School Climate & Safety Opinion

What Oysters Can Teach Us About Dealing With Stress

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 31, 2017 5 min read
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Stress is one of the invisible enemies of the demands a learning organization imposes on its learners. Stressors affect all those working in learning organizations, children, teachers, and leaders. How that manifests in each individual is different. Stress is not observable and not all stress is negative.

The response to stress is what we see. It is most difficult for the students. They have not yet developed the coping mechanisms that help to maneuver through stress. They come to schools carrying the burdens of the unresolved stressors that are a result of what is happening at home. It can be poverty, matters of physical and mental health for the students and their families, language barriers. These are the obvious ones. Then there are the less recognizable ones like a sudden family problem, a loss of a relative, a change in living conditions, and so on. Yet, what we see is the response to the stressors. We see memory problems, difficulty with concentration, poor judgment, negativity, and worrying as the cognitive symptoms. There are also physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms (helpguide.org). In good faith schools respond to the symptoms absent knowledge of or ability to affect the causes. Assumptions are made about how to intervene. Sometimes we are lucky and the interventions work.

The learning environment adds more stress. Learning itself is a stressful activity. It requires confidence, the ability to know what we know and place new information where it belongs. Learning requires trial and error. It requires risk taking and failure to be viewed and experienced as a challenge. For those who can master the stress of learning, it can be fun. Whether fun or not however, learning is a stressful endeavor.

The Plight of the Oyster and Our Students

A recent New York Times article revealed the latest research about how oysters hear. They also respond to the stress sound creates by shutting their shells. Closing their shells, however, exposes them to potential dangers. We can learn something from oysters and their stress.

New research published Wednesday in PLoS One reveals that oysters will close their shells when exposed to noises along a range of frequencies that includes the sounds emitted by known noise polluters like cargo ships and underwater oil exploration.

The article went on to report that closing their shells in response to noise pollution puts them at risk leaving them unable to “hear the breaking waves and water currents”.

In oysters, closed shells are an indicator of distress. Under optimal conditions, bivalve mollusks will keep their shells open, and are thought to shut them only when feeling stressed or threatened. Clamping their shells to screen out noise pollution or other artificial irritants could prevent oysters from perceiving important biological cues, said the authors of the study.

Common sense tells us teaching oysters to tolerate the sound and remain open is nonsensical. Humans will not stop using cargo ships nor will they stop underwater oil exploration. Oysters will respond by closing their shells.

The difference we have as humans and as educators is that we can understand, communicate and mediate stressors. The physical symptoms are usually considered cause to send students to the nurse. The behavioral and emotional symptoms call for students to be sent to the social worker and psychologist or principal. The classroom teacher may misunderstand the cognitive symptoms (memory problems, difficulty with concentration, and poor judgment) and refer students for some type of academic interventions. Of course, educators care about the students in their charge and schools have developed interventions to support their road to success. Like in the oysters’ situation, we may not be able to remove the cause of the stress. But we can recognize it and attempt to intervene.

That is why we keep returning to this business of stress and how it affects learning in our thinking and writing. That is why methods like mindfulness and active counseling can make a difference. Teaching a child how to concentrate while the stressors that are causing the distractions remain can increase the stress. This is unintended but true. And since schools are not equipped to change socio-economic challenges or home situations and since the interventions are doing little to reduce the stress students are experiencing, looking at it differently may open a door to understanding.

A Middle Place

There is a middle place, not the cause and not the intervention. Consider the cause and the skills a student can develop to release the stress and become present for learning and activities. There is a learning curve for schools that are built as information transfer stations, with interventions for those not fitting in, with codes of conduct and punishment for not following the rules.

This is a different paradigm, one in which a shift in thinking is required. We do not want to leave students in the same situation oysters have found themselves due to advances in our civilization. The Band-Aids that many interventions offer are short term. Think about the help students living in poverty or with family problems need beyond practicing better concentration or offering afterschool tutoring. Think about the children for whom testing has become overwhelming. Think about the performance pressure we put on students and on student athletes sometimes.

Stress has become a constant in our 21st century reality. Dealing with it in a new way, with an open mind may be the 21st century answer. Educators may not have the answers to these interventions that help mediate stressors so reaching out to find new and effective options is imperative. We think this explains the trend fo mindfulness and of meditation. It allows educators and schools to become more responsive to the turmoil in the water of learning and of childhood today. Unlike the oysters, we have choices. We do not want to leave our students with only the shut tight option. We don’t imagine that adults do well with that as their only option either. And, we do not want to lead systems exhausted by trying to intervene with ineffective and never ending interventions. If the forever reality for oysters and for educators is that stress won’t end, we surely need better ways to address it and sooner rather than later.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo by Pauliene Wessel courtesy of 123rf

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.