March 16, 2017
Phillip A. Collazo, MSEd., Education & Training Specialist, Kids Included Together
Knowing a little about biology and brain chemistry can make a big difference in helping students lower their stress levels. Here’s a promise: You won’t need to memorize formulas or spend hours in special classes. As 21st CCLC practitioners, you work in the ideal environment to build pleasure into learning.
What Research Says
According to research conducted by Dr. Stuart Shanker, stress ranks as one of the greatest barriers to learning. He wrote extensively about decline in the mental and physical well-being of U.S. children due to stress.
When humans experience stress, our bodies produce cortisol, which some call the “stress hormone.” High levels of cortisol have been linked to “increased anxiety, depression and challenging behaviors in children and youth” (Ruttle et al., 2011), and to “higher risk for developing learning difficulties or impaired cognitive abilities” (Suor et al., 2015).
Our bodies can balance the negative effects of stress by producing endorphins, or “feel-good” chemicals. Fun, active and engaging activities that also encourage positive social interactions are some of the easiest and healthiest ways to activate endorphins and reduce classroom stress. Both exercise and relaxation can help.
In an ideal world, children and youth would spend their days learning at their own pace, while also having fun in and out of school. In reality, curriculums, learning objectives and high-stakes tests often control the content and pace of the school day. How can we help children reduce stress and make learning more fun? Here are two strategies that work well together.
Stress Reduction Part 1: Manage Time to Match Focus
This solution involves managing time by strategically grouping content — what Preston (2013) calls “activity chunking.” Many educators have successfully used versions of this strategy for years.
Start by setting realistic and achievable expectations. Consider your students’ natural attention span, and chunk activities accordingly. Preston recommends calculating the average focus time of students by adding five minutes to their age. For example, the average six-year-old should be able to attend to an 11-minute lesson. Psychologists, scientists and researchers hold varied opinions on attention span, with estimates ranging between 15 and 40 minutes (Briggs, 2014).
For tasks that can complement academic content while still giving students a chance for a break, incorporate activity centers into your program. With common classroom materials you can plan quick exercises that develop key STEM and literacy skills. With these suggested STEM and reading activities, you can “chunk” in as needed to help students refocus.
Stress Reduction Part 2: Activate Senses to Feel Good
Plan activities that capture your learners’ interests, and then play to their strengths. According to Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1991), we all have “a unique blend of capabilities and skills (intelligences).” Plan activities and short breaks that use a “six-sense” approach. Look for ways to get students to use their eyes, ears/voice, fingers, muscles, balance and social skills. End it all by encouraging the group to take two deep breaths together. The sensory activities release those feel-good endorphins and help students refocus for their next learning activity.
Here are a few ideas for building the senses into activities and breaks:
- Ask young students to act out characters when they read a story aloud. Older students may enjoy dramatic readings of poetry or plays. Don’t be shy: add a musical soundtrack with some group humming to keep the beat.
- Stand up and “shake your wiggles out” now and then.
- Play a creative game of Acrobat-Simon-Says, use call-and-response chants, or create finger play songs.
- For older students, include time for meaningful socializing by encouraging share-outs, group polling or content debates.
- Play games like “I Spy” or practice yoga poses. See “Tips for Helping Your Child Focus and Concentrate” from PBS Parents for more ideas.
Fun, active and engaging activities that benefit students can also benefit the adults in your program. Chunking activities can help you organize so you provide better support to help students meet academic goals. Managing time frames and achieving small goals increases educators’ sense of accomplishment, just like for students. Best of all, these strategies work for students of all abilities and can help make your program more inclusive.