Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Beating School Stress

I really like the blog Zen Family Habits and read it religiously. A recent post listed ways to "Help Your Kids Beat These Five Sources of School Stress": fatigue, boredom, grades, peers and authority.

I couldn't help but wonder, instead of giving parents tips on how to minimize the effects of school stress on children, what if we were to look at the way schools are set up and try to minimize the stress felt by children in the first place? As a former researcher who studied the effects of stress on learning, I know that stress compromises a person's ability to learn complex tasks and ideas. When our stress response is turned on, we are more likely to be in survival mode, paying attention to cues that signal the onset of more stress and trying to figure out ways to minimize its unpleasant effects. We certainly are not giving our full attention to solving for "x" or the use of allegory in Renaissance literature.

Clearly, some stress is inevitible, even useful. All interpersonal interactions are marked by a certain degree of conflict. It is our responsibility as parents to give our children the tools to learn how to manage their time to allow for adequate rest, to deal with other people, to overcome disappointment and frustration, to take responsibility for their own learning, to find solutions for difficult situations. However, I think we do all children a disservice when we fail to acknowledge the fact that most schools are set up as places where stressors can quickly become overwhelming.

Children often receive so much homework that adequate rest is impossible, especially when extracurricular activities are included in the schedule. Teachers are expected to cover certain predetermined curriculum in a given amount of time, regardless of the number and abilities of the students in a class. Children may be unable to receive extra help if they are behind, or enrichment if they are ahead, for a number of reasons. Instead of offering instruction on how to solve conflicts, disagreements among children often lead to punishment if they are addressed by adults at all. Teachers are seen as authorities and purveyors of knowledge, grades, and status, not as students' friends. Given these conditions, it's no wonder that students are stressed!

Holistic education asks how we can help children develop academically within an environment that also supports their personal, social and spiritual growth. Each child is met and nurtured as an individual by adults who see themselves as allies and aides of the students. Relationships are viewed as being at least as important as classwork, and significant time is devoted to teaching children how to be together in kindness and community. Surely, there is still conflict and stress, but this is dealt with as a matter of course. Instead of seeing life and school as separate, holistic facilitators and parents work together to provide a continuous network of support that helps children to navigate the murky and confusing roads of growth and maturity.


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