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.
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
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.
I’d like to describe some practices that not only address the stress response in the limbic brain areas, but also attend to sensory and motor systems in the brain stem area. Often these systems are compromised because of chronic stress that has neurobiologically reprogrammed how the brain of a child or adolescent responds to adversity.
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 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?
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.
A 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:
Recognizing risk factors and warning signs of youth mental health challenges
Understanding the prevalence of mental health conditions among young people
Understanding protective factors that contribute to psychological resilience
Learning the ALGEE five-step action plan
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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.”
Hannah Vanderkooy demonstrates the napping pod she uses at Las Cruces High School in Las Cruces, N.M. Joe Suarez for NPR
When 18-year-old Hannah Vanderkooy feels extremely tired or anxious, she heads to a spacelike capsule for a nap — during school. Like many teens struggling to get good grades and maybe even a college scholarship, Vanderkooy doesn’t get enough sleep.
And she’s not alone. Various studies indicate that chronically sleepy and stressed-out teenagers might be the new normal among U.S. adolescents who are competing for grades, colleges and, eventually, jobs.
Studies have shown teenagers actually need between nine and 10 hours of sleep a night. But the vast majority (69 percent) aren’t getting it.
Enter “napping pods.” They’re essentially egg-shaped lounge chairs that recline, with a circular lid that can be pulled over the chest to shield against light.
“It just sort of envelops you in a really nice darkness, with soft lighting behind you,” says Vanderkooy, a frequent user of the pods. She says she typically gets only four to five hours of sleep a night.
There’s soft music playing in the pod and “you just feel extremely relaxed,” she says. The 20-minute experience is a wonderful “oasis” amid all the worry and stress of school, she says.
Las Cruces High School has one napping pod, which students use for 20 minutes when they are tired, stressed or angry.
Joe Suarez for NPR
“Being a senior, I have to apply for scholarships, do all my homework,” she says — noting that she’s taking three advanced placement courses. “So my sleep cycle has just sort of become this night-owl life, and it’s just kind of the new normal.”
A nap can’t substitute for a good night’s sleep, but it certainly can help, says Dr. Nitun Verma, a sleep specialist and spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
A short nap for a teenager “can give a boost to memory and attention during the day, and it can increase school performance,” he says, adding that in a perfect world, schools would roll back their start times.
As it is now, the average school starts at 7:30 in the morning while the start time recommended by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is 8:30 a.m. or later. On top of that, teens’ circadian rhythms work against them — coaxing them to stay up late and then sleep late. So they are already sleep-deprived and “waking up much earlier than normal,” Verma says.
Several public schools in New Mexico are trying to tackle the problem by providing napping pods for their students.
“We know lack of sleep changes mood and makes you more anxious,” says family nurse practitioner Linda Summers, who is an associate professor at New Mexico State University’s school of nursing in Las Cruces.
Summers also works with the nearby Las Cruces High School health center, and has seen firsthand the effects of sleep deprivation on students there. So she decided to apply for a federal health grant to buy the pods, which, at the time, cost $14,000 each. They were installed in four high schools.
Vanderkooy is a senior at Las Cruces High School. She says she typically gets only four to five hours of sleep a night. Joe Suarez for NPR
And while the Las Cruces school napping pods were bought to remedy sleep deprivation, Summers says, “it also turns out to be good for anger and stress.”
Even if kids don’t fall asleep, but simply “zone out,” she says, they emerge saying they feel “refreshed and calm.” This led Summers to embark on a study looking at the emotional impact of pods.
She recruited students who reported feeling “agitated or upset about something,” and had them describe their feelings before and after spending 20 minutes in the pod.
“They all felt more rested, happier and more in control of their emotions,” she says, “after just 20 minutes.” Summers now writes prescriptions for the nap pod for students who are anxious, angry or just plain sleepy.
The findings haven’t been published yet, but they have been accepted for publication by a peer-reviewed journal. Summers says the teachers and school nurses she works with already see the pods as a big success. Each capsule is sort of a “therapeutic study hall,” she says, that helps students focus better when they’re in the classroom.
