Research Insights: Independent School Health Check Examines Teen Support Systems

NAIS

Summer 2018

By Rosemary Baggish and Peter Wells

At times, it might seem like teens want nothing to do with adults. But research from Independent School Health Check (ISHC) shows that the opposite is true. In 2007, we created ISHC, a computer-based survey, to more accurately gauge the experience of adolescents in independent schools. The ISHC assesses students’ perceptions, feelings, and behaviors regarding their schools, families, and friends as well as the risk and protective factors that affect their health and well-being. The survey assesses school attitudes and motivation, school pressure, parental supervision, social and emotional connections to adults and peers, substance use, sexuality, sleep, and diet.

Over the past 11 years, the ISHC has collected data from 80,816 middle and high school students in 102 independent schools; most schools have conducted the survey multiple times. Schools that conduct surveys typically use the data to develop and fine-tune health and wellness programs, to identify areas that need attention, as well as areas of particular strength.

One area of inquiry for the ISHC is a student’s relationship with adults. The survey asks students to rate “the adult(s) who is primarily responsible for caring for [them] on a daily basis” on behaviors such as “expresses interest in my life,” “expects me to ask if I can go out,” and “supports my efforts in sports, music, or other activities.” The survey also asks students to rate their perceptions of teachers including statements such as “teachers at my school pay attention to my personal needs, not just academic performance,” and “my teachers treat me with respect.”

Over the years, we have been impressed by the high level of engagement that so many parents maintain, and by the extent to which so many students feel that their teachers support their personal needs as well as their academic needs.

The Findings

Not all parents are supportive, however, nor do all students find encouraging adults in schools—perhaps because they were already wary about trusting an adult. Nevertheless, when we track what happens to adolescents without a reliable adult to talk to and depend on, we find that these are young people at greater risk. Conversely, when adolescents have an adult to talk with, there is benefit to both the student and to the school.

The ISHC asks several questions about students’ interactions with the adults in their lives. More than three-quarters say they “have an adult to talk to on a regular basis about what is going on in [their] life.” About 84 percent agree that “if faced with a really important question or serious problem, [they] would talk to an adult.” Mothers are the adults who students talk to the most (81.9 percent), followed by fathers (62.8 percent). Teachers (26 percent), counselors (24.6 percent), and coaches (15.4 percent) are also adults students turn to.

In high-stakes behavior, the absence of adult support is alarming. For those adolescents who think their parents are not interested or supportive, the likelihood of suicidal thoughts triples. Students who think their teachers are not attentive to their needs are twice as likely to report self-harm or suicidal thoughts. These students are also more likely to break school rules and have a much lower sense of belonging.

How Schools Can Help

What can schools do to encourage students to have attachments to adults in the community? They can build on the already effective outreach of the adults in the school community by supporting adviser programs. Offer advisers training, support, and accountability to guide them so they are able to productively engage with students and their parents. Schools can enhance their programs by offering training in communication strategies, scheduling regular adviser times, and expecting that advisers maintain contact with their advisees and their parents/guardians.

Building a working connection with families is another important strategy for enhancing students’ perception that adults are available to them. In addition to the standard parent meetings and activities that schools offer, it is important to encourage parents/guardians to reach out to their child’s adviser with any questions or concerns about their child, their family, or the school program. An effective adviser program can function as a safety net for all students when they experience academic, social, or personal problems in school and at home. ▪

To see schools that have participated, surveys available, and more, visit independentschoolhealth.com.

AUTHOR

Rosemary Baggish

Rosemary Baggish developed Independent School Health Check, a project of BMW Consulting LLC.

 

Peter Wells

Peter Wells developed Independent School Health Check, a project of BMW Consulting LLC.

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The Perils Of Pushing Kids Too Hard, And How Parents Can Learn To Back Off

NPR

Kids in elite high schools face increasing pressures from peers, teachers and parents.

Francesco Zorzi for NPR

On New Year’s Eve, back in 2012, Savannah Eason retreated into her bedroom and picked up a pair of scissors.

“I was holding them up to my palm as if to cut myself,” she says. “Clearly what was happening was I needed someone to do something.”

Her dad managed to wrestle the scissors from her hands, but that night it had become clear she needed help.

“It was really scary,” she recalls. “I was sobbing the whole time.”

Savannah was in high school at the time. She says the pressure she felt to succeed — to aim high — had left her anxious and depressed.

