My Anxiety About Stress-Reducers

My Anxiety About Stress-Reducers

It seems as though I see a news story about the latest school-based initiatives to help students deal with stress at least once a week.

This week it was a story in my hometown paper, Charleston’s Post & Courier, about the distribution of “calming kits” for grade school classrooms that include a rug for quiet contemplation and other activities, such as coloring supplies, or books on breathing for relaxation.

On the one hand, good, we should be taking the mental health needs of students seriously, particularly given the stress and disruption of the pandemic, which may be waning, but is certainly not over.

But of course the pandemic only exacerbated an already extant problem when it comes to the incidence of anxiety and depression among students, so I can’t help but wonder what use the calming kit band-aids are in the face of a system that is demonstrably bad for too many students’ mental and emotional well-being.

I have been writing about my concerns regarding student mental health as long as I have been writing about education, a full decade now, and anything that has changed is not for the better.

Every time I read about initiatives like calming kits or quiet spaces where students can go to regroup during the school day, I can’t help but wonder why we’re not pausing to consider the root causes of stress, of anxiety, of depression, and the role that schooling plays. Rather than focusing so hard on individual resiliency, perhaps we should be looking at structural and systemic problems that make teaching grade schoolers meditative breathing practices so useful.

There is nothing inherent about school that means it must be stressful. Learning stuff is, in fact, fun. And empowering. And motivating. 

Unfortunately, students experience school as a gauntlet, a competition on which their very futures are dependent, and where a single slip may be disastrous. Sure, we can do our best to get students to believe that their fears are exaggerated, but this would also require us to build a world in which those fears aren’t actually exaggerated.

Addressing these problems at the root requires asking questions about educational practices that too often go unquestioned. 

For example, writing recently at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Beckie Supiano unpacked the concept of “rigor” in education, soliciting perspectives from more than half a dozen practitioners. Thinking deeply about rigor reveals that when students call a course “hard” and we think of that as “rigorous,” and therefore a good thing, they may actually be using hard as a synonym for “confusing,” not for “challenging.” As Kevin Gannon, who directs the teaching center at Grand View University tells Supiano, there is a difference between a course that is difficult intellectually, and a course that is difficult logistically. An intellectually difficult course that is engaging to students can be a stress reducer, as those intellectual challenges become a subject of focus, rather than creating existential troubles that follow young (and old) folks around.

Josh Eyler, director of faculty development at the University of Mississippi argues that “grades are at the center of the mental health crisis,” and I agree with him. 

The stress tied to grades is significant, and in a world where learning management systems are ubiquitous, and students could be alerted to a newly posted grade at any time of day – including in the middle of the night – it’s not surprising that they’re on edge and need a breather from the pressures of school.

My first principle of any writing course is that it be inviting and engaging to students. Even though the vast majority of times students are conscripted into the courses I teach, once there, I want them thinking about seizing the material and experiences for themselves. 

That sense of control goes a long way to not only alleviating stress, but also to incentivizing students to stretch and take big swings at the challenges I put before them. 

The result is increased rigor, increased engagement, less stress, and more learning. 

School should be more than something to be survived.