This story recently appeared in the winter 2012 edition of Harker Quarterly.
As upper school students face mounting pressure in their academic and personal lives, stress increasingly becomes a factor in their well-being, which can have a dramatic effect on their ability to function both in and out of the classroom. In recent years, Harker has become proactive in reducing stress among the student population, particularly as students prepare to take their SATs and apply to universities.
In 2008, the Wellness program was established to hold hourlong sessions and assemblies about health and general well-being. The sessions were meant as an alternative for health classes and were held for each grade, “with the content directed at the development of the students,” said Jane Keller, math teacher and director of the program. Since then, assemblies and events have been held several times each year, covering topics such as time management, stress reduction and drug abuse.
Three years ago, the program directors established a Wellness Board for a broader range of input, and in 2011 began bringing in student representatives from each class so that the board would have a better idea of what to include in the sessions. The board later changed its name to “LIFE” (Living with Intent, Focus and Enthusiasm) “so it could represent the values we are learning at Harker for life,” Keller said.
Jenny Chen, grade 12, one of the student representatives on the LIFE board, describes it as “a collaboration between students, counselors, teachers and administrators. We meet every few weeks to discuss and advocate for student health.” Student representatives deliver feedback from classmates about wellness events and assemblies. “In addition, we all share student needs and help pinpoint what we feel are the main stressors in students’ lives, arranging for assemblies and speakers to help provide students with more resources on these subjects,” said Chen.
Frequent assessments and the constantly changing nature of their daily and weekly schedules can be major stressors on students, Chen said, as is learning to juggle their academic responsibilities with extracurricular activities. “Moreover, I feel that especially as students get older, anxiety begins to build regarding college admissions; students become more stressed as they work to become competitive applicants. Parental expectations and pressures, too, can sometimes add extra stress to students’ lives,” she added.
As these challenges pile up, they can lead to health problems that affect student performance and well-being. “I know that a sizable proportion of students are chronically sleep-deprived during the week and many will spend lunch times catching up on homework or studying for upcoming tests,” Chen said.
Although some students have shown reluctance to attending the assemblies, as they sometimes occur during free periods, Chen is confident that the lessons learned at the events will show benefits in the long term. Indeed, teacher response to the program has been favorable. “Quite a few teachers have expressed approval and encouragement for the Wellness program,” she said. “Many are now more sensitive to student needs, implementing practices in the classroom to reduce stress as much as possible.”
One such practice is the inclusion of “mindful moments,” one- to two-minute intervals of relaxation and breathing that help students gather their focus, especially just before an exam.
Additionally, Athena2, Harker’s internal network for students and faculty, contains links to resources on stress reduction that both students and teachers can utilize. LIFE also recently began discussing the idea of holding a Wellness Fair, a one-day event that would make workshops on yoga, healthy food recipes and more available to students and faculty. “Though this year’s Wellness schedule has already been filled with speakers and other events, we hope to implement this event in the upcoming year and very much look forward to it,” said Chen. The board also plans to have more interactive LIFE assemblies “to help engage the students and communicate our message of well-being,” she added.
Teachers have also benefited from wellness initiatives, as demonstrated by fall visits to the school by Meg Levie of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI), the organization co-founded by Chade-Meng Tan, a pioneer at Google who now seeks to foster happiness in the workplace. “The goal was to teach participants how to calm their minds and deepen their self-awareness,” said Jennifer Gargano, assistant head of school for academic affairs. “The hope is that in doing so, one reduces and manages stress, increases overall well-being, improves focus and creativity, and in general becomes more resilient and able to build satisfying relationships.”
Keller said the presentation also gave the faculty in attendance “an opportunity to relate with their peers and feel better connected across the campuses.
“One of the important aspects for us as teachers was to really drive home the point that we need to slow down,” Keller added. “Harker is a high-energy place so it was important for faculty and staff to see the benefits of stillness. Hopefully, this idea of time for themselves will have an impact on how assignments are given.”
Psychotherapist Gina Biegel, author of “The Stress Reduction Workbook for Teens,” also visited in the fall and held a session for students. “Gina talked about the change that can happen to parts of your brain when you begin to live in the present,” Keller said. “Stopping to breathe, sitting quietly, counting your breaths and meditating can have an impact on how we process information.”
In 2012, Harker began working with Challenge Success, an organization based at Stanford University that is dedicated to student engagement and well-being. A team consisting of teachers, administrators and students was put together to attend conferences and speak with Challenge Success representatives to discover ways in which student well-being could be advanced.
One idea that came from working with Challenge Success was the new chime that accompanies the start and end of every period. Challenge Success found that startling bell noises actually increased stress at the moments they were sounded, and so several schools decided to do without bells. Harker opted to keep the bell system but change the sounds to something much less abrasive.
Another idea was the time management sheet currently in use by upper school students, who fill out the sheet by denoting how much time they plan to spend on each of their classes and activities. At the start of the 2012-13 school year, advisors met with students to discuss the sheet and offer guidelines on how much time each class or activity can take. It also takes into account the time they plan to spend with their families and on other important things such as sleep. If the hours they plan to spend on each item exceed the number of hours in a week, the students must then rethink how they are spending their time. The time management sheet also comes up in meetings with academic counselors.
“It just creates a conversation,” Gargano said. “What are you doing, how are you spending your time, how is it working for you?”
Since the use of the time management sheet is a new practice, it is still in the experimental stages. However, once it is determined how well it works at the upper school there are plans to introduce the time management sheet to the middle school.
In dealing with stress, Chen said, it is important for students to look into new activities but also to know when they are perhaps doing too much at once. “It is easy to bite off more than you can chew when it comes to taking on new extracurricular activities or challenging coursework. In addition, it is always helpful to talk to someone when you are feeling stressed, whether that person is a parent, teacher or counselor.” For her own part, Chen finds that putting down her thoughts is a good way to stay on track without getting overwhelmed. “I find that writing in a journal and keeping a daily log of events in your life is very beneficial and can help you organize your emotions and thoughts.”
At the lower and middle schools, an initiative was put in place last year to reduce the homework load on students by as much as an hour and a half per night. This was the result of a concerted effort by teachers to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of their teaching in order to drive down the workload without sacrificing the quality of the educational experience for the students.
“Instead of giving five questions for a reading assignment, maybe [the teacher] can think of three, but those three really get to the heart of what the five used to,” Gargano said.
The middle school will also try a new testing structure in which all testing takes place in the second semester, reducing the overall number of tests the students take each week. In addition to reducing anxiety and stress, it may also enhance the classroom experience. “If you’re testing a little bit less, you can actually teach and do more in-class activities, because testing is a big chunk of time,” Gargano said.
Like the upper school, the lower and middle schools have also hosted special wellness assemblies. Students also take health classes that cover a variety of topics related to personal well-being.
Currently, a team of administrators is being formed to summarize and evaluate the school’s K-12 wellness efforts and discover what action may be taken. For now, Gargano said, it is important to be mindful of how instruction can be effective while at the same time taking into account the students’ entire school experience.
“They’re not just a student, or an athlete,” she said. “They’re a student-athlete- performer, and they do all of these things. So we can’t look at any one in isolation.”