Teach the Whole Child to Reduce Student Stress


Which has caused more stress among kids: the Great Depression or life today? According to a study cited in Brad Johnson’s book, Learning on Your Feet, five times as many students deal with stress, anxiety, and other mental issues compared to students during the Great Depression. If we really stop to think about that, we realize what an astonishing statement it is.

Stress, of course, isn’t conducive to optimal learning or to a positive classroom environment. Brad believes incorporating physical activity into the classroom, along with relaxation strategies, can help relieve stress. He and educator Oskar Cymerman joined me on Studentcentrityto discuss it. Following the conversation Brad sent me the following additional thoughts:

Sedentary education is the greatest disservice we have done to this generation of students. Students need to be more active in the classroom.Only 1 out 12 students today has the core strength and balance of students from the 1980s.This means students not only need to be more active but need to focus specifically on core and balance because they improve the executive functioning area of the brain.Executive functioning is responsible for mental focus, organization, and processing information — all of which help students deal better with stress.

Although you would expect the conversation to revolve around the physical domain, these educators are quite aware of the mind/body connection, as well as the importance of educating the whole child, so it wasn’t surprising to me that they made connections to the cognitive and social/emotional domains.

Oskar addressed the significance of “incorporating more social emotional learning (SEL) into classroom curricula,” adding

It’s important to explain to students how our thoughts influence our well-being. If we make a conscious effort to stay positive and find the good in all situations we influence our feelings and set the mood for the rest of our day. I love the quote by Ernest Holmes: “Where the mind goes, energy flows.” Students need to know that their thoughts are powerful and can aid them in reducing stress and improving their mood.

Teachers also need to be empowered by the administrators to include activities that build resilience in students. One time, I observed a colleague use a gratitude assessment with her students. She asked them to write down things they are grateful for in their life as a warm-up activity. It seems such a simple thing, but is powerful in that it allows students to intentionally take a look at all the good that is happening around them.

One thing I plan to do is incorporate student blogging into the curriculum to make learning a reflective process. I will deliberately work in SEL reflections to direct student attention to the importance of taking care of themselves physically and mentally. I tell them all the time: School IS NOT the most important thing in your life. While getting good education is a big deal, it’s crucial to remember that there are things such as health, family, emotional well-being, and relationships that trump school. Learning becomes difficult when those needs are not taken care of first.

And with regard to one of Brad’s suggestions, he wrote:

I LOVED Brad’s idea of having a designated area for students who struggle with focus and need a break from the routine. Brain breaks are important for all the kids, but putting a yoga mat down in the back of the room and telling students that it’s okay to use it whenever they need it not only benefits the kids, but it helps with classroom management. Simple and brilliant – tell Brad I’m totally stealing that!

It is important that teachers know that they don’t need permission to break away from the regular routine and build in some personal growth and reflection activities, because they benefit the kids’ overall well-being and ultimately learning.

What’s interesting is that Brad, Oskar, and I started off talking about stress reduction and ended up discussing classroom management. That shouldn’t be a surprise, actually, considering that stressed and restless students are more likely to be disruptive than those who are allowed and able to manage their emotions.

There are so many benefits – for both your students and you – to teaching stress reduction and allowing movement in your classroom. As Oskar mentioned during our conversation, a teacher’s job goes beyond the curriculum.

There may be those who continue to insist that sitting equals learning, but as Brad points out, we can take a lesson from Finland’s practice of offering kids a 15-minute recess after every 45 minutes of instruction. They’ve proven beyond a doubt the fallacy of that notion.

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