Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Stress and How to Manage It

This week’s article summary is How Successful People Squash Stress (in Forbes).

The article is timely for us personally: while we all look forward to the holidays, they can also be very stressful.

I also liked the article from a professional perspective: while a little stress is good and helps us learn and is good for the brain, we as teachers need to know ways to manage stress—whether in how to better work with colleagues, partner with parents, or help students be successful.

The article lists 11 tips for better managing stress. See how many you use—and for those you haven’t tried, try them over the holidays.

Thanks again for all you do for Trinity!

We all know that living under stressful conditions has serious physical and emotional consequences. So why do we have so much trouble taking action to reduce our stress levels and improve our lives?

Intense stress actually reduces the volume of gray matter in the areas of the brain responsible for self-control. As you lose self-control, you lose your ability to cope with stress. It becomes harder for you to keep yourself out of stressful situations, and you’re more likely to create them for yourself (such as by overreacting to people).

Dwindling self-control is particularly scary when you consider that stress affects physiological functions in the brain, contributing to chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes.
The ability to manage your emotions and remain calm under pressure has a direct link to your performance. 90% of top performers are skilled at managing their emotions in times of stress in order to remain calm and in control.

The tricky thing about stress is that it’s an absolutely necessary emotion. Our brains are wired such that it’s difficult to take action until we feel at least some level of this emotional state.

A UC Berkeley study reveals an upside to experiencing moderate levels of stress. But it also reinforces how important it is to keep stress under control. The study found that the onset of stress entices the brain into growing new cells responsible for improved memory. However, this effect is only seen when stress is intermittent. As soon as the stress continues beyond a few moments into a prolonged state, it suppresses the brain’s ability to develop new cells.
Intermittent stressful events actually increase your performance by keeping the brain more alert, and most top performers have well-honed coping strategies that they employ under stressful circumstances to lower their stress levels and ensure that the stress they experience is not prolonged. This keeps their performance up and the negative effects of stress to a minimum.

Implementing healthy stress-relieving techniques won’t just improve your performance—it can train your brain to handle stress more effectively and decrease the likelihood of ill effects.
As simple as some of these strategies may seem, they are difficult to implement when your mind is clouded with stress. Force yourself to attempt them the next time your head is spinning, and your efforts will pay dividends to your health and performance.

They Say No: Research conducted at the University of California in San Francisco shows that the more difficulty that you have saying no, the more likely you are to experience stress, burnout, and even depression. Saying no is indeed a major challenge for most people. When it’s time to say no, emotionally intelligent people avoid phrases like “I don’t think I can” or “I’m not certain.” Saying no to a new commitment honors your existing commitments and gives you the opportunity to successfully fulfill them.

They Appreciate What They Have: Taking time to contemplate what you’re grateful for isn’t merely the “right” thing to do. It also improves your mood, because it reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23%. Research conducted at the University of California, Davis found that people who worked daily to cultivate an attitude of gratitude experienced improved mood, energy, and physical wellbeing.

They Avoid Asking “What If?”: “What if?” statements throw fuel on the fire of stress and worry. Things can go in a million different directions, and the more time you spend worrying about the possibilities, the less time you’ll spend focusing on taking action that will calm you down and keep your stress under control. Successful people know that asking “what if? will only take them to a place they don’t want—or need—to go.

They Disconnect: Given the importance of keeping stress intermittent, it’s easy to see how taking regular time off the grid can help keep your stress under control. When you make yourself available to your work 24/7, you expose yourself to a constant barrage of stressors. Forcing yourself offline and even turning off your phone gives your body a break from a constant source of stress. If detaching yourself from work-related communication on weekday evenings is too big a challenge, then how about the weekend?

They Limit Their Caffeine Intake: Drinking caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline. Adrenaline is the source of the “fight-or-flight” response, a survival mechanism that forces you to stand up and fight or run for the hills when faced with a threat. The fight-or-flight mechanism sidesteps rational thinking in favor of a faster response. This is great when a bear is chasing you, but not so great when you’re responding to a curt email. When caffeine puts your brain and body into this hyperaroused state of stress, your emotions overrun your behavior.

They Sleep: Sleep is vital to increasing your emotional intelligence and managing your stress levels. When you sleep, your brain literally recharges, shuffling through the day’s memories and storing or discarding them (which causes dreams), so that you wake up alert and clear-headed. Your self-control, attention, and memory are all reduced when you don’t get enough—or the right kind—of sleep. Sleep deprivation raises stress hormone levels on its own, even without a stressor present. Stressful projects often make you feel as if you have no time to sleep, but taking the time to get a decent night’s sleep is often the one thing keeping you from getting things under control.

They Exercise: Getting your body moving for as little as 10 minutes releases GABA, a neurotransmitter that reduces stress by soothing you and helping you stay in control of your emotions. Exercise is one of the first things busy people let fall by the wayside when they are stressed and under a lot of pressure.