“The thoughts that would go through my head were ‘this would be so much easier if I wasn’t alive, and I just didn’t have to do anything anymore.’ ”

Looking back Savannah, now 23, says the pressure started early.

She told us her story as we sat at the kitchen table of her childhood home in Wilton, Conn., a wealthy community near New York. Her dad commutes to the city where he works in finance.

From the outside, Savannah’s life may have appeared picture-perfect: two well-educated, loving parents; a beautiful home; siblings and lots of friends.

From an early age, Savannah says, she was considered one of the smart kids, and when she arrived at Wilton High School, she was surrounded by many other high achievers. Lots of kids take a heavy load of Advanced Placement and honors courses. They play varsity or club sports and are involved in lots of extracurricular activities.

But by sophomore year, the high expectations began to feel like a trap. Like many kids at her school – and at elite high schools across the country – she felt compelled to push herself to get good grades and get into a top college.

“Even though I was getting A’s and B’s, mostly A’s, in all my classes — all my honors classes — I still felt it wasn’t good enough,” Savannah says.

No matter how well she did, someone else was doing better. “The pressure I put on myself was out of control,” she says. She says she felt the pressure all around her — from peers, teachers and her parents.

Newfound awareness of these kinds of struggles, has started a conversation — and new initiatives — in her community. A group of parents is trying to shift the culture to balance the focus on achievement with an emphasis on well-being. Part of the equation is freeing up kids to find their own motivation and life path. There is a growing body of evidence pointing to elevated risks of anxiety, depression, and drug and alcohol use among kids raised in privileged communities.

A wake-up call

Savannah’s mother, Genevieve Eason, feels she was partly to blame for the pressure Savannah felt.

“I know I was talking to her by eighth grade,” Genevieve recalls, “about how she needed to find out what her passions were, so she could get involved in the right activities … so that would look good on her college applications.”

But after Savannah’s problems began, Genevieve says, she backed off. She helped Savannah drop some of her tougher courses. And the family started to focus on well-being.

“Up to that point, I totally bought into the idea we’re supposed to push our kids to achieve. When they encounter obstacles, we push [them] to overcome those,” Genevieve says. But pushing too hard can backfire.

Given the pressure-cooker environment in her community, Genevieve wondered how many other teens may also be struggling.

In order to find out, she got together with some other parents and counselors — and worked with Wilton High School to do something very unusual. They hired a psychologist to come in and assess the student body.

On the day we visited, the seniors were preparing for graduation. In the main hallway, there was a bulletin board on which students have each pinned the logo of the college they plan to attend. We saw Dartmouth, Yale, Vanderbilt, Harvard — and many other highly selective universities.

Clearly, many kids here excel. But the results of the mental health assessment showed that a lot of kids struggle, too.

“The survey results definitely suggested that Wilton High School’s rates of anxiety and depression with students was higher than national averages — significantly higher,” says school principal Robert O’Donnell. He says he was surprised and concerned.

About 1,200 students — almost the entire student body — took the survey, known as the Youth Self-Report. The survey found that compared with a national norm of 7 percent, about 30 percent of Wilton High School students had above average levels of internalizing symptoms. These include feelings of sadness, anxiety and depression. It also includes physical problems that can be linked to emotional distress such as headaches or stomachaches. Often, kids may hide these feelings.

The survey also found that rates of alcohol and drug use among Wilton students were higher than average, too. We asked the psychologist who did the assessment whether she was surprised by what she found.

“This is by no means unique to Wilton. It’s a common phenomenon across high-achieving schools,” says Suniya Luthar, professor emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College and founder of Authentic Connections, a nonprofit that aims to build resilience in communities and schools.

Luthar has been studying adolescents for more than 20 years. She has published several studies that document the elevated rates of drug and alcohol use by kids who grow up in privileged communities — where incomes and expectations are high. Surprisingly, she says, the rates rival what she has documented in low-income, urban schools.

“What we’ve found is that kids in high-achieving, relatively affluent communities are reporting higher levels of substance use than inner-city kids and levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms are also commensurate — if not greater,” Luthar says.

Her most recent study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, found that rates of substance abuse remain high among upper-middle-class kids, as they enter early adulthood. The alcohol or drugs are a form of self-medication.

Savannah’s mother, Genevieve Eason, says she is not surprised by Luthar’s findings.

“People choose communities like this to give their children opportunities, but it comes at a cost,” Eason says.

