eight graduate students.

With every public high school in the state offering AP classes, the research Shaunessy-Dedrick and Suldo are doing can benefit students in any high pressure environment.

"These kids have the option to really go the distance," said Shaunessy-Dedrick. "Many of them do quite well, but so many more could do better with just a little guidance on how to manage these challenges."