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January 31, 2013

From pets to 'recess': High school stress relief

MOUNT PROSPECT, Ill. — The four-legged member of the counseling team at the high school in suburban Chicago waits patiently, as a crush of students fills the hallways. Her tail wags with the first pat on the head, then another and another.

"Puppy! Ohhh, puppy dog!" one teenager croons, as he affectionately tousles the ears of the 18-month-old golden retriever. Junie began her role as a "therapy dog" at Prospect High School less than four months ago.

It's just one of a number of ways high schools across the country are trying to address what some call an epidemic of stressed-out, overwhelmed students.

Some schools now offer yoga classes or teach relaxation techniques in the classroom. Others, from California to Minnesota and New Jersey, are instituting homework-free nights or are offering a bit of free time between classes — the equivalent of recess for teenagers.

In Maine, at least two high schools have converted classrooms into "wellness rooms" staffed by volunteer professionals who offer massage therapy and other stress-reducing treatments for students, with parental permission.

The idea is to help them slow down and cope with their problems in an overpacked, 24-7 world, where many students stay up late to finish homework and fall asleep with their cellphones in their hands.

"Things cycle for them so quickly. So it's hard for them to be able to develop the patience, or the ability to think something through and to realize that it may take some time for it to get resolved," says Douglas Berg, a social worker at Prospect High, where he and other staff are seeing more students hospitalized with anxiety and panic attacks related to stress.

Some might question whether a dog in the school corridors, or a 20-minute break, addresses the deeper issues at hand. But many school officials say they have to do what they can to alleviate the growing pressure to achieve. That pressure, they say, has only been heightened by the commonly held belief that it's tougher than ever for a young person to make it in this economy.

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