In recent years, student burnout—which is the mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress, often tied to academic pressures—has become an alarming and growing epidemic in our education system.

Burnout is not just an adult phenomenon. It's real, it's happening, and it's affecting children in schools nationwide. Perfectionism, overwhelming feelings, and overcommitment are pushing students to their limits and, in some cases, beyond.

Students today face a significant mental health crisis, and burnout is fueling that fire. According to an American Psychological Association (APA) survey, over half of high school students are regularly labeled as stressed or burnt out. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over a quarter (29 percent) of high school students report suffering from poor mental health, and the rate at which children are diagnosed with anxiety and depression is steadily increasing.

Burnout affects students across the spectrum, from general education students to special education students and gifted students, meaning the phenomenon can manifest in various ways. However, one thing is consistent: burnout can lead to severe, long-term consequences.

It’s often assumed that burnout in students is temporary, leading to a decline in academic performance and social interactions. However, research shows that the stressors students face today can create long-term mental health issues. Therefore, it’s crucial for educators, parents, and school professionals to understand the signs and severity of burnout to take proactive measures to address this critical issue.

Identifying Burnout

The stressors that contribute to burnout can range from an overwhelming workload to a lack of social support or even the pressure to excel in one's studies.

On the surface, burnout can result in a decrease in motivation, poor concentration, and even a dip in academic performance.

However, the severe impact of burnout can manifest in various, less obvious forms, including drastic changes in sleep patterns, diminished interest in previously enjoyed activities, chronic fatigue, and recurring sickness due to a weakened immune system.

Some of the most common signs of burnout in school children include:

  • Emotional fatigue and exhaustion
  • Physical fatigue or lack of energy
  • Reduced academic performance
  • Difficulty concentrating and disinterest in learning
  • Disengagement and alienation (e.g., withdrawing from peers and losing interest in social activities)
  • Negative attitude toward school
  • Mental health issues, such as symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Physical health issues, such as headaches and poor sleep disturbances

Which Students Are at Risk of Burnout?

The symptoms of burnout vary greatly from student to student. For example, burnout in general education students can lead to a decline in academic performance, hindering their chances of gaining admission to competitive colleges and universities. However, for special needs students or students with developmental disabilities, these symptoms can often be compounded and may present as increased frustration, heightened anxiety, or an increase in disruptive behaviors.

For special needs students, the stress of coping with these challenges can further compound feelings of exhaustion, leading to a vicious cycle of burnout and academic struggle. As a result, these students may require additional support and accommodations to combat burnout and ensure their academic success.

One recent study highlights how autistic participants were more likely to have thought about dropping out, alongside higher burnout and greater anxiety, depression, and stress. In the study, autistic students mentioned low mental well-being as the main reason they were thinking about dropping out.

Therefore, to help students at risk of burnout, it’s essential to employ high-quality support services in schools and to train school staff on mental health, fostering the idea that learning should support and inspire our students rather than burn them out.

In addition to neurodiverse students and students with developmental disabilities, “gifted” students or students enrolled in Gifted and Talented (GT) programs are highly at-risk to experiencing academic burnout. These students are identified as being “gifted” because they possess the capability to perform at higher levels compared to others of the same age.

Due to their advanced intellectual capabilities and a portion of their identity tied to being “gifted and talented,” gifted students often experience a more threatening pressure to excel academically than other students.

These students often face high expectations from themselves, their families, and their educators. As a result, they may push themselves to the limit, relentlessly pursuing perfection and setting unrealistic goals. This pressure can eventually lead to burnout, causing a decline in academic performance, an increased risk of dropping out of school, and the development of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.

The Gifted Kid Burnout Epidemic

While the number of studies on the correlation between gifted students and poor mental health is still limited, findings from one study published in 2018 suggest that gifted children are at risk of poor mental health, highlighting the importance of ensuring students receive appropriate education with support and counseling provided for emotional needs.

But why are gifted students more susceptible to burnout than other students? There are a few reasons for this:

  1. Unrealistic expectations: Gifted students are often seen as destined for success and greatness. Parents and teachers may unknowingly impose high expectations on these students, which can lead to them feeling overwhelmed and stressed.
  2. Perfectionism: Many gifted students are perfectionists by nature, setting unrealistically high standards for themselves. When they fail to meet these standards, they may experience self-doubt and anxiety, leading to burnout.
  3. Limited emotional support: Gifted students may feel isolated due to their unique abilities and interests, making it difficult to find peers who understand their struggles. This lack of emotional support can exacerbate feelings of stress and anxiety.
  4. Insufficient challenge: Gifted students may become bored or disengage when they aren't adequately challenged in their academic environments, ultimately leading to burnout.

Steps to Preventing Burnout

Below are a few ways parents and educators can help prevent burnout in students of any grade level and background:

  1. Encourage Balance: Ensure your child is not overcommitting to schoolwork and extracurricular activities. Leisure activities are crucial for emotional and mental well-being. Help your child prioritize their activities by encouraging them to choose a few activities they truly enjoy and set aside time each day for those activities.
  2. Promote Self-Care: Teach your child about the importance of physical health, including regular exercise, a balanced diet, and adequate sleep. Encourage your child to turn off electronic devices at least an hour before bedtime to help them maintain a routine sleep schedule.
  3. Foster Open Communication: Regularly talk to your child about their feelings and concerns and encourage them to express their feelings and frustrations. Knowing they have a safe space to discuss their concerns can significantly reduce their stress levels.
  4. Seek Professional Help: If you notice persistent symptoms of burnout, consider seeking help from a professional counselor or therapist.

It is crucial for educators and parents to recognize the signs of burnout in gifted students and provide appropriate support and resources to help them cope with stress and maintain a balanced lifestyle. For example, teach students how to set achievable goals and manage expectations surrounding their performance, and let students know that it's okay to make mistakes and that learning from these mistakes is a crucial part of personal and academic growth.

After all, the key to nurturing academic talent lies in fostering a well-rounded, balanced, and emotionally healthy environment for students to thrive. By fostering a healthy balance between studies, social life, and self-care in students, we create passionate, resilient, and well-rounded students who can make a difference in the world.

About the author

Hunter Wesolowski is the Director of Educational Resources at ProCare Therapy.