Vanderkooy recalls falling asleep in one of her classes and being told by her teacher that she “really, really” needed to go take a nap.
“I came back and I was awake and attentive,” she says, able to take out her notes and proceed — “just like a normal class.”
Crying jags over B’s and test scores are common at Lexington High School. To lift spirits, students decorated rocks that they gave to friends.CreditGretchen Ertl for The New York Times
Small rocks from the beaches of eastern Massachusetts began appearing at Lexington High School last fall. They were painted in pastels and inscribed with pithy advice: Be happy.… Mistakes are O.K.… Don’t worry, it will be over soon. They had appeared almost by magic, boosting spirits and spreading calm at a public high school known for its sleep-deprived student body.
Crying jags over test scores are common here. Students say getting B’s can be deeply dispiriting, dashing college dreams and profoundly disappointing parents.
The rocks, it turns out, were the work of a small group of students worried about rising anxiety and depression among their peers. They had transformed a storage area into a relaxation center with comfy chairs, an orange/peach lava lamp and a coffee table brimming with donated art supplies and lots and lots of rocks — to be painted and given to favorite teachers and friends. They called it the Rock Room.
“At first it was just us,” said Gili Grunfeld, a senior who helped with the effort. “Then everyone was coming in.”
So many rocks were piling up, they had to be stored in a display case near one of the cafeterias. The maxims seemed to call out to students as they headed to their classes in conceptual physics, computer programming, astronomy and Advanced Placement Music Theory.
And they became a visual reminder of a larger, communitywide initiative: to tackle the joy-killing, suicide-inducing performance anxiety so prevalent in turbocharged suburbs like Lexington. In recent years, the problem has spiked to tragic proportions in Colorado Springs, Palo Alto, Calif., and nearby Newton, Mass., where stress has been blamed for the loss of multiple young lives. In January, a senior at Lexington High School, who had just transferred from a local private school, took her own life.
Residents in this tight-knit hamlet, with its high level of civic engagement, are hoping to stem the tide. Mary Czajkowski, the district superintendent, was hired in 2015 with the mandate of “tackling the issue head on.”
Elementary school students now learn breathing exercises and study how the brain works and how tension affects it. New rules in the high school limit homework. To decrease competition, there are no class rankings and no valedictorians and salutatorians. In town, there are regular workshops on teen anxiety and college forums designed to convince parents that their children can succeed without the Ivy Leagues. Last October, more than 300 people crammed into the town hall for a screening of “Beyond Measure,” a sequel to Vicki Abeles’s documentary on youth angst, “Race to Nowhere.”
“We want to be a model,” said Jessie Steigerwald, a longtime school board member.
But it has not been easy.
Claire Sheth, a mother of four who had invited Ms. Abeles to town, describes Lexington students as “tired to the core.” Students say depression is so prevalent that it affects friendships, turning teenagers into crisis counselors. “A lot of kids are trying to manage adult anxiety,” said the principal, Laura Lasa.
The problem is not anecdotal. In a 2015 national health survey, 95 percent of Lexington High School students reported being heavily stressed over their classes and 15 percent said they had considered killing themselves in the last year. Thinking about it most often were Asian and Asian-American students — 17 percent of them, as is the case nationally.
The town’s growing Asian community has not been timid acknowledging the problem. Through college forums and chat rooms, a group of parents and leaders of the local Chinese-American and Indian-American associations have been working to lower the competitive bar and realign parental thinking. Others are pushing back. They don’t want the workload reduced — they moved here for the high-rigor schools. At association meetings, where the tension is most pronounced, discussions about academic competition in the district have brought some to tears.
Indeed, reversing the culture is complicated in a town that prides itself on sending dozens of students to the Ivy Leagues: 10 went to Harvard last year and seven to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Young people are lauded at school board meetings and online for having published academic papers or performed at Lincoln Center. Last year, the varsity team placed second in the 2016 History Bowl nationals and fourth in the National Science Bowl. The robotics team has qualified for the FIRST Championship, an international technology and engineering competition, for five of the last six years.
