BY: Dr. James Trifone, Academic Director for The Graduate Institute’s Master of Arts in Learning and Thinking Degree Program
Educators and parents alike are taking notice of the stress that surrounds our children on a daily basis. The stressors and demands of modern American society leaves students at a disadvantage that can only be remedied by a significant change in the way we structure and approach teaching and learning. However, while well intentioned the current nationally imposed reform efforts have led to increased levels of anxiety, frustration and stress amongst educators. Moreover, contending with students’ increasing levels of anxiety, depression and stress to succeed in a competitive world have led to unprecedented educator absenteeism and burnout. Not surprisingly, research studies have revealed that stressed teachers create stressed students.
If we, as adults, are living and dying stressed out, how have we not caught on that students are also impacted by environmental stress? Perhaps, one might wonder if teenagers and children experience more stress than adults, since they are not ‘in control’ of situations as adults would be. Youngsters are also in the process of maturing, trying to find their place and exploring the world, which, of course adds another layer of underlying stress. Add to that the expectations of tests, homework, pressure to succeed or just to pass a class. Moreover, students are stressed to get a scholarship or make a team, cope with family hardships, health problems, parent’s fighting or breaking up, navigating their own feelings and relationships, not to mention trying to fit in or standing out.
Therefore, how do we expect students to find success and exceed in academics if they are not being taught healthy coping mechanisms? Stuck in a society of stress, we forget what a danger constant stress can be to ourselves and our children. However, there are a few teachers here in Connecticut who are taking steps to change and reverse the cycle of stress for themselves and for their students. These teachers are making changes in their classrooms, so the next generation will not be forced to stay in the detrimental cycle of being stressed out and sick. Many Connecticut teachers and soon-to-be teachers are choosing to release tension by engaging in grounding strategies, meditation, mindfulness and yoga. These professionals are working to better their lives. Moreover, integrating such strategies into their classrooms educators are beginning to see their students transform out of the stress culture into people who are focused on creating self-awareness and balance.
Alisa Wright, teacher of wellness at Regional School District 6 in Morris, Warren, and Goshen elementary schools, felt that she had personally reached the point in her life where she wanted her attitude and self-awareness to be more focused, so she could create the environment that helped her thrive. When Ms. Wright was a student herself pursuing an Integrative Health and Healing Masters of Art degree at The Graduate Institute, in Bethany Connecticut, she was encouraged to explore Mindful Moments, as she calls them. Mindfulness is the practice of being and staying aware of objects, nature and the people around you. Repetitive actions and schedules take us away from being keenly aware of our surroundings, while mindfulness tries to connect with the normal everyday moments. These were moments of reflection on uniqueness, tapping into potential, and opening up to the realm of possibility that surrounds us.
As Ms. Wright reached the point where the practice of mindfulness was creating profound differences in her own life, she felt drawn to implement mindfulness techniques in her classroom, so her students could experience this ‘shift in feeling and thinking,’ too.
Ms. Wright started promoting mindfulness through the use of a community garden at her school. Students get to engage with nature and learn patience and focus and reflection as they work and reflect in the garden. She has seen that when the students are being taught how “to make observations on a holistic level allows them to explore details overlooked in the past, and they more fully understand the importance of becoming part of the garden experience. Students notice the beauty of nature and their relationship to it.”
Randy Colin teaches at Oxford High School in Oxford Connecticut, and is a current student enrolled in the Integrative Health and Healing Master of Art's Degree Program at The Graduate Institute. She stated that she was experiencing personal changes since she began to regularly practice the stress management techniques that she was introduced to by faculty. Randy has been implementing a lifestyle of striving for a ‘healthy balance’ in and out of the classroom.
Stress, in small doses, is good for our minds, since it spurs us into learning and adapting. However, ongoing stress over situations beyond our control can cause our minds and bodies to become unbalanced. Balanced living is achieved by knowing when and how to diffuse stress.
Keeping this in mind, Ms. Colin asks herself to be aware of what is triggering her own stress and why a certain reaction or fear is being expressed while she is in a ‘stressful’ situation. Being able to identify the source of stress allows one to redirect their reaction to a healthier method of dealing with the stressors. Students are taking note of the changes in Ms. Colin and are beginning to respond to her redirection methods. She has started using stress diffusing in her classroom, she tries to remind students to consider the cause of the stress and they talk about. If the stress is caused by something that isn’t so important, she helps them learn to release the stress. She is focusing her attention on calming their breathing and redirecting the frustration in a healthier manner. Knowing that redirecting can decrease discipline problems, she is focusing on teaching her students to identify stressors and to find healthier coping methods other than the ones they had previously developed. Stress diffusion is going to help students in the long term. These soft skills of coping and diffusing are necessary for functioning in society, but are rarely taught. Randy knows that her students will grow to be healthy, focused adults, because she is teaching them how to diffuse stress while they are still teenagers.
