Mr. Health Teacher

Real Education for the Real World

Category: Mental Health

From pet therapy to yoga, schools address kids’ stress

I was happy to be included in this story from USA TODAY

From deep breathing exercises to flexible schedules and even recess at the high school level, schools are instituting programs to help students better handle their stressful lives.

As school counselor Jennifer VonLintel gears up for the start of the school year at B.F. Kitchen Elementary School, there are new students to enroll, files to update and schedules to plan — including the schedule for Copper, her registered therapy dog and a popular presence in the hallways of the Loveland, Colo., school.

Three days a week, the 3-year-old golden retriever’s assignments can include mingling with kids during recess, being assigned to students who struggle with reading or math anxiety, and providing general companionship and support in the classroom, during counseling office visits, and during after-school programs. Any time a friendly, furry face can provide an extra measure of comfort and assurance, says VonLintel.

When there’s a death in a family or a child receives bad news, “with the parents’ permission, we’ll introduce Copper to the situation,” she says. “Kids find comfort in petting him, and sometimes the parents do, too. “

Pet therapy is just one way that schools are attempting to dial down the level of stress and anxiety facing students today and help them prepare to better handle such situations. Among others:

• Montpelier High School in Vermont is adding a daily 20-minute recess starting this school year and encourages students to get outside and play during the break.

• Shakopee High, southwest of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, has a 25-minute flex period built into each student’s daily schedule during which they are free to check in with teachers, counselors, coaches, go to the library or get started on homework.

• Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, has a “Quiet Time” program, consisting of two 15-minute sessions a day in which students have the option to sit quietly and rest or practice Transcendental Meditation (TM), which is taught at the public school.

• Both Belfast High and Camden Hills High schools in Maine have “wellness rooms” in which students, faculty and staff can sign up for massage therapy, acupuncture, and other stress-relieving therapies, all donated by local practitioners.

In the past decade there’s been “an increasing recognition of the connection between mental wellness, success in school and better life outcomes, so schools have started to implement more supports and services,” says Kelly Vaillancourt, of the National Association of School Psychologists.

Whether a nagging sense of unease or an overwhelming feeling of pressure and anxiety, stress can interfere with all aspects of well-being, including sleep, emotions, focus, even how people eat, all of which are important to the ability to learn, says Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of The Mindful Child.

Greenland trains teachers, counselors, therapists and other adults working with kids and teens in using mindful awareness — “an enhanced ability to pay attention” through breathing activities and other strategies — to help kids “focus and calm (the) mind and body” when they’re “over-scheduled, over-pressured and stressed.”

Pedro Francisco, 15, says the targeted breathing techniques he learned almost two years ago through the Youth Empowerment Seminar (YES! for Schools) program at his Los Angeles middle school has had a lasting effect. “It still helps me now to keep myself together” instead of automatically talking back in class or getting angry, says Francisco, a sophomore at Ánimo Ralph Bunche Charter High School.

Run by the non-profit International Association for Human Values, the program has worked in 127 schools since 2005 teaching students stretching, exercise and breathing techniques, along with life skills in conflict resolution and human values with the goal of managing stress, regulating emotions, resolving conflicts and controlling impulsive behavior.

“Whatever environment kids are in, they need to (learn to) negotiate their own stress level, their own emotional well-being,” says YES! co-director Elan Gepner.

A study conducted by UCLA researchers and published in July’s Journal of Adolescent Health found that students who participated in the four-week program felt less impulsive, while students who didn’t participate showed no change.

Even in schools that don’t have specialized stress-reduction programs, teaching students how to handle stress is increasingly a component of the health education curriculum, right along with substance abuse, nutrition and healthy relationships, says Christopher Pepper, a health education teacher at Balboa High School in San Francisco.

“I see health education class, for many of my students, as the only time in their lives, possibly, to have concentrated time to learn techniques to deal with some of the situations that will come up as they move into adulthood and help them prepare for the choices they’ll make,” says Pepper, who writes the Mr. Health Teacher blog.

Montpelier High’s new recess program is another attempt at reminding students of the importance of stepping back and recharging in order to stay emotionally healthy, says school Principal Adam Bunting. “The research about the learning gains (associated with) activity and rest on the brain is too powerful to ignore,” he adds.

Although the program is not mandatory, Bunting says that when classes start Aug. 28, he hopes students, as well as faculty and staff, will put down their books and pens during recess and get involved in some type of fun physical activity, from kickball to yoga.

Most Montpelier students welcome this addition to the schedule, which also comes with a switch from the traditional eight classes a day to a four-class block schedule, says Charlie Aldrich, 17, president of the Student Government Association. “It’s exciting to have that period just for relaxing, going outside and playing,” he says.

While Aldrich expects many students to take advantage of the recess when they can, there will be occasions when he thinks he and others will use the break to catch up on unfinished work or cram for a test.

“It’s high school, and kids have a lot of work to do,” he says.

Help Students De-Stress for Success

Drug addiction, pregnancy prevention, and eating disorders are all part of the curriculum in the high school health education class I teach. As attention-getting as those topics may be, I like to start the semester by focusing on a health issue that affects almost all teens in high school today: stress.

I’ve always taught about positive communication, the value of solid friendships, and the importance of preventing depression, but it took me a few years to develop a solid curriculum around stress reduction and relaxation. Over time, however, I’ve come to think of it as one of the most valuable skills I teach, with a tremendous potential to improve people’s lives.