The survey findings have been a wake-up call for the community of Wilton. “A lot of people were in denial,” says Vanessa Elias. The mother of three children is the president of the Wilton Youth Council, which aims to promote the emotional well-being of the community.

“People don’t talk about these things,” Elias says. Families often struggle silently, not realizing that their friends’ or neighbors’ kids are experiencing the same struggles. “So having an opportunity to create a conversation about this was really important,” she says.

Dialing back the pressure

The community has lots of ideas about how to tackle these issues.

The high school is focused on continuing to train counselors, and student-directed initiatives are aimed at raising awareness about anxiety and depression.

Wilton is also offering a resilience training program — GoZen! — to elementary school students. It’s a research-based program that teaches coping and happiness skills. There’s a body of evidence to show that resilience training can help reduce symptoms of depressive or negative thinking among children.

At home, Elias says, she has tried to create a low-stress environment for her children. For instance, she limits the number of after-school activities her kids participate in so they don’t spend every afternoon being driven around, overscheduled. She also limits homework time in the evening for her youngest daughter — a third-grader. As a result, “there’s a lot less friction in the household,” she says.

And when she realized that the focus on standardized testing was making one of her daughters anxious in first grade — and giving her stomachaches — she opted her two youngest children out of standardized testing.

Elias says she has been influenced by the book How To Raise An Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims, which aims to help parents break free of what the author dubs the “over-parenting trap.”

But to really change things — to dial back the focus on academic achievement at all costs — will require a culture shift, says Eason.

“We have to broaden our definitions of success and celebrate more kinds of success,” she says.

For Eason’s daughter, Savannah, this means forging a new path.

“I don’t want to work on Wall Street; that sounds miserable to me,” Savannah says.

She enrolled in culinary school, and she is training to be a pastry chef.

“I’m never going to live the same lifestyle I did growing up,” Savannah says, “I’m not going to make that much money, but that’s OK.”

She has her own set of priorities. “It’s not about how big your house is and what kind of car you drive. It’s about happiness and peace.”

This is a different kind of success, one that her parents are now celebrating with her.

“I spend hours making a cake, and my favorite part is when you cut it up and people eat it,” Savannah says. “That’s the part when you bring joy to people, and that’s what’s important to me now.”

Tips To Dial Back The Pressure

Start a conversation — and keep it going

“Ask your kids the question ‘Am I pushing you too hard?’ ” says Colleen Fawcett, Wilton Youth Services coordinator. Don’t just ask once, she says, ask it periodically and keep the line of communication open.

Don’t supervise everything

“It’s OK to let them out of your sight,” says Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, an organization that promotes childhood resilience. Let kids choose activities to do by themselves, like going to the store or walking to the park. Try this exercise from Let Grow for giving kids more control, which can buffer anxiety and foster self-confidence.

Let them play

Unlike supervised activities, Skenazy says, free play teaches kids how to negotiate, compromise, make friends and communicate. “When we deprive children of unstructured playtime, they don’t learn how to mature or deal with frustration or fear,” she says.

Underschedule

“Try to counterbalance the highly competitive culture,” says parent Vanessa Elias. Resist the temptation to overschedule your kids. Encourage them to limit their organized activities, and emphasize family time and downtime.

Break the Cycle of Stress and Distraction by Using Your Emotional Intelligence

Being able to focus helps us succeed. Whether it’s focusing inward and attuning ourselves to our intuitions and values or outward and navigating the world around us, honing our attention is a valuable asset.

All too often though, our focus and attention get hijacked, leaving us feeling frazzled, forgetful, and unable to concentrate. In my coaching work with executives, these are the kinds of statements I most often hear when they’ve lost their focus (I may have uttered a few of them myself):

  • “I feel completely overwhelmed.”
  • “My workload is insane, and there’s never enough time to get things done when I’m in meetings and dealing with urgent issues all day long.”
  • “I’m mentally exhausted from the pressure and constant distractions in my office. I just can’t seem to focus.”

Constant distractions and a lack of time certainly interrupt our focus, but stress also plays a major role.

