How professor developed a survey to explain Naperville students' stress

When nearly 5,000 Naperville students took a survey to determine the sources of their stress, many wrote heartfelt answers to free-response questions.

"The kids would say, 'Thank you for asking these questions,'" said Patricia Schacht, assistant professor of psychology at Naperville's North Central College and developer of the survey. "The students are just really excited to have a voice. They're really excited to kind of tell us what they're experiencing and what's happening."

Giving kids a voice to explain their stress is the purpose of a new report called State of the Kids, commissioned by the Naperville-based nonprofit KidsMatter.

Schacht will explain findings from the 40-question voluntary survey, which was given to students in seventh and 10th grades, at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 30, at the Naperville Municipal Center, 400 S. Eagle St. The hope is the findings will inform new ways to help teens.

"As we see our youth continue to struggle with anxiety and depression, drug and alcohol use and suicide, we hope with these results we'll see where we need to focus our resources," IdaLynn Wenhold, KidsMatter executive director, said in a written statement. "Now, we're guessing based on older studies and national statistics. By asking kids here and now, we can focus on Naperville and turn to the myriad experts we have in the community to help provide answers and support."

KidsMatter connected with Schacht more than a year ago because of concerns about student mental health and risky behaviors. Schacht used her experience conducting research focused on children, parents and schools to come up with questions to pinpoint the sources of stress.

She then assessed all results and had them vetted by the Institutional Review Board at North Central, a body that provides ethics and reliability checks.

Students were asked questions that started broadly and then got more specific about stress from school, their parents, social media and relationships. Some questions gave options to rate stress on a 1-5 scale, others had students rank top stressors from a list, and still others sought a free response.

Schacht said she had lifeguards at Centennial Beach and North Central students take the survey as test respondents. She tweaked questions after getting feedback from testers as well as parents, a psychotherapist, Naperville Unit District 203 and Indian Prairie Unit District 204.

One question added after testing asks whether students feel stress because of the lack of a significant other.

"That came up a lot," she said.

The survey differs from the Illinois Youth Survey, which asks about drug and alcohol use, because it sought the purpose of such use - not just the frequency or quantity.

"Ours was looking at alcohol and drug use as coping mechanisms for stress," Schacht said. "Not only 'Do you do these things?' but 'Are you doing these things specifically because you're feeling anxiety or stress?'"

As Schacht and KidsMatter worked on the survey, Naperville City Council member Rebecca Boyd-Obarski last summer brought up the idea of hosting a town-hall meeting to review data about local youth. She said the facts Schacht will present should give important insight into what's troubling teens and how to help.

"What's going to be important is to hear the entire message," Boyd-Obarski said, "not to hear one comment or a response to one question without hearing the context."

Now that the survey has been administered, Schacht hopes to give it every two years. Future surveys could continue at the seventh- and 10th-grade levels to track stressors among students at the same age and expand to ninth- and 11-grade students to assess the same survey-takers two years later.

"Our goal is not to get the answers and then go away," Schacht said. "Our next step is to figure out ways to prevent these things in the future."

Naperville council member wants 'State of kids' town hall

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