There is a great deal of research showing that unremitting stress leads to increased levels of illness and infection, cuts years off of people’s lives, and generally cuts down on people’s happiness. If students can learn to deal with stress effectively in high school, and can carry those skills into adulthood, it can have ripple effects throughout their entire lives.

To emphasize just how big a health risk unmanaged stress represents for people, I like to show sections of the National Geographic film “Stress: Portrait of a Killer.” (Here’s a clip.)

The film focuses on the work of Stanford University’s Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist who has spent his life studying how stress impacts the brain. He explains how unmitigated stress manifests in the body in both mental and physical ways, causing irritability, insomnia, clogging arteries and increasing the risk of a heart attack.

The film’s website features Sapolsky answering questions about why psychological stress triggers the stress response and how using stress reduction techniques may improve a person’s health. After hearing what Sapolsky has to say, it would be hard to deny the intense effects stress can induce in people.

After showing my students how harmful chronic stress can be, I take some time to teach a few basic stress reduction techniques. A few of my students attended Visitacion Valley Middle School, a school that has a well-established, in-school meditation program, and a few of them have done yoga, but most of them have never done any focused, intentional stress reduction.

When I first introduce this topic, I remind students that everyone’s body is different, and that they should try a number of different stress-reduction techniques to see what works best for them. I also remind them that the environment they’re in — a small, crowded classroom surrounded by lots of teenagers — is a very difficult place to fully relax. I encourage them to try these techniques in the classroom, and then repeat them at home, which may provide a more relaxing place to learn.

I start by asking students about the techniques they already use to relax. Common answers include watching TV, taking a nap, and listening to music. (Sometimes students suggest quiet or instrumental music, but a significant number endorse the stress-reducing qualities of blasting loud, aggressive rock or rap.) We go through other simple suggestions, like laughing with a friend or playing with a pet. And of course, being health class, we talk about how exercise can be a great stress reducer, and how they should make time for physical fitness every day.

We then practice other simple stress-reduction techniques, with the idea that they can learn and practice them in class and then pull them out later when they need them.

One technique is deep breathing — simply breathing in slowly for a count of four and out slowly for a count of four. It’s amazing how much this simple act of mindfulness can slow things down and create a sense of calm and ease.

We also try visualization. I ask students to think about a place that’s relaxing to them, and imagine themselves there. Often people think about a quiet redwood forest or a warm beach, and they can use this technique to transport themselves there any time they feel stressed.

To teach a technique called “progressive relaxation,” I ask students to clear off their desk and sit or rest as comfortably as they can in their desks. I dim the classroom lights, and then play a recording from the University of Wisconsin’s Health Services office that guides students as they try to relax their bodies from head to toe. It’s important to set the tone while introducing the technique, because it’s easy for one student to disrupt the whole room with a loud laugh.

Once they give it a try, there are always some students who find it highly effective. In just a few minutes, they look rested and relaxed, and they regularly request that we “do that relaxation thing” again.

Sometimes teaching about positive mental and emotional health is seen as an extravagance or a luxury, but UC-Berkeley’s Vicki Zakrzewski argues that it’s increasingly clear that teaching young people to manage stress can help them in a multitude of ways. “Simply making a daily effort to cultivate mindfulness and a caring classroom can do wonders for students’ emotional well-being,” she writes.

With so much clear evidence of the harmful effects of stress, it seems clear to me that stress reduction should be part of every school’s curriculum. It’s a skill that can really help improve — and maybe even save — the lives of our students.

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original.

Teen Depression and Suicide

I spend the first four weeks of health education class teaching about mental and emotional health. We cover a lot of topics, but they’re all geared around helping the students get to know one another, clarify their own values and look out for one another. One of the big things we address in this unit is teen suicide. I always tell students to take any warning signs of suicide seriously, and to tell an adult if they notice that someone around them is struggling.

One resource I like to use for teaching about depression and suicide is a video called “More Than Sad” produced by the American Society for Suicide Prevention. As you can see from the clips below, it provides a realistic look at this serious issue, and it encourages young people to seek help if they’re feeling depressed or anxious. It also puts a strong emphasis on the fact that depression is treatable, but that it doesn’t usually go away on its own.

In the fact sheet for teens that accompanies the film, the organization spells out the facts:

“Depression is more than sadness.

Depression is an illness with a biological basis. People who are depressed feel “down in the dumps” and are not interested in the activities they usually enjoy.

Other symptoms that a depressed teen may experience include:
• feeling more irritable or angry than usual
• losing or gaining a significant amount of weight (not due to diet) or dramatic
change in appetite
• having trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
• physical feelings of either restlessness or being slow, sluggish
• not having any energy
• feeling worthless or guilty (with no clear cause)
• not being able to concentrate or make decisions
• thinking about wanting to end your life

If you experience at least five of these symptoms most of the day for at least two weeks, you may be depressed.
Talk to your parent(s), a trusted adult, or your doctor immediately — don’t wait!!”

Teachers, be sure you know your resources before showing this to students. I’ve had more than one student burst into tears when they recognized themselves in this film. I like to follow it up by sharing some information about our local suicide prevention organization, and then doing some activities designed to build up students’ self esteem and their sense of connection to the people who love them.

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