Chronic stress floods our nervous system with cortisol and adrenaline that short-circuits important cognitive functions. Researchers have studied the negative effects of stress on focus, memory, and other cognitive functions for decades. The findings are consistent – short-term stress raises cortisol levels (the so-called stress hormone) for short periods and can jump-start our adrenalin and motivate us to perform more efficiently in response to impending deadlines. Long-term stress, however, can lead to prolonged increases in cortisol and can be toxic to the brain. Scientists also suspect that high levels of cortisol over a long period of time are a key contributor to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

When we can’t focus at work because of distractions, it may lead us to feel stressed about not being productive, which then causes us to focus less, further feeding the cycle. Unfortunately, most of us don’t notice our focus declining until we become completely overwhelmed. When mental and emotional exhaustion sets in, it further drains our ability to focus, concentrate, and recall information.

Fortunately, there are things we can do to break the cycle. I’ve found in my research that one of the reasons why some people get burned out and others don’t is because they use their emotional intelligence (EI) to manage their stress. You can use these same competencies, in particular self-awareness and self-management, to improve your focus. Here’s how.

Start by using your self-awareness to help you notice several things:

Why you feel stressed or anxious. Before you can deal with stress, you need to know what’s causing it. As simple as it may sound, it can be helpful to make a list of the sources of your stress. Write down each thing in your life and at work that’s causing you anxiety. You might categorize items into things you have the ability to change and things you don’t. For the stressors in the latter category, you will need to figure out how to change your attitude toward them.

How you lose your ability to focus. According to clinical psychologist Michael Lipson, you can learn to sharpen your focus, by understanding how exactly your concentration strays in the first place. By paying attention to the patterns that lead to your lack of focus, you can begin to develop your ability to dismiss distractions and stay with your original point of attention.

How you feel when you can’t focus. Does it make you anxious when you can’t recall information when you need it – perhaps during a job interview, a high-stakes presentation, or an important client meeting? Do you feel tense and dazed when you’re racking your brain trying to find just the right words for an important email? These can be clues that you’re more stressed than you may realize, and that your inability to concentrate is causing even more stress.

When you lose your ability to focus. If, for example, you find yourself worrying yourself sick over something while you’re driving 65 mph on the highway with a car full of kids, you’re putting yourself and others in real danger. This can be a wake-up call to bring your attention back to what you’re doing and make a decision to think about your concerns later.

Once you’ve increased your awareness of what’s causing you stress and how and when you lose your focus, you can use the following strategies, which depend on your self-management abilities, to make better choices that keep you focused.

Do a digital detox. In its 2017 Stress in America survey, The American Psychological Association (APA) found that “constant checkers” – people who check their emails, texts, and social media on a constant basis – experience more stress than those who don’t. More than 42% of respondents attribute their stress to political and cultural discussions on social media, compared with 33% of non-constant checkers. While it may feel impossible to take a cold turkey break from technology, the APA says that periodically unplugging or limiting your digital access can be great for your mental health.

Rest your brain. Most of us have experienced sleepless nights caused by ruminating over past events, or fears and anxieties about the future. But when you add a few of these nights together, sleep deprivation can set in, making it more difficult to focus, and more challenging to receive and recall information. Our interpretation of events and our judgment may be affected, too. Lack of sleep can negatively affect our decisions because it impairs our ability to accurately assess a situation, plan accordingly, and behave appropriately. Committing to the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night may seem impossible when you’re stressed and overworked, but the payoff is worth it.

Practice mindfulness. The research on mindfulness is clear and compelling. Having a mindfulness practice decreases our tendency to jump to conclusions and have knee-jerk reactions we may regret later (and potentially cause more stress). Neuroscientist Richard Davidson says that “Mindfulness boosts the classic attention network in the brain’s fronto-parietal system that works together to allocate attention.” In other words, mindfulness is key to emotional resilience, which is a key contributor in our ability to quickly recover from stress. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a serious yogi to practice mindfulness. You can find some simple methods for everyday people here.

Shift your focus to others. When we fixate on our own worries and fears, it can take our attention away from those we care about. Studies (mine included) show that shifting our focus to others produces physiological effects that calm us and strengthen our resilience. If you pay more attention to other people’s feelings and needs, and show concern for them, you can not only take your mind off of your stress but also reap the benefits of knowing that you’re doing something meaningful for someone you care about.

Too many people feel like they need to work harder when they struggle to focus. But this strategy is likely to backfire. Instead, pay attention to the causes of your stress and inability to focus and then take actions that promote improvements in the specific brain functions that drive concentration and awareness

Quick Classroom Exercises to Combat Stress

Edutopia

These brain breaks and focused-attention practices can help students cope with stress and trauma and focus on their learning.

