Every weekday morning, students across the nation arrive at school and file into their classrooms. Most students are ready and prepared to learn, but increasing numbers are reportedly anxious, “stressed-out” and hyperkinetic. Teachers everywhere find today’s students distracted by mobile devices and texting, wrestling with family issues, bothered by bullying, easily excitable, or simply anxious about academic expectations. Child psychologists and parenting experts provide plenty of advice on how to help “stressed-out” kids cope in our schools and homes.
More children and teens claim to be “stressed” than ever before, but — strangely enough– the research evidence to support such assumptions is spotty at best. One of Canada’s leading authorities on teen mental health, Dr. Stanley Kutcher, observes that they are under “different kinds of stress” and perhaps less resilient than in the past. Why some kids can “handle the pressure” of competition while others “fall apart” is now attracting more serious study. Close observers of classroom culture are also noting the recent trend toward promoting the philosophy of “mindfulness,” including “Breathe In, Breathe Out” daily yoga exercises.
Stress is a normal part of everyday life and resilience is what allows students to not only survive, but to thrive. The idea that “all stress is bad,” Dr. Kutcher insists, is a popular myth and “completely untrue.” In a March 2011 interview with CBC-TV health reporter Kelly Crowe, he clearly explained why without resorting to inaccessible medical terminology:
“Stress is useful for us, it helps the body tune itself, it is a method by which we learn how to adapt to our environment either by changing ourselves or by changing our environment. There is good stress, which is positive, it helps kids learn how to pick themselves up and dust themselves off, and start all over again. That’s part of resilience. That’s part of learning how to deal with life, but sometimes there’s also stress that is bad for you and part of the deal is understanding which is which.”
When does stress become harmful to children and youth? Here’s Dr. Kutcher’s answer, based upon the best research:
“Stress which is very prolonged or very intense can be harmful to people and the times in life when that stress comes on can also be more harmful than other times. For example early in life; severe and prolonged stress early in life such as maltreatment or abuse can have impact not only at that point in life but also well into adulthood because of its impact on brain development. Severe and prolonged stress is not good for you.”
Reading recent news articles endorsing “Mindfulness in Class” and “Self-Regulation” made me wonder if advocates of such approaches made any distinction between types of stress, and whether “competition” was, once again, a bad word in elementary classrooms. One Grade 5 class in Abbotsford, BC, taught by Julie Loland, addressed the problem with a “Mindfulness” initiative. In her “high needs” school, Ms. Loland utilized Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Buddhism-inspired strategies to calm the children down and get them to focus on learning. “I felt kids came to school and were not ready to learn; they were battling stressful life situations,” she said. “Many students didn’t care about learning” and simply came to school to escape “their poverty.” Regular yoga exercises were introduced to ensure “kids were open to the learning of the day.”
A Toronto region school, Massey Street Public School in Brampton, is implementing Dr. Stuart Shanker’s prescription from Calm, Alert, and Learning, a variation of “Mindfulness” known as “self-regulation.” In teacher Shivonne Lewis-Young’s Grade 3 and 4 classes, children sit on a blue carpet and padded balls rather than at desks and the day begins with passing a “talking stick” and asking each child “how do you feel today?” Calming the kids down and teaching them how to control their behaviour with “self-regulation zones” is seen as the panacea. “It appears to be working” anecdotally, according to The Globe and Mail’s Education reporter, Caroline Alphonso. It definitely makes the kids feel better, but where’s the evidence that it’s building confidence, strengthening resilience, or improving their grades?
More discerning education analysts and researchers, particularly in Britain, consider such “feel-good” strategies as mostly harmless as school-based elementary-level experiments but possibly detrimental if scaled-up to a system-wide initiative. Utilizing them in socially-disadvantaged schools might be doing more harm than good by further “degrading” the curriculum and lowering student performance expectations. On this score, Dr. Kutcher has some further advice: “We’re not here as a species and still surviving those millennia because we couldn’t adapt to stress. On the contrary, our brains are wired to adapt. I don’t think we actually do anybody a service and we may actually do young people a disservice by trying to protect them from stress and trying to make everything nice and everything rosy and having a Pollyannish approach to life. I don’ t think that does anyone any good.”
Respecting the pupil and challenging them to do their best remains the soundest, proven, and research-based approach, especially for kids who come to school with few social advantages. School classrooms are populated by “Warriors” and “Worriers” and some of that outlook and attitude, whether high motivation or paralytic anxiety, is definitely parent-driven. American psychiatrist Douglas C. Johnson of UCLA, San Diego, a leader in the OptiBrain Center Consortium, specializes in training pilots and favours “stress inoculation” as a strategy: “You tax them without overwhelming them. And then you allow for sufficient recovery.” That, Johnson claims, ‘helps diffuse the Worrier’s curse.’
If that sounds a little harsh and perhaps overly competitive, then Dr. Kutcher’s approach might be more palatable. “We have to learn how to deal with stress,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that giving kids techniques… or showing them how to deal with it is a bad thing. I think it’s probably a good thing but doing it over and over again and providing cocoons for kids I don’t think works.”
Are kids more stressed today or are we just more sensitive to it in our schools and homes? Do educational prescriptions such as “Mindfulness” and “Self-Regulation” help or hurt today’s students? Where’s the evidence that calming them down sharpens their intellect and produces improved performance? Is there any danger that mainstream elementary classrooms are becoming “therapeutic” rather than educative in their focus?