While eliminating recess, cutting back on electives, focusing on core content areas, increasing expectations and decreasing resources all increase teachers’ and students’ stress, a focus on mindfulness can help restore some much-needed balance.
This is the first in a series on the school’s role in design and implementation of healthy school initiatives in the communities, towns and large cities across America written by Dr. WiSH – William S. Hesse, Ph.D., and co-authors Cindy Boyum, Shannon Woodruff, Mark Kesler, Jen Guerrette, Ryan Backstrom, Dr. Ann Davis, Lora Potter, Kylene Bogden, Dr. Chris Lineberry of “The Ultimate Guide to Healthy School Design and Implementation” available from Core Purpose Consulting.com.
How anxiety factors in
Students come to school with a variety of issues and stress from what is going on at home and at school that affects their ability to learn. Teachers work in a high-stress profession, and chronic exposure to work-related stress is associated with increased risk of obesity, which affects how a person feels, their energy levels, and puts them at a greater risk for disease.
In modern-day society, we can hardly go anywhere, listen to or read anything without bumping into the word “anxiety.” Over the last decade, this word has become a household description of what was once described as stress.
The feeling of anxiousness or dealing with anxiety as a mental health issue has permeated our society and has especially affected school-age children and teens. You can readily find articles or social media posts discussing anxiety, ranging from personal opinion to research on symptoms, behaviors, and treatments. Research has found that children as young as two years old are displaying symptoms and behaviors that are diagnosable as anxiety. As parents, we try to create a better and healthier world for the next generation, but it has become more challenging with the introduction of anxiety in younger generations.
As a professional that specializes in youth and teen mental health, I hear about youth anxiety on a daily basis from teachers, coaches and school administrators. Teens are unsure how they can handle this “charged feeling” that is chronically active in their growing brains and bodies.
Youth express feelings of being unworthy, despite how perfect they try to be. They also express frustration trying to keep up with their peers as well as what they see online. Student can be stressed by poor relationships with parents, a lack of instructional support, the pressure to perform well at school and so much more.
The stress surrounding anxiety can be harmful to children’s and teens’ malleable minds. We adults need to help better understand and support youth in improving their mental health through useful tools and skill sets.
Student-teacher relationships are extremely important to students’ success. It has been said that kids don’t care what the teacher knows, unless they know that the teacher cares.
Stress has a major impact on teachers’ health and the effectiveness of their instruction. Stressors such as disengaged students, discipline problems, dealing with difficult administrators and feeling unsafe in the school environment can make a good teacher feel tired, unmotivated, inadequate and ineffective.
Principals can help reduce both students’ and teachers’ stress by providing support and using research-based methods that incorporate mindfulness, exercise and nutrition. The Ultimate Guide to Healthy School Design and Implementation can help with that.
The first step: Self-awareness
How do we help support children and teens as they navigate, live, deal with and heal from anxiety? We start by practicing and teaching self-awareness.
Self-awareness is imperative, because it lets us be responsible for our own behavior, reactions, and responses to situations. With this practice, we are able to live with a stronger understanding of both ourselves and the world around us. Practicing self-awareness allows us to see and accept ourselves for who we are, preparing us to begin the self-love aspect of the skill; self-awareness is key to a healthy mindset.
Self-care, self-awareness, self-love, and mindfulness are often trivialized by society as “think positive” or “stay away from drama and dramatic people,” but these practices are more than shifting your mindset from negative to positive – it is about the ability to look inward to manage your basic needs for inner peace.
When we become self-aware in life, we are able to manage our internal dialogue, which, in turn, shifts the dynamic in our ability to respond appropriately to the external situation.
Imagine a classroom where the teacher asked a personal opinion question. Now imagine each student begins in quiet self-reflection, followed by self-regulation leading to the ability to respond with their opinions. This lets students develop skills to express themselves, interact with their peers and resolve conflicts on differing opinions without creating drama amongst groups.
When people are self-aware, they can manage themselves at a higher level through self-regulation and self-empowerment. Students are able to practice self-regulation by effectively communicating their thoughts while experiencing self-empowerment by trusting that they are responsible for their own opinions and outcomes of conversations.