They Don’t Hold Grudges: The negative emotions that come with holding onto a grudge are actually a stress response. Just thinking about the event involved sends your body into fight-or-flight mode. When a threat is imminent, this reaction is essential to your survival, but when a threat is ancient history, holding onto that stress wreaks havoc on your body and can have devastating health consequences over time. Holding onto a grudge means you’re holding onto stress, and emotionally intelligent people know to avoid this at all costs.

They Don’t Die in the Fight: Emotionally intelligent people know how important it is to live to fight another day. In conflict, unchecked emotion makes you dig your heels in and fight the kind of battle that can leave you severely damaged and stressed. When you read and respond to your emotions effectively, you’re able to choose your battles wisely and only stand your ground when the time is right.

They Practice Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a simple, research-supported form of meditation that is an effective way to gain control of unruly thoughts and behaviors. People who practice mindfulness are more focused, even when they are not meditating. It is an excellent technique to help reduce stress because it allows you to reduce the feeling of being out of control. Essentially, mindfulness helps you stop jumping from one thought to the next, which gives you laser-sharp focus and keeps you from ruminating on negative thoughts.

They Squash Negative Self-Talk: A big, final step in managing stress involves stopping negative self-talk in its tracks. The more you ruminate on negative thoughts, the more power you give them. When you find yourself believing the negative and pessimistic things your inner voice says, it’s time to stop and write them down. Literally stop what you’re doing and write down what you’re thinking. Once you’ve taken a moment to slow down the negative momentum of your thoughts, you will be more rational and clear-headed in evaluating their veracity.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Learning from Preschools

This week’s article summary is What Every School Can Learn from Preschools which was recently broadcast on NPR.

The information below—the need for developing social-emotional skills in kids in addition to academic, cognitive ones—is hardly novel at Trinity: after all, we are an elementary school (hence, we focus as much on process as product and most of us have a constructivist-leaning educational philosophy) and an independent school (we are not measured by our students’ standardized test scores).

Yet it does seem that the national educational pendulum is beginning to swing back a little from high-stakes testing to a more progressive, whole child, holistic emphasis.


Listening. Sharing. Following directions. Making friends. Managing big emotions. Planning for the future.

A high-quality preschool program helps children develop in all these ways.

Such matters of the heart shouldn't be left behind just as students are learning to tie their shoes.

Schools need to focus on these same skills, habits, attitudes, and mindsets with older kids as research shows they're just as important as academics.

Though public schools are currently held accountable for students' scores in math and reading proficiency alone, evidence from both psychology and economics shows that a wide range of non-academic skills play a big role in determining success later in life.

Additionally, these attributes aren't coded into DNA. They can be taught, or at least cultivated.
Sometimes this means curricula that explicitly cover social and emotional topics. Tools for Getting Along, from the University of Florida, has elementary school students doing lessons on how to solve social problems with classmates.

The Brainology curriculum teaches middle schoolers the basics of neuroscience, like the idea that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with practice. Carol Dweck’s work shows that learning these facts can increase students' motivation to work hard in class.

There is also evidence supporting whole-school approaches, like Responsive Classroom, which changes how teachers and administrators do discipline.

Educators should be paying more attention to how schools are building these skills at all ages, and even holding them accountable for it.

This doesn't mean more high-stakes tests. When it comes to assessing individual students on attributes like grit, for example, we're not there yet. The best tack is to hold entire schools accountable for creating atmospheres that instill or support these qualities. This can be done using tools like school climate surveys and sharing the information publicly.

It's a good time to have this conversation. Most states, and the federal government, have expanded access to preschool in the last year. To evaluate those programs, they use a wide palette: classroom observation, self-reporting, and more.

This report suggests importing some of that more holistic approach to accountability into the higher grades.

This doesn't mean replacing an emphasis on academic rigor with something fuzzy and hard to quantify--a false choice. Schools can and should be doing both.

Friday, December 5, 2014

What's the Ultimate Goal?

This week's article summary is The One Question Every Parent Should Quit Asking. (Thank you to Jill for sending it to me!)

It captures parent anxiety and worry in wanting their child(ren) to have choices and opportunities in order to optimally prepare them for today's competitive world.

But, in over-scheduling and over-pushing children, parents getting in the way of their child's overall development by not giving them the latitude to be kids, make mistakes, and learn from missteps.

It's a compelling read that most parents will relate with.



"It's like she's not even practicing." My daughter’s piano teacher was standing in front of me, giving her honest assessment. My parental guilt took over. Once we got home, I was determined to show that piano teacher that my daughter could be the next Liberace. So we opened her music book and got to work. We sat side-by-side at the piano for all of 10 minutes when she began to fade. She wasn't even looking at the notes. I tried to be encouraging, but every half-hearted effort from her quickly depleted my well of encouragement.

