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Just breathe: Simple changes can reduce student stress and improve learning, say Stanford researchers

July 30, 2015
By Brooke Donald
Stanford researchers confront student stress and well-being in new book (iStock/Steve Debenport)
Stanford researchers confront student stress and well-being in new book (iStock/Steve Debenport)
Clockwise: Book cover, Denise Pope, Maureen Brown and Sarah Miles
Clockwise: Book cover, Denise Pope, Maureen Brown and Sarah Miles
New book by scholars at Challenge Success describes ways in which schools, teachers and parents can create healthy learning environments for students.
overloaded
Stanford researchers confront student stress and well-being in new book. (iStock/Steve Debenport)

Busy days, long nights. That's how many middle- and high- school students might describe their schedules. Whether jobs, sports, extracurricular activities or academics is eating their time and occupying their minds, the pressure to do it all and do it all well is affecting teens up and down the economic and social spectrum.

Many teens, surveys show, end up suffering from little sleep, engaging in unhealthy behaviors like taking "study drugs," and experiencing overwhelming anxiety that extends to college and beyond. This results in less learning, not more, say Stanford Graduate School of Education researchers who have worked for more than a dozen years in high-achieving schools and now have a new book outlining ways in which schools, teachers and parents can create healthier and more enriching learning environments.

The book, Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful kidswas written by researchers at Challenge Success, a project founded at the Stanford GSE that partners with schools and families on well-being.

In an interview, excerpted below, two of the authors - Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford GSE and co-founder of Challenge Success, and Maureen Brown, executive director of Challenge Success - describe what they've learned during their work with over 130 schools since 2004, and highlight some simple changes that can be done to create systemic and lasting change.

What is the book about, in a nutshell?

Denise Pope: This book is about how to engage kids with learning and how to improve their health and well-being. It's not solely about how to reduce stress, though that is a part of it. The issue is that good educational practices are being pushed aside in a fast-paced culture that emphasizes test scores and grades. We're really talking about changing the pedagogy, changing forms of assessment, changing how you structure the school day and pace. We're talking about whole school reform.

Maureen Brown: We take what we've learned at Challenge Success and illustrate best practices that give schools and families research-based tools that they can use, in many cases immediately, to make change.

Who should read this book?

Pope: We started writing it for educators, to give a guide to those schools that couldn't physically partner with us at Challenge Success. The goal was to compile our best practices. But after a little bit of writing, I handed it to my husband (who isn’t an educator) just to see if it made sense. He came back and said, 'You know, I was really interested as a parent as to why a school would use a block schedule or why so many kids are cheating or what is the purpose of taking an Advanced Placement course.' So we realized it was actually a book for a much broader audience of people who were interested in the research on some of these practices.

Brown: For example, if parents don't understand the 'why' for certain policies or practices, they can't help advocate for real systemic change. The book gives parents the ability to ask the right questions at their schools to understand why their school is going down a certain path.

How are students overloaded today?

Pope: People assume with the new standards and requirements for college admission, that teachers need to cover more topics in class and that kids need to take more courses and do more activities in school and after school to meet expectations for success. This is a confusion between rigor and load. Rigor is real depth of understanding, mastery of the subject matter. That's what we want. Load is how much work is assigned. Many educators and many parents assume that the more work you assign and the more work students do, the better they will understand it. That is not necessarily the case. For example, we have teachers who teach AP classes and cut their homework load in half, and the kids end up doing as well on the exam. You don't have to do four hours of homework in order to learn something in depth or to retain it. But four hours of homework can be incredibly damaging physically and emotionally.

Clockwise: Book cover, Denise Pope,
Maureen Brown, Sarah Miles

What can schools do to improve student well-being?

Pope: We like to differentiate between short-term change - immediate changes - that help kids learn to cope better and longer term change to help create a structure in the school to improve learning and well-being for everyone. Schools can do major things in both those categories.

For example, schools can change their schedule from eight, 42 minute classes in a row to a type of block schedule where fewer classes meet for longer periods each day. This changes the pace; it allows you to go more in-depth in the learning and allows you to schedule things like advisory and time for teachers and students to meet in small groups. You're catching kids who are falling through the cracks in that way, and you're changing the whole pace of the day for everyone - adults and kids.

Schools can also focus on classroom practices that include mindfulness. A teacher can include time for deep breathing, meditation or focusing. Research shows centering yourself before a test by doing breathing exercises or other meditation reduces stress and in the long-term actually helps you do better on assessments.

Is there one thing school leadership should do that would improve well-being?

Pope: A principal should work to get a multi-stakeholder team together: you want students, teachers, parents and counselors to discuss the specific problems they are seeing around well-being and disengagement with learning. School leaders can use our research as a framework for how to structure that team or task force to work through these problems and implement changes.

But it's not a one-size-fits all model, so solutions will vary from school to school.

Is there one thing teachers can do?

Pope: We were really careful to put things in the book that a teacher can do tomorrow, that  aren’t money or district dependent. For example, if you want to reduce stress but also ensure you’re getting deeper learning, you may try to use more formative assessments.  When you give a test and kids don't do well, and then you move on to the next unit, you haven’t helped them understand the material. If you allow or require students to turn in test corrections so they understand what they got wrong, you're enhancing learning and well-being. Better yet, if you use more authentic ways to check for understanding – for instance – performance assessments like essays or projects, students know they will have multiple opportunities to revise and improve their work instead of facing the stress of a high-stakes, timed, traditional test.

Brown: We are mindful that teachers are constantly asked to do one more thing and then two years later asked to undo what they've done. So we're not asking for that. We're talking about building in proven practices that should make teaching more effective and students more engaged. We talk about the importance of quality, ongoing professional development to help make these lasting changes.

Is there one thing parents can do?

Brown: Parents can listen, really listen, to what their kids are telling them, and they can commit to start making small changes at home. We’re not saying drop everything, but parents can start by looking at how scheduled their kids are: Are there a couple of activities that they could eliminate to allow for more free play and/or down time? Are the kids really excited about an activity or extracurricular; if not, why are they doing it?

Pope: When parents take a careful look at a student’s schedule, both in and out of school, they can determine whether it is a healthy schedule.  Is the child getting enough sleep? Have enough time to do homework and also spend time with friends and family? If not, something has to change.

What obstacles do schools face when trying to implement these changes?

Brown: Making change is really hard, whether it's a Fortune 500 company or a local middle school. What we see a lot is schools trying to take on too much too quickly without laying the groundwork for change and without really thinking through obstacles they might face and without getting the buy-in they need from teachers, students and parents. We think that when they spend a little time up front and go slow they have a much higher chance of success.

Also, schools are busy places and there are a lot of competing interests for time and financial resources. Just having dedicated time to bring a group together to have a conversation on what they need to be doing is really valuable.

Is there a typical school you're addressing for these changes?

Pope: All of the schools in our case studies are considered high-achieving schools - meaning most of the students go on to some form of post-secondary education - but the populations in those schools vary. Some schools have around 50 percent of their kids on free or reduced lunch, while others have a very small percentage on free or reduced lunch. Adolescents from across income levels experience stress. Our strategies are aimed at benefiting all children who are overburdened, stressed out, and disengaged with learning.