The trauma and adversity that students are carrying into classrooms are changing how educators need to address learning and academic performance. Fifty-one percent of children in public schools live in low-income households, and when poverty levels exceed 50 percent, there’s a significant drop in academic performance across all grade levels. At the same time, 25 percent of all adolescents—including 30 percent of adolescent girls—are experiencing anxiety disorders.

Adversity and trauma reside in our biology, not our psychology and cognition, so we educators need to prime students’ brains for learning. This calls for a deeper understanding of how our brains develop and how they respond to adversity and trauma, and how building relationships and providing strategies that promote emotional regulation can positively affect students’ emotional, physiological, and cognitive health.

Brain Breaks

Brain breaks stimulate many areas in the brain that pay attention to novelty and curiosity, sparking the motor and sensory systems while initiating emotional regulation in the more reactive and primitive areas of the brain. Here are a few brain breaks you can try in class.

Funny talk: Have students loosely touch the roof of their mouth with their tongue and begin to speak. Create a class chant to say altogether, or the teacher can address the class, modeling what he or she would like students to say.

Tongue stretch: Have students use clean hands or a Kleenex to stretch their tongue as far as it can go. This relaxes the throat, palate, upper neck, and brain stem. What could you add to this to make it funny?

Hum: There are many ways you can incorporate humming as a break or to begin class. Lead students in Simon Says or Name That Tune, or have them move their arms and legs to someone’s humming. This activity releases stress and blockages in the brain stem.

Bilateral scribbles: Have students hold a different color marker in each hand and draw or scribble to the beat of some music for 30 seconds. When they’re finished, see if the drawings turned into anything familiar or strange. Have them share with a classmate and then give their art a name.

Name scribbles: Have students write their favorite word four times with their dominant hand and then again with their other hand. Discuss how it felt, which they found more difficult and why, and what happened in their brains when they used their non-dominant hand.

Focused-Attention Practices

Focused-attention practices calm the brain’s stress response and stimulate sustained attention and emotional regulation. A regulated and calm brain is a brain that is ready to deeply learn.

When we consciously use sensations, breath, movement, and our body’s awareness, we activate those areas in the brain that pay attention to what is happening in this moment, while supporting areas we need for learning, attention, and engagement. I’ll share four focused-attention practices here.

Ice cube: Give each student an ice cube and a paper towel or napkin to hold. As they hold the ice cube, ask them to focus on what it feels like in their hands and what the sensation reminds them of. Can they sit still and wait for the ice cube to melt?

Deep breathing: Have students scrunch their toes and cross their legs at the ankles. Then they should cross the left arm over the right arm, clasp their hands together, and—keeping their hands clasped—bring them toward their chest. Have them hold that pose for 30 seconds as they take five deep breaths, and then have them take another 30 seconds to uncurl their toes, uncross their legs, extend and unclasp their hands, and uncross their arms while taking another five deep breaths. How did that feel?

So what? As students close their eyes and sit up nice and tall in their chairs, they should visualize a golden thread that connects their hearts to their stomachs. As they breathe in, have them picture a pulse in the thread moving from their stomachs to their hearts; with each exhale, the pulse travels from the heart back down to the stomach. As the students breathe, have them say, “So what?” to themselves if a negative thought occurs.

Feeling phrases: To begin the day, have students share through a picture or description how their bodies feel. Some example phrases: cold/warm/hot; twitchy/butterflies/soft/stuck; sharp/dull/itchy; shaky/trembly/tingly; jittery/weak; empty/full; relaxed/calm/peaceful; flowing/spreading; strong/tight/tense; dizzy/fuzzy/blurry; numb/prickly/jumpy/tearful/goosebumpy.

Sensations are different than emotions in that they describe the way the body feels physically. Children who struggle with speaking can point to places on their body that hold a sensation. Sensory awareness promotes cognitive growth and self-awareness. When students can begin to identify their sensations, they begin to tap into where the negative feelings and images are. This focused-attention practice can be implemented several times a day after different experiences. Questions to ask as part of this practice:

  • What are you sensing? As the teacher, begin by sharing and modeling your own sensations.
  • Where is this in your body?
  • What might be the reason for these butterflies?
  • Can you draw what fuzzy, tingly, tight, etc. looks like?