After school recently at the public library, which was packed with students poring over textbooks, calculus work sheets, lab reports and term papers, a sophomore looked up from her world history textbook and said, “You see all these people? They want the same thing — that’s really overwhelming.” What they want: Entry into a top colleges when acceptance rates are at an all-time low.
Lexington looks and feels like a lot of other affluent suburbs: serene, stately, with a whiff of muted money. Minivans and aging Volvos are packed with violins and well-worn soccer gear. There are meticulously restored Colonials and Tudor revivals. Walk along the red brick sidewalks of Massachusetts Avenue, which cuts through the center of town, and Lexington’s Brahmin past is evident: a statue on the Battle Green of a musket-toting Captain John Parker, who led the fight against the British in 1775.
In evidence as well are signs of the burgeoning biotech industry, and the changing face of America’s elite.
Since 2000, the Asian population has ballooned from 11 percent to an estimated 22 percent of Lexington’s 32,000 or so residents, surpassing Newton (at about 13 percent) and Cambridge (15 percent). Today, more than a third of Lexington’s students are Asian or Asian-American. The demographic mirrors the migration of Asian families to suburbs across the country.
In the Crafty Yankee or the Asian bakery across the street, you are likely to bump into electrical engineers from Seoul, physicists from Beijing and biochemists from Boston. They teach at Harvard (10 miles away) and run labs at M.I.T. (11 miles). They hold top positions in the pharmaceutical companies that dot the Boston-area tech corridor. More than half of the adults in Lexington have graduate degrees. And many want their children to achieve the same.
In many ways, students in Lexington are the byproduct of the self-segregation that Enrico Moretti writes about in his book “The New Geography of Jobs,” which addresses the way well-educated, tech-minded adults cluster in brain hubs. For their children, that means ending up in schools in which everyone is super bright and hypercompetitive. It’s hard to feel special.
Best-selling authors and child psychologists have long urged parents to divest themselves from their child’s every accomplishment, thereby sending the message that mental health matters more than awards. In Lexington, the attack is more comprehensive, involving schools, neighborhoods, churches and synagogues. It is riffing off research that shows that resilience and happiness, reinforced by the entire community, can be just as contagious as stress and depression.
“You need to bring along everybody,” said Ms. Abeles, whose campaign has taken her to towns with similar communitywide efforts, including Elkins Park, Penn., San Ramon and Burbank, Calif., and New Rochelle, N.Y.
Peter Levine, associate dean for research at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts, says that communities that bond to promote pro-social behavior can be powerful inoculators for young people.
“Family problems are often community problems,” he said. “They need community solutions.”
No one is more aware of this than Ms. Lasa, who grew up here, earned degrees from nearby Springfield College and Lesley University, and then returned to the district — watching all the while as the population morphed from relatively laid back to Type A. She often wakes to emotional emails from parents delivered to her inbox after midnight. Most, she says, are about their children’s academic standing, and the tone is often disappointment.
Last fall, as 557 bright-eyed freshmen gathered in cushioned folding chairs in the auditorium for orientation, she gave a speech that over the last few years has come to focus more and more on stress reduction. She begged the students to make mistakes. “Do not believe that you must acquire straight A’s to be a successful student,” she said. “If you and/or your parents are caught up in society’s picture of success, let us help you change the focus.”
Students are now required to meet with counselors when choosing courses to talk about their academic loads. The practice is largely seen as a way of keeping students from overscheduling to beef up their college transcripts.
“We are trying to change a culture that is deeply rooted here,” Ms. Lasa told me in a sunny Boston accent as she barreled through the school. She was showing off the 45-minute free period she instituted this year, allowing — or in some cases, forcing — students to take time to unwind. Some were playing basketball in the gym. Others were talking with teachers. A few hung out in classrooms, chatting with friends. An awful lot, though, were getting a head start on homework.
Ms. Lasa says she is trying to “balance all the messages” they are getting about success and happiness. The one she wants to most impart is: “Slow down.”
