Stress, Stress and More Stress
As a school counselor it is my job to keep on top of the stress levels of our students. Last year I heard grumblings from many students about the increasing amounts of homework they were assigned over the course of the year. Others were concerned about subject area tests being assigned on the same day or major projects due the same week in multiple classes. Students talked about lack of sleep, difficulty focusing in class, irritable feelings, and the impact of work overload on relationships and after school activities. It was pretty apparent that the students were stressed.
School...It's a Job
The School Administrator and I decided to poll our students to get a better handle on the level of stress we were dealing with. Shockingly (but not surprisingly) 75% of our middle school students said that they felt stressed either all or most of the time. The biggest stressors were PARCC test prep, hours of homework each night and lack of personal and family time. We held round table meetings with each grade to talk to the kids about their stressors and what they do to manage stress. Again, shockingly, but not surprisingly, we heard the following:
- I stay up until midnight to do my homework, set my alarm for 3:00am then get up to finish it.
- I eat dinner in my room (rather than at the table with the family) while I study for tests.
- I tell my little sister I can't play with her because I have to study. She cries but the homework is more important.
- I quit horseback riding (or gymnastics, or basketball or...) because I don't have enough time for that and all of my studying.
- I feel like I have two jobs. School. And homework.
- I have so much to do I feel like I can never get it all done.
- My family went on vacation but I didn't have much fun because my teacher assigned a project over the school break.
- I feel like I don't have a childhood because all I ever do is go to school and study.
- We didn't have any homework during PARCC so I was actually able to go outside to play for the first time since September. It was freeing! (This statement was made in April).
Oh. My.Problematic to say the least.
- Education World: Saving Kids from Stress
Facing fierce competition to get into top colleges, many students are compromising their health and values to get ahead. Experts are even seeing stress levels increase at the elementary school level. Some educators are working to reduce the pressures
What Can We Do to Help?
Our response was immediate. We had always taught stress management in character education classes but we clearly needed to do more. We put ourselves into the students' shoes and imagined a world where children are forced to stay inside for 7 straight hours, sitting in uncomfortable chairs, expected to focus and attend with minimal time for a mental or physical break, when developmentally, they shoud be socially and physically active... that world was our middle school. Unfortunately our students had lost recess several years back to make more room for academics. We couldn't imagine our OWN work day with such restriction so we did the only thing we could do. We gave recess back!
Getting Recess Back
But What Else?
Adding recess was wonderful but definitely not a cure-all for the stress ailing our middle school students. We got together with teachers to brainstorm ideas, asking ourselves, "What else can we do to support our students?" In addition to working as a team to schedule tests and projects on different days and assigning less rote homework, the teachers really stepped up and came up with some great ideas to help their students manage stress on a day to day basis while in school. Here are just some of the interventions that were put into action in our middle school:
- Brain Breaks- Many of the teachers started implementing brain breaks into their routine, most often utilizing Go Noodle, which is an interactive website with dozens upon dozens of short videos with fun, energizing activities to do in just a few minutes. The kids love the activities and are usually ready to get back to thinking time once the break is done.
- One grade level used Learning Works for Kids to help kids learn how their brains work and apply their learning to real life situations. Sounds boring? Not when the majority of the learning was done through online game play. When the kids were told they would practice thinking skills by researching (i.e. playing) games, they were pretty motivated to learn!
- Several teachers worked meditative practices such as belly breathing, visualization, progressive muscle relaxation and yoga into their routines; as an opening activity, a quick break, or as a transition. The impact of just a few minutes of quiet time can be powerful and well worth the "lost" academic time.
Yoga in the Classroom
- Music can be very helpful in bringing about a relaxed state in a child. Many teachers started playing classical or jazz music quietly while children worked at their seats. This aided in focus and attention, as well as positive interactions among the students. It helps create a calm teacher too!
Calm and Peaceful Children
- Many of our teachers allowed themselves to let go and laugh with their students. A project based in humor or just a quick laughter break really helped to relieve some of the tension brought on by testing and other assessments mandated by the district and state. After all, laughter is the best medicine.
How to Effectively Use Humor in the Classroom
- How to Effectively Use Humor in the Classroom | NEA Member Benefits
Done right, laughing along with your students can lower stress, reinforce lessons and boost student engagement.