Spreading First Aid for Teens’ Mental Health by Training Adults to Help

MindShift

iStock/Anna_Isaeva

During the vulnerable transition from childhood to young adulthood, many kids grapple with low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20 percent of adolescents between the ages of 13-18 live with a mental health condition. In fact, a recent study found that nearly 25 percent of teenage girls and almost 10 percent of teen boys suffer from depression by the age of fourteen.

When kids struggle, their emotional problems often unfold in the classroom, affecting their ability to concentrate and straining interactions with teachers and peers. Left untreated, mental health concerns can contribute to high school dropout rates. A 2001 survey conducted by the Department of Education found almost 50 percent of students age 14 and older with mental illness withdraw from school, and a recent study, published in the journal BMC Public Health discovered males with psychological disorders are five times more likely to quit attending school.

While educators often want to assist these students, many feel unsure of what to say, especially during a mental health crisis. But a community-wide intervention called Mental Health First Aid seeks to equip teachers, parents and caregivers with the information and skills they need to intervene during a mental health emergency.

MHFA training, referred to as “CPR for the mind,” teaches educators and caretakers how to recognize, understand and respond to signs of psychological distress. Educators across the country can receive “Youth” First Aid training, a unique version of MHFA teaching individuals how to recognize the psychological challenges that adolescents face.

“The course taught me how to get students the help they need, especially in an emergency,” says Tori Wardrip, an art teacher at Lewis and Clark Middle School in Billings, Montana.

Wardrip completed the training in June. The full-day course taught her several First Aid skills, including how to recognize the signs of a panic attack, psychosis and PTSD. She also learned how to assess for suicide risk by asking questions like, “Are you having thoughts of hurting yourself?” and “Are you in danger?”

Spreading the Word

Since 2013, more than 200,000 educators have been trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid, according to Betsy Schwartz, vice president of public education at the National Council for Behavioral Health; hundreds of middle schools, high schools and 27 state departments of education have implemented it. Schwartz says the results have been positive, resulting in $30 million in grant funding from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration’s (SAMHSA) Now is the Time Project AWARE grant initiative.

The initiative also has garnered support from pop star Lady Gaga, who wants to help break silence around mental health. In 2012, the singer and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta started the “Born This Way Foundation,” a nonprofit organization committed to raising awareness about mental wellness, especially for young people. Recently, the foundation partnered with the National Council for Behavioral Health to sponsor Mental Health First Aid training across the nation.

The program trains people how to support and de-escalate an emergency crisis by using a five-step action plan, called ALGEE, according to Schwartz. “ALGEE stands for assessing for suicide risk/self-harm, listening nonjudgmentally, giving reassurance and information, encouraging professional help, and encouraging self-help and additional support strategies,” says Schwartz.

She adds that educators and caregivers who participate in the daylong YMHFA training learn how to recognize risk factors and warning signs of youth mental health challenges. Individuals are also informed about the prevalence of mental illness among adolescents, learning how protective factors, like available mental health resources, can contribute to psychological resilience.

During training, YMHFA participants practice these skills by role-playing with each other. Similar to medical First Aid training, role-play mimics realistic emergencies, allowing people to rehearse what they might “say” and “do” in an actual mental health crisis.

While the training focuses on mental wellness, instructors also discuss topics, like bullying and attention difficulties, teaching educators how these behaviors contribute to mental health concerns, like depression, suicidality and eating disorders.

At Lewis and Clark, Wardrip has put her new knowledge to good use. Since completing the training, she has become the “go to” person for the faculty’s behavioral health questions, serving as a bridge between educators and counselors.

She’s also using her new knowledge to teach students how to look out for each other.

“This year, using my First Aid training, I plan to teach my kids how to recognize the signs of a mental health emergency. If a peer is in danger, I want them to know how to get help,” she says.

Additional Resources

recent report, released by the “Born This Way Foundation,” found that even though adolescents value their psychological well-being, less than half are talking about their mental health. However, research shows teaching kids how to find psychological resources can make a world of difference, helping to break the shame and stigma that surrounds mental illness.

Schwartz says, educators and caregivers who participate in the daylong YMHFA training will learn five First Aid skills, including:

  1. Recognizing risk factors and warning signs of youth mental health challenges
  2. Understanding the prevalence of mental health conditions among young people
  3. Understanding protective factors that contribute to psychological resilience
  4. Learning the ALGEE five-step action plan
  5. Identifying community resources that can help support adolescents and their families

With support from the Born This Way Foundation, the National Council for Behavioral Health hopes to train 150,000 additional educators, parents and caregivers before the end of 2017.

