THE BUZZ 2: Under Pressure

By on December 6, 2016

A new program is shifting behavior in schoolchildren and giving kids the tools to tackle an increasingly stressed out world.

(Photo: The Flourish Foundation)

(Photo: The Flourish Foundation)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – After more than a year of research and planning, Colter Elementary School has launched a program to help students develop critical life skills such as handling stress and developing resilience. In the two pilot fifth grade classrooms, where the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum has been in place for five weeks, school officials are reporting changes in student behavior.

When Colter officials performed an analysis of the office referrals they received for “problem behaviors,” they found that more than 80 percent came from issues arising during recess. Principal Bo Miller says this could point to students’ lack of stress management skills, lack of self-regulation, and a lack of techniques to manage conflict. According to Miller, since the implementation of the program there has not been one office referral for problematic behaviors.

A study published in the Developmental Psychology Journal noted that SEL programs involving mindfulness enhance students’ cognitive control, reduce stress, promote wellbeing and social skills, and produce positive school outcomes.

Educational programs that do not holistically address children’s needs create a culture of contingent happiness, Miller said, in which children learn how to be successful but maybe not very happy. Colter Elementary officials say they envision a model in which they can help prepare students to be both.

Reed Chambers is a fifth grade teacher and a member of the pilot team. He says educators and public health professionals are becoming increasingly aware of how students’ emotional and social wellbeing hinge on their academic performance. “These students are spending a lot of time in school,” Chambers said. “More time than anywhere else. If it’s not a safe, comfortable place for them, academics won’t happen.”

Safe spaces

On Friday afternoons, the team from Colter and St. John’s Wellness Department facilitate student conversations and activities around themes ranging from gratitude to “witnessing ears.” Laura Callari, a Wellness RN at St. John’s Wellness Department, believes one of the program’s strengths lies in its focus on students bringing their own material and content to the lessons. Children essentially direct the conversations.

Using students’ own experiences as the basis for conversation builds confidence, Callari explained. Each week students have the chance to lie down and process what they’re learning in their own space.

“They feel their own emotions and come up with their own ideas rather than looking at a neighbor’s expression or a teacher’s expression and saying, ‘Oh, maybe that’s the wrong idea.’ They create their own space, we don’t create it for them … this cuts down on peer pressure and groupthink.”

“They learn by doing,” Miller added.

Students and adult leaders have a “connection activity,” then practice a skill, and have a conversation about what it would look like to exercise that skill at home, on the playground, or in class.

Sasha Dingle is a mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher and a member of the St. John’s Wellness Department. She described an activity focused on listening and connection in which everyone practiced making eye contact. They sat in a circle, and each took a turn looking at the person next to them with “attention and a feeling of kindness.”

The curriculum allows for diverging from traditional classroom practices. For example, students don’t have to raise their hands to speak.

“The feedback we got was surprising,” Dingle said. “Kids were saying that they get nervous when they raise their hand. They get worried they are going to forget what they wanted to say, and it causes more stress.”

Now teachers like Chambers are considering how they can teach their other classes more effectively where raising hands, for example, is not de rigueur.

Lower stress in the future

Asking children to pay attention to when and how they experience stress is paramount.

“It is critical to process through the body at this age,” Miller said. “In our older students, locally and nationwide, there is an increasing level of stress, especially around success.”

While a child may not be able to articulate exactly what they’re feeling when they are upset, they may notice physical cues, like tension or increased heart rate. The team hopes to help students develop awareness of their bodily sensations, and learn to self-regulate through techniques such as deep breathing.

Emma Agnew is a school counselor at Daniel Webster Elementary School in San Francisco, where school officials launched a similar SEL program two years ago. Now, “90 percent of our response to problematic behavior” is preventative, she said. By teaching kids how to self-regulate, the need for crisis management diminishes.

When kids are stressed, she says, they often become “either hyper-aroused—angry, elevated—or hypo-aroused, they are non-responsive, shut down.” Often, students who are hyper aroused in response to stress are punished. Teaching them to re-regulate their nervous systems by themselves decreases the need for discipline, Agnew said. When kids can self-calm, they not only feel confident in their ability to take care of themselves, they can also “get back to a place where they can learn.”

Dingle primarily works with adults who are eager to learn about mindfulness and self-regulation. “When adults find their way to me, they’ve often already had something go wrong,” she said, like chronic pain or anxiety. Working with kids, she says, holds real potential for change. “If this is in the fabric of what kids learn, they’ll be ready and resilient when they face difficulties.”

When fifth graders complete the curriculum, the hope is that they will be prepared to address the inevitable academic, social, and emotional challenges in their futures and that they will continue “to pay attention to [themselves], other people, and the world and environment with kindness,” Dingle said.

In the coming months, the team will seek feedback from students and parents, and discuss the potential to expand the program to the other fifth grade classes and beyond.

Colter officials and a team from St. John’s collaborated with the Sun Valley, Idaho nonprofit The Flourish Foundation to implement the program. The organization has developed curriculum centered around mindfulness for Sun Valley students for more than a decade. PJH

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