By Dr. Ian Kelleher
I don’t think teachers or students ever get used to the end of the school year. For many students stress seems to be a constant companion as they balance final exams and projects. The excitement of the end and a beckoning summer is felt by some. But we must remember that for others the end of the routines and companionship of school brings significant anxiety. And most students have a constantly evolving and revolving mix of emotions. We have talked a lot before about how emotion and cognition are interlinked in the brain, and this time of year is a real case in point: work wise, a lot is at stake; emotion wise, rarely in the year is as much going on as now.
This year, of course, new demands are thrown into the mix. There is no robust research on what to do at this moment in time. But research does suggest some strategies that might be important.
1. Start with yourself
Taking time to center yourself helps you be present and caring for others. Here is a great resource we use for simple self-care practices. For COVID-19 related anxiety, these tips from Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence are good for everyone even though they were written with teachers in mind.
2. Help with planning and organizing
One thing that teachers have noticed during this spring of remote schooling is that children who could usually handle 4 or 5 steps at once can now only handle 1 or 2. One of the effects of stress is that it often impacts executive functioning skills, like our ability to organize a plan. The extra cognitive demands of dealing with new routines and ways of doing all the regular tasks of school make this worse. Help your child chunk out their time. And for each project, help them identify several intermediate steps and attach a date to when each step should be done. Write these plans down and post them somewhere visible in the house. Here is some good advice for planning from NYU.
3. Put in time for friends, fun, and me
As you help your child plan their time, make sure the plan includes (1) work time; (2) friends and family social connection time; (3) time for something that is fun or makes you smile; (4) “me time”, which can be on their own or with a close group of friends, where the goal is to help yourself be centered and calm. All of these are crucial elements for learning. At this crucial point in the year, as learning wraps up with so many high stakes demands, we can overly focus on just study time. It is important, but all four of these chunks need to be in place for effective studying to happen, so schedule in all four.
4. Set timers
Learning happens when you think hard. But thinking hard is, as the name suggests, hard. It is hard to sustain your attention. One measure of this is that your brain consumes about 20% of the calories you burn. Set timers (this can be a good study-related use of a phone) and stick to them. For example, 30 minutes of work, then a 10 minute break. Aim to do both these things, work and break, really well. A break should be exactly that, but so should work. Have the discipline to stick to the schedule.
5. Three projects are more than three times as hard as one project
Three projects are more than three times as hard as one project. Balancing multiple projects adds extra cognitive load and executive functioning demands, and these grow and grow with each new project added. Remote learning has led to more projects being set at the end of the year. Begin by simply recognizing how hard this is for all of you and as a family. There is no easy solution, but the suggestions outlined in points 1-4 can help.
6. Exercise and sleep
Exercise and sleep are necessities, not luxuries. Make sure the plan for each day includes 30 minutes for exercise (at minimum a safe, socially-distanced walk) and 9-10 hours of sleep (more for our youngest children).
7. Plan something to look forward to
This could be as simple as a favorite meal, or as complicated as you wish to make it. But having a recognizable, emotionally powerful object at the finish line can help get you to the end.
8. Intentionally build moments of fun and connection
Deliberately plan moments of fun and connection. Many times these moments happen spontaneously, but they can sometimes get lost if we don’t prioritize them. These tips from Challenge Success, run by Stanford’s Denise Pope, offer suggestions for all ages looking to add more playtime, downtime and family time (or, PDF).
Research on stress suggests that some stress is good but lots is not. Good stress, known as eustress, helps children build a robust stress response system, and helps build engagement that can lead to the highest levels of work. Research also suggests two important ways to buffer the negative effects of stress. Firstly, stress should have peaks and troughs — consistent high levels of stress are unhealthy. Secondly, strong, positive relationships with adults help buffer the effects of stress. One of the many reasons teachers have spent the year trying to build strong relationships with their students is to help with the stress they know will inevitably come at times, and to help guide your child through this time of stress.
We know this time of year is stressful, but we want to help your child get through it. Great growth is possible right now, too, precisely because it is happening in the face of stress. So, as a final word, relationships matter. Do whatever you can to urge your child to be the best self advocate they can be and stay in touch with their teacher. It is more than just getting the correct answer to question seven; it is about ending a tough year’s journey together as strongly as possible.
Dr. Ian Kelleher is a science teacher at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, and Head of Research for its Center for Transformative Teaching & Learning. His work focuses on helping teachers translate the science of learning into everyday practices in their own classrooms, and measuring the impact. Ian is the co-author of “Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education,” and co-designer of Neuroteach Global. Ian is the the inaugural Joseph and Kathleen Dreyfuss Faculty Chair for Research, an endowed position at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School for the lead CTTL researcher.