What educators can do for stressed-out students

By Anne Malver
Driving to work under blue skies and unseasonably warm temperatures for a November morning, I carried a concerning picture in my mind of one 9-year-old boy.
The previous day while preparing for an afternoon mindfulness lesson, I was called to the gym by our PE teacher, who pointed me in the direction of this boy, new to our district, sitting listlessly on the gym floor, curled up in a human ball, with an absence of expression and a down-trodden gaze.
Like many students in our rural, economically challenged town, he explained to me that he was paralyzed by the unbearable weight of what he generically referred to as “stress.”  
“I can’t take it”, he mumbled. “We just moved here. I don’t have any friends. My mom just left. The place we’re living in has broken windows and not enough beds for all of us kids. My baby sister cries all night and I just can’t sleep.”  
When I asked him about food, he listed soup, cheese sticks and crackers (which they finished last weekend).
As stated in the International Journal of Emotional Education, Mindfulness researchers Costello and Lawler found that “children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are at increased risk of experiencing stress and associated social-emotional difficulties and behavioral problems, which can undermine academic performance and lead to school dropout" (2014).
What can we educators do about stress in our lives and in the lives of our students? We can make teaching mindfulness in our schools a priority. You might ask, What is “Mindfulness” and how does it help decrease stress? Researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to Mindfulness as “the ability to direct attention to experiences as they unfold, moment by moment, with an open-minded curiosity and acceptance” (Costello and Lawler, 2014), and not only can practicing mindfulness decrease the effects of stress, it can also do the following, as stated in Mindfulness and Student Success (2015):
• Increase mental focus.
• Increase problem-solving skills.
• Increase compassion, patience, empathy and generosity.
• Decrease impulsivity.
• Decrease bullying incidents.
The next day, after listening to this third-grader’s story, I witnessed him on the circle rug with the rest of his classmates – sitting tall, cross-legged, eyes closed and hands calmly resting in his lap.
As I led the group in a mindfulness lesson, students took moments out of their academic studies to focus on the sound of a chime, beginning as a strong tone and fading off into nothing. They focused their attention on the sensations in their bodies as they breathed deeply and experienced calm. They identified their feelings with words and then with their hand-models of the brain.
Finally, one student explained that deep breathing allows his brain’s amygdala and hippocampus to settle down and provide access to his prefrontal cortex so that he can focus, think clearly and make good decisions again. Right then, I noticed that my 9-year-old student was not only getting familiar with his own brain, but was also calm and enjoying a well-deserved, stress-free moment.
Here in the Eatonville School District, we continue to develop programs and partnerships to better care for the social/emotional and mental health needs of our students. In addition to introducing Mindfulness to some of our children, we are also proud to provide the following:
• Partnership with Good Samaritan Behavioral Health, providing school-based mental health services for students and families on Medicaid.
• School counselors or school social workers in each building.
• Monthly mental health professional learning community used for discussing students, sharing resources, and analyzing data to better meet our students’ needs.
• Elementary school counselors visit classrooms, run groups and work with individual students using the evidence-based Second Step Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Curriculum and other supplementary materials such as Mind Up and Random Acts of Kindness.
• Behavior specialists give additional SEL lessons to our students who need additional practice in the skills taught in the classroom.
• Weekly CARE or HEART team meetings – multidisciplinary teams organized to discuss, and plan for, students who are struggling socially/emotionally and/or academically.
• Hands On Horses provides a weekly, small-group equine assisted-learning program that works on communication, boundaries and relationships.
• School-based mentoring programs.
As the social/emotional and mental health needs of our students increase, the Eatonville School District develops partnerships and designs innovative, evidence-based programs to address these needs.

Anne Malver is a school counselor for the Eatonville School District. She wrote this article for a bulletin of the Washington State School Directors Association of school boards.


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