With the arrival of December, many families are getting ready for a busy time of the year. Activities, gatherings, and pressures to perform – at home and at school – will begin to shows cracks and our students will feel their effects unless we are paying close attention. With many parents and children “future-focused” much of the time, there is no question that stress dominates many of our students’ lives and the word is never far from their lips. As teachers, we know it often prevents them from working at their peak potential, but we also have this nagging teacher intuition that a certain amount of stress might actually be good. Even necessary. But how do we know where the lines are? How do we help students understand, use, and manage stress for learning?
We know that the amygdala, the brain’s emotional gateway to learning, is a critical player when students are under too much stress. Many things contribute as “stressors”, but the brain is primordially hardwired to exhibit a “fight, flight or freeze” response. This reactive response is great for knowing to run away when a bear approaches (!), but it is not good for the sort of learning we hope to instil in school. What are the stressors? Too many tasks, not enough hours. Too many activities, too little downtime/sleep. Too many commitments, not enough time to restore. Too many words, not enough listening.
It really should come as no surprise. Many students, even young ones, are balancing demanding schedules and already obsessing over what a “B” on a quiz means for their long-term educational prospects and success in life. When this is combined with parent anxiety over “what the future holds” and teacher anxiety regarding “getting through the curriculum”, it is students who suffer and the results can be lasting. Checking the pulse of many middle and high school students, it is easy to see that overall wellness is compromised when balance and reasonableness are given short shrift.
What can we do to ensure that our own children and students are not causalities of the stress epidemic? Actually, quite a lot. To begin with, we are the exemplars. We must recognize that our approach and perspectives are always downloaded to children. We are living in a culture that tends to equate academic rigour with the quantity of time spent studying (or completing handouts!) rather than the quality of thinking and the emotional connections that students make to the curriculum.
Fortunately, for the most part, teachers are expert stress balancers. They use their judgement, knowledge, and experience with students to make decisions about how to balance stress-reducing factors with stress-inducing factors. Steady pressure can make elementary school feel like learning in a constant gale force wind or like being required to push a boulder of worksheets, reports, and test study notes up a hill, all in the name of a false “academic rigour”. It’s not sustainable, healthy, or productive.
The best teachers regularly try to walk in their students’ shoes for a day – jostling among multiple classes, rushing from task to task, navigating social drama, transitioning to extracurricular activities (and recess!), rushing home for dinner, and finally settling down to focus on homework. When teachers reflect on the realities of the demanding schedules and long days of many students, they become expert guides at helping students achieve the goal of “Goldilocks-Level Stress” (i.e., not too much, not too little, just the right amount!).
As we prepare for the month of December, let’s all re-commit to requiring – and modelling – the kind of balanced expectations that will ensure our kids are not becoming “stress buckets”! A stressed-out elementary school child is not a pretty sight and so unnecessary!
Ric Anderson, Head of School