“Students and Stress: Causes and Solutions”
Over forty Representatives from 23 member schools attended the PCW’s annual Best Practices program last month. The topic was “Students and Stress.” Three school counselors representing lower, middle and upper school gave presentations on identifying and alleviating stress at the various grade levels.
Mary Power, the lower and middle school counselor at Stone Ridge, described the sources and symptoms of stress in the lower school child, who cannot see the “big picture” and does not have the ability to problem solve on his/her own. Schools can help by teaching lower school students to manage their friendships, conflicts and emotions, and providing play and art materials and opportunities for plenty of physical activity. Specific teaching goals include relaxation techniques, positive self talk and problem solving. Guidance counselors should educate faculty to spot changes in students’ behavior or habits that might indicate stress, i.e. headaches, stomachaches, aggression, irritability, sad or withdrawn affect. According to Mary, good schools react quickly when stress surfaces in a student, and serve as a resource for parents and outside professionals to teach the child how to manage stress.
Weezie Parry, the grade 4/5 counselor at the Potomac School, talked about the science of stress. Studies show that over time, unrelieved stress causes the memory center of the brain to shrink. She quoted one stress expert as saying, “Stress makes us stupid – it hijacks the brain.” A stressed student uses only 20% of his/her brain capacity, which means that our students are doing more but accomplishing less because of undue stress. During the middle school years, schools can alleviate stress by teaching students about conflict resolution, nutrition/sleep, self-empowerment, relaxation techniques and effective study habits. Weezie recommended that schools create non-threatening environments in which to live and learn that include high levels of challenge combined with low levels of threat.
Pam Williams, the upper school counselor at Stone Ridge, spoke about a seminar program designed to take students through the various stages of their high school experience in a way that minimizes stress. In the early years of high school, students are taught the value of “down time”, how to effectively organize their time, health and wellness, and are shown the film “Swing Kids.” In the later years, students are introduced to self analysis to ask who they are in their world and where they are going. The program concludes with a writing exercise: students write a letter to their families as they approach graduation, describing their values and how they will step out into the world. The small seminars are an effective tool to combat the inevitable stresses of attending high school in today’s competitive climate.
Following these presentations, attendees broke into smaller discussion groups geared to high school, middle school and lower school concerns. What follows are specific suggestions for schools gleaned from the break-out sessions and best practices submissions:
- Provide parent education re: the college application process early in the high school years.
- Re-define “success.” Harvard and Yale are not the only measures. Correct “fit” is essential.
- Implement a division-wide test/quiz/paper calendar to ensure that students aren’t overloaded in one day/week.
- Designate a “Dean of FUN” to integrate fun into daily school life and organize stress-buster events such as spirit week, no homework weekends and retreat weekends.
- Teach time management skills.
- Establish a learning center to help students with study skills and alternative learning styles.
- Teach faculty to incorporate various teaching styles to accommodate different student learning styles.
- Schedule final exams to allow more study time: exams Friday, Monday, Tuesday/reading day Wednesday/exam Thursday.
- Offer grade specific “parent peer groups” led by Guidance counselors 2-4 times per academic year to give parents a forum to discuss non-academic concerns in a confidential setting. Include these on master calendar at the beginning of the year.
- Offer meditation/yoga/hip-hop classes (opportunities for non-competitive exercise).
- Build significant breaks into the daily schedule to allow students an opportunity to meet with teachers or “hang out” with each other.
- Schedule weekly “Deans Meeting” attended by the dean of students and all counselors to identify student behaviors that merit special attention.
- Create an 8 day rotating schedule to honor a more balanced, humane pace and provide double periods for upper school classes.
- Institute an “unbreakable” break mid-morning and another long period after lunch for jazz band, mid-day fitness, clubs, community service activities, extra help from teachers, etc.
“Surprise Day” – students are surprised twice a year with morning donuts & other treats. In lieu of morning meeting, they are given an opportunity to relax and visit with friends.
“Monday Open House” – all members of the senior class are welcome in the counselor’s office every Monday morning for breakfast goodies, guidance & camaraderie.
Offer evening programs for students and their parents. Some examples: (1) Symposium on stress and student life for 11th grade, presented by a neurophysiologist. (2) ”Redefining Success in the College Search Process” presented by a psychologist and an Ivy League Dean of Admissions. (3) ”Navigating the Social Scene” presented by an abuse counselor at Suburban Hospital and a Montgomery County District Court judge.
School counselors regularly participate in lunch and recess on an informal basis.
Provide 5 minutes of silence/mindful meditation before a test.
Institute a two week mid-winter “Interim” when classes are suspended and a campus-wide theme is explored. During this period, non-traditional classes and activities are offered.
Offer upper school students one test/paper extension pass per year per academic class.