Educators who are interested in setting up a YMHFA training can find courses here. See Lady Gaga and Prince William chat on FaceTime about mental health from earlier this year:

Juli Fraga is a psychologist and writer in San Francisco. You can find her @dr_fraga on Twitter.  

Energy and Calm: Brain Breaks and Focused-Attention Practices

Edutopia

When presented with new material, standards, and complicated topics, we need to be focused and calm as we approach our assignments. We can use brain breaks and focused-attention practices to positively impact our emotional states and learning. They refocus our neural circuitry with either stimulating or quieting practices that generate increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, where problem solving and emotional regulation occur.

Brain Breaks

A brain break is a short period of time when we change up the dull routine of incoming information that arrives via predictable, tedious, well-worn roadways. Our brains are wired for novelty. We know this because we pay attention to every stimulus in our environment that feels threatening or out of the ordinary. This has always been a wonderful advantage. In fact, our survival as a species depended on this aspect of brain development.

When we take a brain break, it refreshes our thinking and helps us discover another solution to a problem or see a situation through a different lens. During these few minutes, the brain moves away from learning, memorizing, and problem solving. The brain break actually helps to incubate and process new information. Consider trying these activities with your class:

1. The Junk Bag

I always carry a bag of household objects containing markers, scrap paper, and anything that one would find in a junk drawer — for example, a can opener or a pair of shoelaces. Pick any object out of the junk bag and ask students to come up with two ways this object could be reinvented for other uses. They can write or draw their responses. Once students have drawn or written about an invention, they can walk the room for one minute sharing and comparing.

2. Squiggle Story

On a blank sheet of paper, whiteboard, or Promethean Board, draw one squiggly line. Give students one minute to stand and draw with their opposite hand, turning the line into a picture or design of their choice.

3. Opposite Sides

Movement is critical to learning. Have students stand and blink with the right eye while snapping the fingers of their left hand. Repeat this with the left eye and right hand. Students could also face one another and tap the right foot once, left foot twice, and right foot three times, building speed they alternate toe tapping with their partner.

4. Symbolic Alphabet

Sing the alphabet with names of objects rather than the letters.

5. Other Languages

Teach sign language or make up a spoken language. In pairs, students take turns speaking or interpreting this new language for 30 seconds each.

6. Mental Math

Give a set of three instructions, counting the sequence to a partner for 30 seconds. Example: Count by two until 20, then count by three until 50, finishing with seven until 80. Switch and give the other partner another set of numbers to count.

7. Invisible Pictures

Have a student draw a picture in the air while their partner guesses what it is. You could give them categories such as foods, places, or other ways to narrow the guessing.

8. Story Starters

A student or teacher begins a story for one minute, either individually or with a partner. The students then complete or continue it with a silly ending.

9. Rock Scissors Paper Math

With the traditional game, the last call-out is “math.” With that call, students lay out one, two, three, or four fingers in the palm of their hand. The best of three wins.

Focused-Attention Practices

A focused-attention practice is a brain exercise for quieting the thousands of thoughts that distract and frustrate us each day. When the mind is quiet and focused, we are able to be present with a specific sound, sight, or taste. Research repeatedly shows that quieting our minds ignites our parasympathetic nervous system, reducing heart rate and blood pressure while enhancing our coping strategies to effectively handle the day-to-day challenges that keep coming. Our thinking improves and our emotions begin to regulate so that we can approach an experience with variable options.

For the following practices, the goal is to start with 60 to 90 seconds and build to five minutes:

1. Breathing

Use the breath as a focus point. Have students place one hand close to their nose (not touching) and one hand on their belly. As they breathe in, have them feel their bellies expand. As they exhale, they can feel the warm air hit their hand. Students will focus on this breath for only one minute. Let them know that it’s OK when thoughts sometimes come into the mind uninvited. Tell them to exhale that thought away.

2. Colors

Visualize colors while focusing on the breath. Inhale a deep green, and exhale a smoky gray. Have the students imagine the colors as swirling and alive with each inhale. If a student is de-escalating from an angry moment, the color red is a great color to exhale.

3. Movement

For younger children, direct students to stand and, as they inhale, lift an arm or leg and wiggle it, exhaling it back to its original position. For younger grades beginning these focused-attention practices, it’s good to include an inhale and exhale with any type of movement.