The paradox of Lexington High School is that while indicators of anxiety abound, so too does an obsession with happiness. A large banner from the town’s newly formed suicide prevention group, a chapter of the national organization Sources of Strength, greets students as they enter the sprawling red brick building, proclaiming: “Be a Part of Happiness.” There are close to 50 students in the group. Below the banner are remnants of their project to spread positivity. Students were asked to write down their sources of strength, which were then posted beneath the banner and on Facebook. Some named their pets or friends. One wrote: “My mom.” Another: “Trip to Israel!” A girl with green hair: “Chicken curry.”
One morning in February, students in “Positive Psychology: The Pursuit of Happiness,” a popular elective, were following up on a discussion about the psychologist Barbara Fredrickson’s “broaden and build” theory, which posits that negative emotions like anxiety and fear prompt survival-oriented behaviors, while positive emotions expand awareness, spurring new ideas, creativity and eventually building skills.
“Today, we are going to look at pretty simple ways to make it more likely that you experience positive emotions on a day-to-day basis,” Matthew Gardner told his “Happiness” students as they pulled out notebooks and pencil cases. The class discussed the benefits of exercise and eating foods that release feel-good hormones. The students also learned that smiling and being smiled at releases dopamine, which has an uplifting impact.
Mr. Gardner offered an alternative to smiling: “Our brains are not so perfect that, sometimes, if you hold a pen or pencil like this” — he held a pencil between his teeth — “you activate some of the same face muscles. You might get a little bit of a dopamine effect, too.”
Several students held pencils between their teeth to test the theory.
At one point, the class practiced laughter yoga, raising their arms slowly as they breathed in, then lowering them as they breathed out, and bursting into peels of laughter. Afterward, the students recorded changes in their pulse rate to demonstrate research from the HeartMath Institute that shows heart rates slow down and smooth out after bouts of good feeling.
“It’s not just that your heart rate goes down and you become very calm,” Mr. Gardner explained. “It’s that the shape of your heart rate is smooth and more controlled. Frustration is more jagged.”
Their homework assignment: Do laughter yoga or “smile at five people you wouldn’t normally smile at.”
The effects of smiling are also taught in the A.P. Psychology class that Gili Grunfeld is taking, and it has informed her thoughts on stress. On a winter afternoon, she and several classmates were uncoiling in the Rock Room, making friendship bracelets and sketching in fat coloring books. A Post-it that read “Unplug” was taped to the wall clock. The students were bemoaning how so many of their peers develop “tunnel vision,” in Gili’s words, about schoolwork and extracurricular activities, sacrificing sleep and time with friends.
“They isolate for academics,” she said glumly.
Soon the students had changed topics, and were discussing the ice that had caked the school parking lot that morning and how to balance on it. The subtext, once again, was well-being: How much can friends support each other if both feel overwhelmed?
“Are we more likely to fall or are we more steady if we hold onto each other?” asked Jocelyn Geller, a junior.
“I feel like if you have a friend with you, you feel safer,” said Millie Landis, a sophomore, pulling Jocelyn up and wobbling on the floor with her to demonstrate. “But you could pull each other down.”
The district has increased the number of counselors and social workers, including those working in the district’s elementary schools, and expanded the training they receive in identifying and supporting at-risk students.
Cynthia Tang, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan, has been a counselor at Lexington High for 12 years. Warm and well-liked, she organizes workshops addressing the pressure on Asian students to succeed, borrowing insights from the childhood discord she experienced with her own parents as well as research on biculturalism. Studies show that the less assimilated parents are to American culture, the more stressed the children.
Adding to the pressure, she says, are cultural differences in how parents, raised abroad, and their offspring, raised in the United States, are expected to process setbacks and strife: American educators routinely encourage students to share their feelings; not so in Asia.
“I really see a lot of this being bicultural conflict,” Ms. Tang said. “When you have one side of the family holding one set of values and the other embracing a new set of values, that inherently creates a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of tension.”
Ms. Tang says that the disconnect is compounded by a lack of knowledge about the various routes to success available in the United States. Last year, she was brought in by the vice president of the local Chinese-American Association, Hua Wang, to help plan the college forum, a three-hour event on Father’s Day. Dr. Wang, an engineering professor at Boston University, wanted to shift the focus away from a guide on applying to top colleges.
