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For International Baccalaureate students, managing school can be daunting - but there are solutions

By Sereene Darwiesh, Mariamawat Endalkachew and Kelmya Sanker

Youthcast Media Group®

IB stands for International Baccalaureate. Or so they say. Sometimes it feels as if it stands for Immense Burden instead.

Ellie Davis is a senior here at Annandale High School. She is a candidate for an IB diploma who takes both standard-level courses and higher-level IB courses. She’s one of the nearly 2 million nationwide who take IB courses, including an estimated 150 students here.

“There’s so much work being assigned at once on top of college applications,” Davis told us. “And it feels like I’m suffocating at times.”

We know the feeling. We are seniors taking IB courses at Annandale, too, and we think teachers have been tougher on us since we have come back from the online learning caused by Covid-19. Teachers often granted extensions and gave less homework during the Covid years.

Sereene Darwiesh is an IB student at Annandale High, and like many other IB students, the workload sometimes gets to her (Photo courtesy of Sereene)

Last academic year, when we returned to school full time, teachers allowed for some additional leniency to transition us back. But this academic year we found that this sort of leeway was no longer there for us. And this has greatly increased the stress we are under.

Students who pursue an IB diploma are required to complete at least six IB courses (and pass the corresponding outside exams) plus submit an independent, 4,000-word, self-directed research paper. We also have to complete various activities under CAS (which stands for creativity, activity, and service) and take a course in Theory of Knowledge that is designed to get us thinking critically about the nature of knowledge and how we know what we say we know.

It’s a lot.

Yes, on one level this is what we signed up for. But adding the academic stress of IB coursework to the normal stresses of high school can lead to mental-health issues. We spoke about this with Elizabeth Shaunessy-Dedrick, a professor in the Exceptional Student Education Program at the University of South Florida, who studies the social and emotional needs of high school students in IB and AP (Advanced Placement) programs.

She said her research shows that students who take these high-level courses do have slightly higher stress levels than students who do not take those courses. Still, she said there are ways to cope with the workload required by IB and AP programs.

“The bulk of the findings that we have that make the greatest difference for AP and IB students actually come in a category called time- and task-management,” she told us. “So things like learning to prioritize.”

She said an example of this is sitting down on Sunday night and going over what your obligations are for the coming week and estimating how much time they will take. “Not everybody has that executive-function skill,” she said, but you can learn it.

Cell phones are a big issue with students who are procrastinators. Shaunessy-Dedrick said she suggests putting the phone away for specified periods: Work for an hour on homework, then reward yourself by checking your phone after the hour is up.

“I realize some people are really connected to their phones,” she said. “They may need to practice distancing themselves from their phones until they can get away longer.”

Shaunessy-Dedrick said her research shows that students who participate in extracurricular activities, such as sports teams or clubs at school, had better overall mental health and academic success than other students – and markedly better than students who had after-school jobs. “The more hours you worked an after-school job,” she said, “the lower your academic profile was, and the more stress you had.”

When we told Shaunessy-Dedrick that we feel less supported this year than we did in the online learning years, she said she wasn’t surprised to hear that.

Mariamawat Endalkachew, like Sereene and other IB students in Annandale, feel like they're not receiving as much support in their IB classes than they were during COVID (Photo courtesy of Mariamawat)

“I think what happened during Covid was probably, ‘Alright, this is really untenable, we're not going to even be able to count your exams.’ In some cases, I know in Florida, I don't think they even gave IB exams for some time. So there was a point of like, ‘Well, we’re going to enjoy learning, and there’s no pressure on you to perform.’ That's the complete opposite of probably where they are now.

“So it’s going to be a steady return, I predict, to the old norm (of high pressure). It would be a great opportunity to introduce a new norm. And that’s always possible. It just will take a lot of advocacy. And students can be part of that advocacy.”

Shaunessy-Dedrick told us she thinks that schools have a responsibility to teach more than the IB curriculum, but also how to manage our lives around the stresses of the demanding coursework.

“Our responsibility as educators is to prepare students to learn how to care for themselves, and learn how to function in a way that supports their happiness,” she said. “And that we have a responsibility as educators to teach that, or help them learn those skills beyond the ABCs of learning. And I think in this case, this is one of those times when we need to find a way to teach students not only how to succeed in these highly demanding academic courses, succeed academically, but balance that with succeeding socially and emotionally.”

And if that comes to pass, maybe we would come to think of IB as Intelligently Built.

Sereene Darwiesh and Mariamawat Endalkachew are seniors in the IB program at Annandale High School in Virginia. Kelmya Sanker is a senior in the IB program at Benjamin Banneker High School in Washington, D.C. They worked with Youthcast Media Group® in the 2022-23 school year to write and report this story. YMG is a nonprofit organization that teaches high school students across the country to report ona health and social issues that impact communities of color, and the solutions to these issues.


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