There are amazing skills and techniques that offer youth help with their anxiety through practicing self-awareness. Studies have found that self-awareness’s effect on mental health allows youth to feel free from their anxiety and speak boldly about how mindfulness techniques have made a massive impact on their lives and helped them manage stress and anxiety.
How mindfulness techniques can help
Mindfulness is important when it comes to diffusing anxious feelings, dealing with and healing from anxiety. Mindfulness is a practice of begin present in the moment. It is a period of time in which students are quiet and reflective, and it yields powerful, positive results.
Some children or adults have difficulty settling their busy minds, but Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) techniques can help their peace of mind and improve their mental health. These techniques are described briefly below and in greater detail in The Ultimate Guide to Healthy School Design and Implementation.
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction techniques are accessible to anyone of any age, and they can be as simple as paying attention to your breath.
Check the breath. We always come home to the breath. Even small, mindful actions will help students. Students can focus on the feeling of their nostrils as air flows through them and fills their lungs. Or they might notice the feeling of their lungs expanding with each breath. They can become aware of the swell of their shoulders as they inhale and exhale. When students feel anxious, tying movement of the body to their breath gives them an anchor point. Something to focus on to bring awareness back to the present moment. Paying attention to the breath stimulates the parasympathetic “rest and digest,” calming part of the autonomic nervous system and bringing the body into a state of equilibrium. When we exhale or sigh, we are actually signaling to the body to let go of tension and go into “rest and recovery” mode.
Testing is a difficult time for students, families and teachers. With harried deadlines, pressured situations, and the need to perform, both students and teachers feel the stress that accompanies testing season. Bringing attention to the body and its actions while breathing is just one way to combat these elevated stress levels. Another is to consciously check in with our emotions.
Emotional check-in. Simply ceasing all exterior activities and checking in with our physical body is a form of mindful self-awareness. It can be as simple as placing our hands on our heart and asking without judgment: How am I feeling? What is stressing me? Now how can I come to this present moment?
As the education world begins to integrate Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction techniques into curriculum and initiatives nationwide, it empowers all people to monitor our emotional health, enabling us to respond instead of react to stressors. Mindfulness can relieve stress, increase enjoyment, increase productivity, reduce anxiety, and help to build a more accurate view of the world.
The next steps
The next step after helping students and teachers develop their self-awareness and mindfulness is to develop a plan for success for your school.
Your journey forward has to deal with putting your perspective into action and making decisions that will impact the entire school and community. Determine how you will be a champion for change in your school classroom and community. Think about what a school educator, parent, or teacher can do in order to begin to move in a positive direction regarding becoming healthier and more active.
Then it’s time to improve your school’s culture. Have you considered creating a mindfulness room for staff and students on campus? Teachers’ stress and anxiety continues to grow, and it has led to teacher burnout concerns.
Is America’s education system a culture of stress? Teachers can become sick by teaching in a classroom or school environment that is stressful. But that doesn’t have to happen, if you create a healthy school culture on your campus.
The importance of staff and student wellness, an overall healthy school design and implementation process, with support and resources for wellness champions and teachers will lead to less stress and a more productive teachers and students.
To do this:
- Set personal goals. This is critical in making lifestyle changes.
- Small changes make a big difference.
- Make lifestyle decisions.
- Create structure.
- Know that the food we chose to eat will affect our heath in a multitude of ways, because food sustains life.
- Keep in mind that nutrition affects teachers and students.
- Regular physical activity aids in reducing chronic stress.
- Remember that physical activity and nutritional choices work together to promote health and resilience in stressful environments.
Other publications by Dr. WiSH – William S. Hesse, Ph.D. – include:
- “The Ultimate Guide to Healthy School Design and Implementation”
- Recess Was My Favorite Subject, Where Did It Go?
- The National ActiveSchools.US.org Campaign: entitled “Student Wellness Advocacy Team Creates Campus Culture of Health and Wellness at Sandra Day O’Connor High School”
- Shaping Minds of Aspiring Athletes: The Impact of Specific Coaching Strategies on Individual Athletes in College Baseball
- NCAA Final Four PLOC Minutes Out of Your Seat Contest