Procrastination: Student Strategies for All Ages

Most teachers would admit that every child and teen exhibits procrastination from time to time, regardless of grade level. For some unfortunate souls, procrastination is simply ingrained. So what is the problem with it? Well, when we procrastinate, the task at hand does not diminish or disappear—no matter how much we may hope. Instead, the anxiety of the looming “to-do list” grows, as does our desire to avoid the work at all costs. How can we combat this procrastination tendency?

  • Teach students to assess the situation thoroughly before they decide to evade the work. Of course, everyone, including our students, would rather not have a list of homework assignments or projects to complete. However, the nature of education involves work outside of the classroom—plain and simple. Instead of setting the task aside right away—an out-of-sight, out-of-mind strategy—prompt students to investigate the necessary steps that will be required to complete the assignment. This sort of review strategy forces students to acknowledge the amount of work that the project or paper will entail. The more prepared they are to tackle the task, the less likely they will be to set it aside for lengths of time.
  • Encourage students to jump right in. This does not necessarily mean that they have to rush or complete the task in one chunk of time. Instead, they simply need to scratch the surface and begin. Starting something that they would rather avoid is half of the battle. Once they have begun, the urge to procrastinate is set aside.
  • Remove distractions while working. This is especially difficult for adolescents who would prefer to be glued to their devices while working. Advise students to set aside time to work without any smartphones, television, etc. All it takes is one chime of a notification to derail a work session, further instigating procrastination. A quiet work space, removed from distractions, allows for full focus, which is the best way for students to get the most out of their work time or study sessions.
  • Praise or reward students who complete or submit work prior to the deadline. Whether we are talking first graders or seniors, students respond to incentives. This can mean that the first group to submit work receives their grades first. Or, give praise, small rewards, or extra recess when students exhibit proactivity. Again, the point is to incentivize students so that they are eager to tackle the assignment, as opposed to setting it aside for the last minute.
  • When push comes to shove, stress completion over perfection. The point is obviously to dissuade procrastination. However, there will be times when students simply cannot get the ball rolling in time. When they do put off the work, explain the importance of completing and submitting the work, even when it is sub-par. Of course, keeping high expectations is important. However, the need to perfect something at the last minute is not only stressful, but unnecessary. Use these moments as a learning experience by highlighting the fact that students can avoid this feeling of disappointment or discouragement by planning and working ahead of time in the future.

 

Stress Awareness Month: How to Lower Stress Levels in the Classroom

Stress in the classroom is all too familiar to a teacher. Someone once likened teaching to monitoring 30+ open, blinking tabs on a computer screen, while juggling and reciting Shakespeare. This comparison seems fairly accurate a lot of the time. So, if the adult in the room is feeling the stress, how do you think the students are feeling? Not so surprisingly, American children are sadly experiencing chronic stress in and out of the classroom. In fact, data indicates that pharmaceutical use for children with emotional disorders has risen to an alarming rate, as has the suicide rate for adolescents. We know from our own personal experiences that mounting stress has an enormous ripple effect on our day-to-day lives. Sleeping patterns, eating habits, productivity, concentration, academics, social/emotional well-being—all of these factors are very much correlated to stress levels. Seeing as teachers spend much of the day interacting closely with students, it then becomes our responsibility to not only teach, but also monitor the emotional well-being of our students.

The solution to stress in children should not begin by managing stressors once they have reached their peak, but rather helping students avoid getting to that point of eruption. Here are a few tips to help teachers take a proactive approach to stress:

Allow time for homework, large assignments, projects, or conferencing during class. Yes, this down time is likely not a central part of the scripted curriculum. However, with pockets of down time, students can not only practice multi-tasking, self-reflection, and peer conferencing, but they can also use this time as a moment to simply breathe. The typical middle schooler has anywhere from five to eight core classes during the day. With only a break for lunch and the rushed locker visits between classes, it is no wonder why middle schools are reporting an increase in stress levels, visits to the counseling office, and absenteeism. A simple 10-15 minutes of class every other day to pause, organize, reflect, or ponder could be a very necessary practice to employ if students are visibly stressed. Often times, adolescents’ stress levels mount when they feel incapable of maintaining the balancing act. To avoid this, allow class time every once in a while to simply have students get their bearings. These pockets of time can be used for anything—a school project, extra math practice, reading, or simply organizing. The key here is that the time is used to keep that overbooked sense of urgency at bay.

Encourage feedback on how your students are managing their schoolwork. Explicitly discuss what assignments, assessments, or projects are consuming the most time outside of school. Inquire about how long it took the average student to complete last weekend’s homework. Often times, what teachers consider to be “simply extra practice” can end up being a student’s sleepless night. Perhaps you may give anonymous monthly surveys to gauge how stressed your students are. But don’t just collect the data—use it to plan how you and other colleagues can minimize the impact that school stress is having on students.

Be flexible when a student is visibly struggling. If you know that a student is having a personal struggle at home, or if he has been out sick for several days, consider excusing the student from any assignments that are simply review items or filler homework. Of course, most assignments are (hopefully) central to the learning objectives of the class. For these tasks, provide extra help or one-on-one assistance so that your student does not feel burdened with the piles of make-up work. Similarly, be lenient with due dates—as teachers, we can easily tell the difference between a student who desperately needs more time and one that is milking absences.

