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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Is Our Stress Good for Us?

By Peter DeWitt — June 29, 2013 4 min read
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Personally, I’d rather be stressed than bored. After all, not all stress is bad! It can inspire us to do better or motivate us to finish a task. Sometimes it gives us that rush of adrenaline we need to go the extra mile. It’s when it inhibits our ability to move forward or makes us feel like a failure that stress becomes negative. We really can’t live our lives stress-free...can we? I’m not sure I would want to.

Stress is a word we hear on a daily basis. We all know someone who complains about being stressed. They have too much work to do. The students aren’t behaving. Their colleagues aren’t agreeing with their ideas, or they are having an issue with a parent. Even we go home and complain that we had a really stressful day.

But...is every day really stressful?
Or do we make our days more stressful than they need to be?

In a recent BAM Radio Network interview Bruce S. McEwen, Luis A. Hernandez, Alia Crum, Jessica Johnson and I discussed Managing the Relentless Stress of Being an Education Leader with Host...Holly Elissa (don’t worry teachers, I’m not forgetting you here).

Let’s face it, school leaders have enormous stress right now. In their daily roles they work with students, teachers and parents which means that their day can change at any moment depending on discipline issues, student and teacher health crisis, or an angry or inquisitive parent who wants information immediately.

On top of those daily interactions, school leaders AND teachers have to negotiate their way through budget cuts, mandates and accountability. In these times of Student Learning Objectives (SLO’s), high stakes testing, point scales and Annual Professional Performance Reviews (APPR), stress can come knocking on our office or classroom doors at any moment.

In the interview, Bruce McEwen said, “Stress is a word that is overused in a way.” He said there is, “good stress, tolerable stress and toxic stress.” McEwen believes that good stress is when we rise to a challenge and get the job done. He believes that tolerable stress is when we deal with losing a job and getting through those moments, and toxic stress is when we can’t handle the stress at all.

As adults, because we have life experience with stress, we should be able to manage most of it that comes our way. We have developed coping mechanisms. Perhaps we work out at night, relax with a glass of red wine, take yoga classes, or engage in deep breathing activities; we all have ways to cope with stress. But what about our students?

Are students too stressed?

Students and Stress
Our students are stressed too. They play multiple sports at a young age, have homework to do at night, and are feeling the stress of increased accountability. When it comes to completing SLO’s and high stakes testing, students know that the test is more about their teachers and less about them. That sad fact weighs on their young minds as they enter school.

In addition, there is less downtime for students these days. There are schools that are taking away recess and increasing the amount of instructional time. On top of that there are school leaders and teachers who enforce the use of test prep to raise scores and there has been an increase in the amount of students taking medication for anxiety and ADHD. Students are definitely feeling the stress!

In a Helping a Worrier Become a Warrior (NY Times), KJ Dell’Antonia gave some suggestions about how students can better handle stress. Dell’Antonia wrote,
• “Embrace the anxiety. Students who read a statement declaring that recent research suggests “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better” did, in fact, do better on tests, in the lab and outside.
Find competition that’s fun. Spelling bees, chess teams, sports, science fairs: when the pressure is predictable and comes with friends and excitement, even worriers build up their tolerance for the stress that doesn’t include those benefits (like the SAT exams).
Emphasize success. Even when competition is fun, getting through it is a victory for a “worrier.”
Watch for when “stress” turns into “distress.” For many children, short-term stress can be energizing. But when it goes beyond the short term into a larger problem, “parents need to try to find the triggers that change test taking from a challenge state to a threat state.”

Inner Explorer
Lastly, there are some really great programs out there for teachers and students to use in the classroom together. This year, a few of the teachers I work with used Inner Explorer. Inner Explorer teaches students to be mindful of their bodies and it’s very age-appropriate.

For ten minutes every morning students and staff participated in Inner Explorer which worked to proactively help students calm down so they could start their day feeling refreshed and less anxious. As educators we have to continue to find ways to help students alleviate their stress, and not for nothing...but it would help us alleviate some stress as well.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.