+ Schools Battle Stress With Creative Strategies

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From an article by Eddy Ramirez in US News.com, we’re told that schools are training children and teenagers to cope with stress through yoga, tai chi, and other increasingly popular anxiety-fighting methods.

It’s not uncommon for nervous third-graders, for example, to burst into tears or even vomit on days when tests are taken.  Anxiety is always high as seniors compete for financial aid and for places at high-powered colleges and universities.

Some schools, in addition to relaxation training, have eliminated class rankings,and midyear exams; they have imposed limits on how much homework can be assigned; they have begun to allow students to take a “personal wellness day” off.

“People are more stressed out than ever,” according to Marilyn Wilcher, senior director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind and Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.  “A lot of it has been precipitated by the economic meltdown.”

While some parents worry that the emphasis on stress gives students too easy an out, others find that certain responses — such as yoga — are inappropriate (suggesting, for example, that yoga violates the separation of church and state in upstate New York). 

But studies show that yoga and other stress-management methods (which generally don’t include religious teachings) can produce many benefits.  Mind-body relaxation can improve self-esteem and boost grades and test scores.

At Jefferson Elementary in Berwyn Illinois, all students, even kindergartners, practice yoga for eight to 10 minutes every day.

Kids take turns leading their classes through a series of yoga poses and deep-breathing exercises as they listen to soothing music.

Samantha Cano, an 11-year-old fifth-grader at Jefferson, says “Doing yoga helps me to concentrate better.”  It seems to have helped her on a math test earlier in March.

Jefferson’s principal, Violet Tantillo, says student behavior and test scores have improved since she added yoga lessons three years ago.  The program she uses was developed by her daughter, Carla Tantillo. More than 40 other schools, mostly in the Chicago area, use her yoga program. 

Carla Tantillo says, “It empowers students in a moment when it’s easy for stress and anxiety to take away their confidence.  What I’ve noticed is that students will experience anxiety, but they can pull themselves out of it quicker.”

Some studies have shown that occasional bursts of stress can be beneficial, but when students experience too many responsibilites, stress can be overwhelming.

One poll estimates that 27 percent of teens nationwide exprieience stress frequently. 

According to Rana Chudnofsky, director of the education initiative at the Benson-Henry Institute in Massachusetts, “It’s the constant multitasking craziness.  Students are doing homework at the same time that they are on Facebook, at the same time they are Instant Messaging.”

Teen surveys show that academic pressures — racking up a high GPA, scoring well on college entrance exams, gaining admissions to prestige colleges — are a main cause of stress.

For other students, the stress is fueled by “life-death” anxieties, such as violence in their neighborhoods, or problems at home.  If these problems are left unchecked, experts warn, stress can lead to academic dishonesty, depression, and destructive behavior.

At Needham High School, a US News “silver medal school,” principal Paul Richards and his staff have been battling stress for years.  A 2006 survey of 1100 students at the school revealed that stress from academics and parental expectations contributed to some students cheating, drinking and even hurting themselves. 

Fifty-seven percent of the respondents labeled the school’s culture as “sink or swim.”  Forty-four percent said they were willing to “suffer” in high school to get into a good college.

Since that survey, the school has eliminated class rankings and it no longer publishes an honor roll in the local paper.  Principal Richards also formed a “stress-reduction committee,” composed of administrators, parents, and students.  The committee has suggested such things as homework-free weekends and vacations.

“Not every kid is stressed out, and not every kid is stressed out by the same thing,” according to Richards.  “For some kids it’s having too many AP classes, for some it’s pressure from home, and for some it’s pressure from themselves and from their peers.”

Specialists with the Benson-Henry Institute have recently been working with Needham High students who are stressed and have agreed to participate in several stress-management studies.

In the late 1990s after riots in South Central Los Angeles, the Institute studied the response of middle school students to “relaxation training.”  They found that regular exposure to the training boosted students’ work habits, attendance, and academic performance.  Since then, the Institute’s specialists have been studying the response to similar relaxation techniques at urban and suburban schools in the Boston area.

One of the 60 Needham High juniors who signed up last year for the stress-management lessons, Jenny Huezo-Rosales, attended sessions every day for two months during gym class.  She is a student who was enrolled in accelerated and honors courses, wrote for the student newspaper, performed on the school’s step team, and played varsity softball.

But she worried that her credentials would not impress admissions officers at her chosen colleges.

“Because we don’t have class ranks, I was always comparing myself to other students who were doing really well.  Sometimes I couldn’t sleep and I was grumpy around my friends,” she says.

During the stress-management sessions, Huezo-Rosales and other students learned how stress affects mood and behavior.  They gained techniques, including muscle relaxation, deep breathing, and learning how to visualize goals to help them combat stress.

Preliminary findings show that the training helped students lower their anxiety, and boosted their self-esteem.

This semester, some 200 sophomores have agreed to participate in a separate study that will consider the effect of the stress-management techniques on grades and attendance.

“Our goal,” says Richards, “is to make sure that students are in a good place to learn and that they are healthy, both emotionally and physically.  We are trying to recognize that high school is a rigorous experience and that there are things students can do to help manage it.”

Huezo-Rosales is now a senior.  She says she feels more happy and relaxed at school.  (Four of the seven colleges have offered her admission.)  Her main worry now is finding enough scholarship money.  But she remembers what she learned about mind-body relaxation whenever she stresses about it. 

She closes her eyes, takes several deep breaths, and imagines being in a place that brings her happiness — her grandmother’s house in El Salvador.  “It’s so sunny and warm there,” she says.  “It makes me forget about all my troubles.”

sole source: Eddy Ramirez’s article in US News on 3/23/09.  www.usnews.com

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