I recently had the opportunity to listen to Dr Stan Kutcher speak at a conference in Toronto. He is real, he speaks with knowledge and from the heart, and raises many interesting points. One point he raised is that we need to stop pathologizing ‘stress’ as ‘anxiety’. Not only does he reject the notion of a crisis, but he urges education systems to develop mental health literacy.
This concept reminded me of a young student telling me that she required a fidget spinner because of her anxiety at school. She went on to explain that when she was being challenged or introduced to something new, she got anxious. When I asked her to explain, she went on to describe stress: she was not sure she understood, she had lots of questions, she worried about mistakes, her hands got sweaty, she wanted to leave the room, and she felt overwhelmed.
I feel this all the time! I have a full time job, a side business, I am working on my doctorate, and I have three little monkeys- I never have time, my shoulders are tense, my breathing is deep when I think about it all and I never feel in control. THIS IS STRESS. Stress is okay! The difference is I was taught that stress is a natural part of life. In other words, it happens. Stress has been around as long as humans have. We need to grow, to develop, and to become stronger people.
This particular student was told/taught that her stress to new learning situations was something more, something medical. She learned that, essentially, that when her body is tense, slow, & fidgety and her brain is overwhelmed, a little fuzzy, & worried that there is something wrong with her. Instead, she could have learned that this is your body being stressed about a new situation or an uncomfortable learning situation. It is your body and mind saying ‘slow down, take a breath, take a walk, and come back to it in a minute’.
Stress can be good and bad. The Harvard Centre for the Developing Child identifies three levels of stress: positive (daily exposure), tolerable (regular exposure), and toxic (extremely rare). As teachers, we need to ensure we are supporting our students in being challenged in their learning and in their social interactions. However, we should never set up a situation that creates toxic stress. If we suspect a student has this level of stress in their lives it is time to reach out to other team members.
Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is the difference between what you can do and what you cannot do without scaffolding or support. It is about learning to master a skill. You start with support and then, once ready, you take that support away or minimize it. When used effectively, scaffolding encourages children to reach above their current level and learn something new. However, supports are not right or the gap is too large the stress might be more prevalent. ZPD creates opportunities for our students to learn, and to be exposed to both positive and tolerable stress. It allows our students exposure in controlled settings, the classroom, with tasks that can be manipulated and differentiated by a professional.
During morning circle, when I ask ‘how are you?’ I pair it with ‘how does your body feel?’ & ‘how does your brain feel?’. I do this because it is important for children to identify their emotions and what that means for their physical and mental being. Students need to understand what stress feels like. How do my muscles feel and how does my brain feel. They need to understand both the physical reaction and emotional reaction. Students need to understand that these feelings affect their learning. When you feel stressed, it is okay and here are some strategies you can use to bring yourself to a calmer state. A calmer state will allow you to tackle the challenge, or whatever is causing the stress, a little easier. IT WILL NOT TAKE AWAY THE DEMAND, BUT IT WILL SEEM MORE MANAGEABLE.
When I do this pairing, I plan my lessons based on the needs of my students. In other words, I scaffold. For our littlest learners and for students with language or communication barriers, I provide visual examples and physical examples of body feelings, brain feelings, and emotions. I may used photos, symbols,emojis, or I may act it out. It is important to teach children about emotions (and all that it encompasses) by meeting them where they are. Use the appropriate supports to pull them forward with their understanding.
- STRESS IS NORMAL
- we need to provide our students with opportunities to feel both positive and tolerable stress
- we need to TEACH our students what stress (or other emotions feel like)
- we need to TEACH our students most stress and unpleasant emotions are ok
- we need to TEACH our students how to master strategies that will support mobbing back into a learning zone
- we need to stop pathologizing stress as anxiety
Disclaimer: I am writing about and discussing students without any major medical concerns. I am a teacher and I am not a medical professional. All our students will be exposed to stress in their lives. Few students will require psychiatric or other medical support to self-regulate. I write about all students, but, there will be some students who require much more support than any educational program can provide.