Professional Learning

Helping Students Manage Stress, Set Goals, and Feel Connected

October 11, 2012
Photo credit: gerrythomasen via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In early October, I reviewed Paul Tough's new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. I saw implications for policy, funding, and teacher preparation, as well as lots of actions that administrators and teachers could take based on Tough's research. Here are some ideas.

Less Stress

One aspect of Paul Tough's book that I appreciated was all the brain science made reader friendly. We've probably all heard that stress is bad for our health, and Tough provides explanation and detail about why this is so. Children who grow up in stressful environments, he reminds us, "find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments, and harder to follow directions" (p. 17).

So what can we do, in the classroom, to mitigate the stress that our students arrive with? Last year I observed an eighth grade English teacher who implemented a "Mindfulness Minute" with her students. After entering the classroom, kids quickly settled into their seats and began one minute of breathing meditation. The teacher sat on a stool in the front, also with her eyes closed, breathing slowly. When the timer went off, they began class. She'd seen a remarkable difference in her students' ability to focus from engaging in this activity, she said. The room really did feel different after the single, quiet minute.

This video shows a school-wide meditation program in urban San Francisco that drastically reduced the school's truancy and suspension rates.

What's Your Mission?

Here's some interesting information from Tough's book: people tend to use three strategies when setting goals. While optimists fantasize wildly about their goals, pessimists dwell on everything that will get in the way. The third method, the most successful one, combines these two tendencies: concentrate on the positive outcome you want and consider the obstacles in the way. Then create a series of "implementation intentions" -- specific plans in the form of if/then statements that link the obstacles with ways to overcome them. For example, "My goal is to read for 30 minutes this afternoon. If I get home and I'm too tired to read, I'll take a 30 minute nap -- and set my alarm -- and then I'll get up and do my reading."

I did a lot of goal setting with my students. With the most challenging students, I had them set daily goals and check progress towards those goals every 15 minutes. I'm intrigued by this suggestion -- I can see how this would be really helpful for kids.

Cultivating Group Identity

Many of us know that group identity can have powerful affect on our performance. Within a group, our mindset switches -- we adopt the behaviors of others, even if we doubt our own capacity to enact those behaviors -- and yes, this could have positive or negative outcomes. It's a first step, feeling like we belong to a group where there's some success at a given task. Paul Tough goes into some description of KIPP (the well-known charter school network) and regardless of your feelings about KIPP (or charters) it's a good reminder of how group identity works and how important it is.

I saw this clearly in play at ASCEND, the amazing, Oakland, California, public K-8 school I was a part of. My sixth graders were our first middle school cohort when we opened and we cultivated an identity that was intensely academic. When we went on field trips or visited other schools, kids held tightly to their emerging identities as hard workers, dedicated readers, and reflective students who took pride in their school. The classes that came after looked up to their older peers; they set a tone for the school. In their reflections years later, our students spoke about this identity as having had a powerful impact on them. This identity was cultivated. We helped students develop it. It didn't happen by itself. It was very intentionally, methodically, and slowly cultivated.

But maybe you don't work at a school that has a strong, positive identity. What could you do within your classroom to develop an identity amongst your students that might support their learning? What kinds of messages could you communicate, what kinds of symbols could your students attach themselves to that would serve this purpose, and what kinds of activities would develop a group identity that could help them succeed? There's much more to think about here, but yes -- strong positive identity in school is tremendously beneficial to students' success.

Exploring Systemic Change

Paul Tough is particularly interested in our neurochemical system and how stress impacts kids. A doctor who works in a rough urban neighborhood says, "When you get down to the molecules, you realize, that's where the healing lies. That's where you're discovering a solution (p. 26)." Another primary informant, who works with a youth organization, describes the socio-economic system in which young African American men in Chicago seem trapped -- he's less hopeful about where the healing might lay. Tough begins to recognize the intersection of these systems -- there's the neurochemical system in which stress has a devastating affect on kids, and there's the social and economic systems that the urban poor are caught in.

I like what Tough says about stress. It's helpful. It's a useful reminder of what's going on with kids. I like what he says about developing our non-cognitive capacities. There's a lot to think about and learn from this book.

And Tough is missing some points. Perhaps healing can happen on the molecular level -- yes, we all need to learn how to manage stress and help kids manage theirs. However, what I wish Tough had done more of, and done more directly, is point the finger at the root causes of the stress -- where does poverty come from? Why are there so few manufacturing jobs in Chicago these days? How has the slashing of social welfare programs over the last 30 years impacted the poor? How have tax cuts affected our schools and cities? How have changes in the juvenile justice system impacted children in poverty? How has the NRA and other gun rights lobbyists contributed to the chaos of the inner city? And how have federal policies such as No Child Left Behind increased the stress experienced by children and educators, particularly in our inner cities?

Yes, these are big, big questions. And there aren't easy answers, or quick fixes, or case studies that will make us feel hopeful. But if we don't ask these questions and explore the root causes of the stress that urban children live in we'll never really transform our schools.

And so that's the last thing I'd suggest readers do after finishing Paul Tough's new book -- ask these questions and explore the systemic, historical, political, and economic factors that cause stress.

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