4. The Deep-Dive Breath

We inhale for four counts, hold for four, and exhale slowly for four counts. You can increase the holding of breath by a few seconds once the students find the rhythm of the exercise.

5. Energizing Breath

We pant like a dog with our mouths open and our tongues out for 30 seconds, continuing for another 30 seconds with our mouths closed as we take short belly breaths with one hand on the belly. We typically take three energizing pant breaths per second. After a full minute, the students return to four regular deep inhales and exhales.

6. Sound

The use of sound is very powerful for engaging a calm response. In the three classrooms where I teach, we use rain sticks, bells, chimes, and music. There are many websites that provide music for focus, relaxation, and visualization. Here is one of my favorites.

7. Rise and Fall

As we breathe in and out through our noses, we can lie on the floor and place an object on our stomachs, enhancing our focus by watching the rising and falling of our bellies.

When we are focused and paying attention to our thoughts, feelings and choices, we have a much greater opportunity to change those thoughts and feelings that are not serving us well in life and in school. When we grasp this awareness, we see and feel the difference!

How do you stimulate or quiet your students?

Get Happy: Four Well-Being Workouts

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CreditCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

Relieving stress and anxiety might help you feel better — for a bit. Martin E.P. Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, does not see alleviating negative emotions as a path to happiness.

“Psychology is generally focused on how to relieve depression, anger and worry,” he said. “Freud and Schopenhauer said the most you can ever hope for in life is not to suffer, not to be miserable, and I think that view is empirically false, morally insidious, and a political and educational dead-end.”

“What makes life worth living,” he said, “is much more than the absence of the negative.”

To Dr. Seligman, the most effective long-term strategy for happiness is to actively cultivate well-being.

In his 2012 book, “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being,” he explored how well-being consists not merely of feeling happy (an emotion that can be fleeting) but of experiencing a sense of contentment in the knowledge that your life is flourishing and has meaning beyond your own pleasure.

To cultivate the components of well-being, which include engagement, good relationships, accomplishment and purpose, Dr. Seligman suggests these four exercises based on research at the Penn Positive Psychology Center, which he directs, and at other universities.

Identify Signature Strengths

Write down a story about a time when you were at your best. It doesn’t need to be a life-changing event but should have a clear beginning, middle and end. Reread it every day for a week, and each time ask yourself: “What personal strengths did I display when I was at my best?” Did you show a lot of creativity? Good judgment? Were you kind to other people? Loyal? Brave? Passionate? Forgiving? Honest?

Writing down your answers “puts you in touch with what you’re good at,” Dr. Seligman explained. The next step is to contemplate how to use these strengths to your advantage, intentionally organizing and structuring your life around them.

In a study by Dr. Seligman and colleagues published in American Psychologist, participants looked for an opportunity to deploy one of their signature strengths “in a new and different way” every day for one week.

“A week later, a month later, six months later, people had on average lower rates of depression and higher life satisfaction,” Dr. Seligman said. “Possible mechanisms could be more positive emotions. People like you more, relationships go better, life goes better.”

Find the Good

Set aside 10 minutes before you go to bed each night to write down three things that went really well that day. Next to each event answer the question, “Why did this good thing happen?”

Instead of focusing on life’s lows, which can increase the likelihood of depression, the exercise “turns your attention to the good things in life, so it changes what you attend to,” Dr. Seligman said. “Consciousness is like your tongue: It swirls around in the mouth looking for a cavity, and when it finds it, you focus on it. Imagine if your tongue went looking for a beautiful, healthy tooth.” Polish it.

Make a Gratitude Visit

Think of someone who has been especially kind to you but you have not properly thanked. Write a letter describing what he or she did and how it affected your life, and how you often remember the effort. Then arrange a meeting and read the letter aloud, in person.

“It’s common that when people do the gratitude visit both people weep out of joy,” Dr. Seligman said. Why is the experience so powerful? “It puts you in better touch with other people, with your place in the world.”

Respond Constructively

This exercise was inspired by the work of Shelly Gable, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has extensively studied marriages and other close relationships. The next time someone you care about shares good news, give what Dr. Gable calls an “active constructive response.”

That is, instead of saying something passive like, “Oh, that’s nice” or being dismissive, express genuine excitement. Prolong the discussion by, say, encouraging them to tell others or suggest a celebratory activity.

“Love goes better, commitment increases, and from the literature, even sex gets better after that.”