Yes, you heard that right. There is a teacher here in Connecticut who is able to get your 5-16-year-old children to sit down and do yoga with her. It isn’t as hard as it sounds, and it helps them relax from their constant energy, focus on thinking and being mindful of their surroundings, and guides them to de-stress as they learn to release negative thoughts and energy.
Melissa Constantini, an educator with a Master of Arts Degree in Learning and Thinking from The Graduate Institute, has started meditation camps for students in Connecticut. During the camp, she guides students on utilizing focusing methods, anybody can benefit from learning how to keep their mind relaxed and focused on the task at hand, but children especially struggle with focus, since they usually are more focused on outward exploration rather than calming their minds.
Each day of the camp, the students practice seated meditation, then they all join in yoga before they begin the activities of the day. During creative time, she guides them in creating calming crafts, such as rain sticks or mandala circle journaling, to focus their minds on creativity. In doing this, students learn to use meditation to bring out passions, change and creating in the artistic areas.
DOES IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE TO THE STUDENTS?
As noted above, Ms. Wright has begun to see what she is terming a restorative impact on the day for students who are practicing mindfulness. She has found that if her students are practicing mindfulness and reflection before she begins teaching them for the day, the classroom settles down with a focused energy which has a restorative impact on the rest of their day. This is allowing students to have a deepened understanding of the interconnectedness of self, others, and the world.
However, this change isn’t just happening in her classroom, the entire district has taken notice of the changes and many teachers have implemented her Mindful Moments. These teachers who have come on board with the idea are also finding similar results. Ms. Wright believes that helping students learn mindfulness and stress defusing techniques will have a “ripple effect of good” on the student’s lives.
Another teacher, Kahseim Outlaw had presented to his school faculty on the benefits of mindfulness, meditation and yoga, and later was able to start up an after-school yoga class for the faculty and students at his school. With each class, Kahseim taught yoga concepts and techniques. The basics of yoga lie in connecting mind and body and brings with it the ability to look deeper into actions and thoughts to find one’s purpose and path. While these are foundations of yoga practice, understanding these concepts is what takes a 1-hour yoga class and causes its impact to spread throughout one’s week and life.
In the beginning of the semester, the attendees were mostly faculty with a few scattered appearances by students. However, by week 5, there were more students attending than there were faculty members in the class. By the end of the 16-week semester, Kahseim was the only faculty present, all other attendees were students. Students were choosing to stay after-school to practice, discuss and explore meditation and yoga. Students who saw that staying for yoga for an hour would have a better effect on their lives than other activities they could be engaged in. Even during finals week, students wanted to stay for yoga, because they were seeing the difference a weekly 1-hour yoga class was having on their mindset, choices and academics.
According to Terri Bhatt, educator and co-founder of the Calm-trepreneur Program, high school students diagnosed with anxiety and depression often find themselves struggling with daily routines and classroom interactions. For some, school attendance can become a challenge. Recognizing that school absence reinforces anxiety rather than diminishes it, an Interim Instruction room fills the gap. "Avoidance of pain or discomfort is a natural human response, but when avoidance of school and daily responsibilities starts to become a habit, we step in,” she shared. The Interim Room, known as the “Zen Den” by students, is a dedicated classroom space that offers low-level, non-fluorescent lighting, comfortable seating and creative work zones, providing a low-sensory, low-stimulation environment for students. Here, teens struggling with anxiety and depression learn breathing, grounding and mindfulness strategies, while also finding a supportive space in which to keep up with school work they might otherwise be missing. “The results have been quite impressive,” Bhatt says. "We are keeping students in school and on track. More importantly, we’re giving them the tools they need to calmly re-focus their energy and manage their day."
One of Ms. Bhatt 's most important realizations has been that stress and anxiety can be contagious and self-reinforcing: “If teachers are stressed, their students probably are too.” Reports of anxiety in the teaching profession have reached an all-time high, with research pointing to teachers as having stress levels comparable to that of nurses and police officers. As a response to this need, the Calmtrepreneur Program (www.calmtrepreneur.com) was developed to provide a comprehensive approach to tackling ongoing stress among teachers and other professionals. With a focus on personal development and strategies for maintaining calm, the program aims to give participants the tools they need to self-manage and restore balance - which translates to a healthier classroom environment for everyone.
In closing, it should be said that with so much chaos and stress surrounding us, it is great to know that the future generation is being taught different, BETTER coping mechanism for handling the hard moments in life. Maybe our children will be able to do more than cope, maybe they will be able to rise above stress and live in mindful awareness in every moment of their life.
But to get there, to give them the chance to have a different lifestyle for them to know a less stressful existence, educators and parents need to make a mindset change. Schools of today and tomorrow need to embrace a new culture of learning and thinking, whereby classrooms become mindscapes for engaging and drawing upon the inherent creative and intellectual capacities of all learners. It is now necessary to deconstruct the current educational framework and dialogue on reconstructing ones that better address the challenges of learning and thinking in the 21st century.
Learn more about our programs @ learn.edu