"Sweetheart," I said, in a tone that didn't match the pet name. "Don't you want to be good at this?"

She didn't say anything. So I asked again.

"Honey. Don't you want to be good at piano?"

"No," she answered.

"Fine," I said, calling her bluff. "I guess we just won't practice anymore.”

I got up and walked to the kitchen where my son was busy not doing his homework. "What are you doing?! Finish your homework! We have to leave for basketball practice in 10 minutes! Let's go! You're not even dressed!"

Not my best parenting moments.

I am not proud of it, but the simple truth is that I worry about my kids and their level of engagement. And maybe you do, too. I frequently feel myself getting sucked into the vortex of expectations. All the other parents are talking about great opportunities they are providing for their kids. Special summer camps. Private tutors. Music lessons. Coaching clinics. And when I hear how other kids are participating in these activities, I can't help but feel that my children will be left behind or left out if they don't take part. I picture a future where other kids are having fun together, solving quadratic equations and getting six-figure jobs right out of junior high while mine are sitting in the corner eating Elmer's Glue from the bottle.

And it's all my fault.

So, in an effort to prepare our kids for the dog-eat-dog, competitive world before them, we fill their days with activity. Schedule them from dawn to dusk to maximize their potential. So they can learn. And grow.

But I fear that in our quest to help them, we may actually be hurting them.
"Free time" for kids has been steadily declining since the 1950s. One study revealed, from 1981 to 1997, kids experienced a 25% decrease in playtime and a 55% decrease in time talking with others at home while time spent on homework increased by 145%, and time spent shopping with parents increased by 168%.

Another study looked at psychological trends in youth during a similar period and noticed a sharp increase in anxiety and depression. Our kids are more stressed out than before.
A third study showed a shift in motivation over the years, with kids in the 60s and 70s reporting being more motivated by intrinsic ideals (self-acceptance, affiliation and community) while kids today are more motivated by extrinsic ideals (money, image and fame).

As parents, we focus 100% of our energy asking the wrong question: "What might we miss if we don't take advantage of these opportunities?" And we need to stop. Why? Because the motivation behind this question is fear. And the fear is all mine.

I worry that that my kids will be made fun of if they don't have socially acceptable "stuff." I worry they won't become elite athletes unless they specialize in a sport by age 10. I worry that they won't get into college if they don't do well in school.

But the fears are largely unfounded.

The "stuff" issue is easily overcome with common sense. No one in the history of the world has ever been able to buy a true friend. And in the athletic realm, kids who specialize in sports are no better off than those who don't, and in some cases, the specialization is actually a detriment. As for the academic worry, that may be the biggest unfounded fear of all. We buy into the hype that college is much more competitive today, so we push our kids to take advantage of every learning opportunity under the sun. The truth is, in the past 10 years, admissions counselors saw their average number of applications nearly double because of parents like us. We're frantically submitting applications out of fear. Even so, colleges are still accepting two-thirds of all applicants on average.

Bottom line: we parents need to chill out and change our questions. Here are two that can help us all gain some perspective and start finding more genuine joy in our lives.

"What are we losing in our quest for success?"

If you are like me, most valuable parts of your childhood did not take place in a special classroom or perfect practice field. Sure, you had teachers and parents to encourage you to do your best and work toward a goal, but that was balanced by plenty of other worthwhile pursuits like tearing apart a Stretch Armstrong doll to see what was inside, building bike ramps in the driveway, and racing leaf boats through a drainage ditch in a rainstorm. But we've sacrificed these things in pursuit of an ideal, and we've turned our children into little mini-adults in the process. Tiny professionals who have no time for brain-building, soul-boosting play during the week, so they desperately cram it into a weekend schedule packed with structured sports and recitals.

The bigger issue is "What's the ultimate goal?"

Encouraging a child's potential is a good thing. And there is nothing wrong with extracurricular activities. They teach worthwhile skills and instill core values in a child. Values such as discipline, commitment, goal-setting, and persistence. And providing these opportunities is my job as a parent. But there is a big difference between wanting what's best for your kids, and wanting them to be the best.

Wanting what's best for your kids is all about the child. It's about helping them find something they are passionate about so they are intrinsically driven to find their passion, whether in art, music, sports, writing, academics, or community service.

Wanting them to be the best is all about me. My expectations. My fears. So I yell at them from the stands, correct them after lessons, and coax them into activities that suck the fun out of childhood. And in the process, I teach them that their worth is wrapped up in how they perform. I teach them that second place is losing. I teach them that judgment is more important than love and acceptance.

What if I were to ask you to list the five people who have meant the most to you in your life? The ones who taught you what it means to be a true friend. A person of integrity. The list would be filled with people who never had a highway or high school named after them. People who never had their name carved on a ceremonial trophy. The mere thought of their faces likely makes your heart swell. Might even bring a tear to your eye.

And this is the goal. To be on the list for our kids. So that they might be on someone else's list someday.