Despite resistance from the organizers, he and Ms. Tang prevailed. At the forum, she presented a slide show celebrating the academic trajectories of respected Chinese-Americans: the fashion designer Vera Wang went to Sarah Lawrence College; Andrew Cherng, the founder of the fast-food chain Panda Express, went to Baker University in Kansas; the best-selling author Amy Tan, San José State University. Parents were surprised. But, Ms. Tang said, “I think a lot of parents felt like: ‘What do I do with that information?’”
This year, organizers will delve deeper into the differences between the Chinese and American systems, and are planning to add another new element: a panel discussion on combating stress. Dr. Wang said they want to showcase families who have adopted a more “holistic view” of education. Selected parents of graduating seniors will be asked to talk about how they encouraged their children to get enough sleep, comforted them when they came home with B’s and discouraged them from skipping ahead in math to be eligible for higher level classes earlier.
This would not be the only time that Dr. Wang has engaged in this kind of dialogue. Using the Mandarin words “danding,” which means to keep calm and steady, and “ruizhi,” which means wise and farsighted, he has initiated conversations on WeChat, an online chat room popular among Chinese parents. Recently, he told them: “Calmness and wisdom from the parents are the Asian child’s greatest blessings.”
But the message was not well received by everyone. Among the posted responses: “If your child gets a C, how do you get to a point of calm? You think we should be satisfied because at least he didn’t get a D?” And: “But my heart still whispers: Am I not just letting my child lose at the starting line?”
One parent, Melanie Lin, found herself, too, in a heated conversation on WeChat after early-admissions decisions arrived last school year. She urged the other parents to stop bragging on the site about acceptance letters to top-tier schools: “If it’s only those students who are attending the big-name schools that are being congratulated, then the idea being passed on is that only those students are successful, and attending a big-name school is the only way to become the pride of your parents.”
Dr. Lin, who works at a pharmaceutical company, emigrated in the 1990s from Beijing to get a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Arizona State University. She says her rebuttal annoyed even close friends, whose online responses accused her of trying to deny parents and their children their moments in the spotlight.
Recounting the conversation with me brought Dr. Lin to tears. “There is just so much pressure,” she said. For her, the struggles are not theoretical. On the home front, she too can be just as obsessed as her peers, she says.
Her daughter, Emily, would agree. During junior year, she dreaded car rides and family dinners — any time, really, that she was alone with her parents — because conversations routinely veered back to college. Now a senior, Emily has eight A.P. and 13 honors classes under her belt. She is also a violinist, choral singer, competitive swimmer and class vice president.
For a chunk of her high school career, Emily was one of those who “isolated for academics,” working into the early morning hours on homework and waking up, sometimes before dawn, after only five or so hours of sleep. She skipped birthday parties and lunch to squeeze in more studying. “I was never doing anything for pure fun,” she said. “I put my head down and I was always running somewhere with some purpose.”
But as a member of a youth board for a teen counseling center in town, she realized that her study habits were unhealthy. To get support for herself and others, she helped launch the town’s Sources of Strength chapter. She has assisted in planning student outreach events and spoke up at a town meeting about “the dog-eat-dog” competition that still persists at the high school.
Homework remains heavy, students say, particularly in high-level classes. Class rankings may be gone but students have a pretty good sense of where they stand. And while there has been talk of a later start time to the day so students can get more sleep, the idea is on hold.
In December, when early decisions came in, Emily found out she was deferred to the regular admissions pool by Yale, her top choice. Parents on WeChat were more sensitive this time around, but accepted seniors still bragged on Facebook.
Since then, Emily has been admitted to nine universities; rejected by three, including Yale; and waitllisted by Harvard and the University of Chicago. She is deciding between Columbia and Duke.
Through it all, she has wondered if it’s worth it.
“I lost out on a lot of high school,” she had told me as she waited for college decisions. What she hopes is that students who come after her find some balance before their time at Lexington is up.