How to Recognize and Rescue a Student with Burnout

The burnout phenomenon is often reserved for middle-aged career types, but I think that belief is misguided. Burnout affects all age types, and it is becoming much more common in high school and college students. The danger of always-on, the increasing demands of the fiercely competitive college admission process, and the ironically under-equipped adolescent mind make burnout a common issue. 

So, what does burnout look like? Although most movies portray sad music, aimless wandering, and lots of heavy sighing, burnout in real life is slightly more subtle. The latest research on burnout points to two main signs. First, students with burnout show declining adaptive energy, meaning they become less and less capable in the face of novel problems. In other words, they seem to lose the ability to bounce back. Like a soccer ball with a microscopic hole, they just don’t rebound the same when confronted with a hard surface. The second tell-tale sign of burnout is a graying out of moments of joy. You really have to listen for this one. Students fighting burnout might not be as excited about the Astros playoff win as they were a few weeks ago. They might not fist pump voraciously when they get a good test grade back, or they might seem disinterested in small social gatherings and the other subtle joys of high school. 

You can also spot burnout by its effects. Burnout is more than a lack of motivation. It has trackable consequences. Burnout often yields a higher rate of error. Is your child making simple calculation errors in chemistry class or leaving typos in his or her English essay? Burnout might be to blame. When burnout strikes, we become less vigilant about our work, and we’re also less likely to double-check. The only goal is to get the project finished as we search for a brief moment of respite. 

Students facing burnout also lack the ability to distinguish between real threats and potential ones. For instance, your child might become a tad bit vitriolic around the house, picking fights with older siblings over perceived slights. This filial tet-a-tets seemed infrequent before, but now they occur rhythmically because the burned-out student perceives every stray comment as a threat to the ego. This dangerous by-product of burnout quickly becomes a negative feedback loop, as supportive relationships become strained and the student becomes isolated, increasing the impact of burnout. 

Lastly, students might experience a physical manifestation of “symbolic threats.” In other words, students work themselves up so much that their burnout stress produces physical symptoms of increased illness, lethargy, and headaches. These physical manifestations can be crippling to any student’s quest for academic success. 

Once we recognize burnout, we must take action to correct it. The solutions combat the signs discussed above. First, help your students find a way again. Academic success for its own sake is hollow. Help students figure out why they want to succeed in the classroom. A strong why is a great way to combat burnout. Second, encourage your student to seek social support. Retreating into the upstairs bedroom to binge-watch Netflix is counterproductive. Encourage social ties before and during burnout. Lastly, track gratitude and joy to combat the grey effect we discussed earlier. Ask your students to produce three things they are grateful for or to write a “win list” every day to recognize achievements. Following these simple steps will eradicate even the worst cases of burnout. 

For more information on habit change and other executive function topics, please check out our other resources. If you want to learn more about our flagship academic coaching and tutoring program, reach out today!

Evan Weinberger

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