Think of outlets for stress. In the same way that we hit the gym to expel the stress of the day, allow your students to explore options to clear their minds and bodies of any angst. If a walk to the water fountain before a big test keeps the jitters at bay, make that a routine. Or, have a stress ball or fidget collection to occupy nervous hands during class. When said task/test/lesson is over, acknowledge your students’ concentration, tenacity, and composure.  

 

Stress Awareness Month: How Parents Can Monitor and Manage a Child’s Stress Level

Adults are all too familiar with the concept of stress—we live with it almost every day to some extent. Not so surprisingly, American children are sadly experiencing chronic stress as well. In fact, data indicates that pharmaceutical use for children with emotional disorders has risen to an alarming rate, as has the suicide rate for adolescents. We know from our own personal experiences that mounting stress has an enormous ripple effect on our day-to-day lives. Sleeping patterns, eating habits, productivity, social/emotional well-being—all of these factors are very much correlated to stress levels. If we adults sometimes find ourselves in the weeds when it comes to stress, how can we expect children to react to an increase in stress?

The solution to stress in children should not involve managing stressors once they have reached their peak, but rather helping children avoid getting to that point of eruption. Here are a few tips to help parents take a proactive approach to stress:

Pack the schedule with pockets of “downtime,” as opposed to more activities. Of course children yearn to participate, whether it be dance class, soccer practice, after-school camp, science club, etc. This enthusiasm should not be discouraged, but it is a parent’s job to manage a realistic schedule and to keep it manageable. Yes, things will pop up—parties or sleepovers or field trips will emerge from the woodwork. However, downtime is essential for children to maintain their mental health. Often times, a child or adolescent’s stress levels mount when they feel incapable of maintaining the balancing act. To avoid this, allow time in the family’s daily schedule to do absolutely nothing. These pockets of time can be used for anything—a school project, extra violin practice, reading, or simply relaxing. The key here is that the time is used to keep that overbooked sense of urgency at bay.

Explicitly discuss stress and where it comes from. The more your teen recognizes where and when his or her stress emerges, the better equipped he or she will be able to anticipate and circumvent the stressor. For instance, if procrastination or last-minute rushing is the catalyst, teach time management strategies and how to plan ahead.

Similarly, if you know your child’s stressors, help him or her to prepare for upcoming events that might cause anxiety or stress. If you know that your child despises the dentist, give him or her a heads-up about an upcoming appointment. Explain that nervous feelings are valid, but that the pros of going to the dentist far exceed the temporary uneasiness.

Think of outlets for stress. In the same way that we hit the gym to expel the stress of the day, allow your child to explore options to clear his or her mind and body of any angst. If a walk around the block the morning before an important recital keeps the jitters at bay, make that a routine. Or, bring a stress ball to the dreaded dentist appointment. When said event is over, celebrate your child’s bravery, tenacity, and composure.

Combatting Stress in the Classroom

Illnesses in the classroom are inevitable. The highly social aspect of the classroom is one of the great parts of education—students working and learning closely together. Unfortunately, the flipside to this is that germs are spread in these enclosed social realms very, VERY easily.

As many parents are well-aware, students fall ill most frequently during the winter months. Whether it be a cold, stomach bug, or full-on flu, students are most susceptible during the colder months because of the tendency to remain indoors, where germs are more easily transmitted. Physical illnesses, however, are not the only noticeable health issues in the classroom. As teachers, we are also well-aware of the fact that school can be a major turning point when it comes to recognizing mental health issues in adolescents.

Yes, Lysol and antibacterial wipes go a long way in the classroom in terms of keeping our students healthy. However, much like the invisibility of dangerous germs in the classroom, mental health issues can be even more difficult to detect. Of course, school counsellors are much more knowledgeable when it comes to formal diagnosis, but teachers should know what to look for as well. One major indicator can be how a child responds to stress.

Stress can have a major impact on student success and well-being. As much as we try to minimize stress on our students, academia inevitably puts young people into stressful situations. Stress-management is a vital skill for students to acquire in their primary and secondary years of school, but what does it look like when stress becomes too much? When is it overwhelming on a destructive level?

Extremely stressed students will appear extremely lethargic, disinterested, or sluggish in the classroom. This low energy is a physical response to stress, anxiety, and/or depression. When things become overwhelming, adolescents sometimes cope by “shutting down.” Lethargy is a means of “checking out” or evading whatever it is that is stressing them out. It is also a sure sign that a student is not getting enough sleep due to stress or worry.

Task avoidance is another layer of low energy exhibited by stressed students. This can be marked by missed assignments, a sudden drop in grades, or an increase in school absences. Avoiding tasks or school altogether is a more direct manner of evading the stressors. The issue, however, is that missed school will only result in escalating the problem of falling behind, thus increasing stress.

Repetitive or ritualistic behavior could be an effect of anxiety caused by stress. Often a symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), the subtle routines become methods to self-soothe or irrationally alleviate stress. Students may also blink, tap, fidget, etc., as a distraction technique when they begin to feel overwhelmed.  

Sudden social issues are another sign that stress has reached an unmanageable level for adolescents. Because peer groups shift regularly and unpredictably, these “friend fluctuations” are difficult to distinguish as stress-related, or simply teenagers being teenagers. The key here is for teachers to recognize social withdrawal versus shifting friendships. A previously social or congenial student who suddenly appears lonely, withdrawn, or isolated is likely experiencing stress or anxiety. When this extreme introverted behavior lasts continuously for any length of time, it is important to look deeper at the situation.

PTSD Awareness Month

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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is often associated with returning war veterans or first responders. However, children and teens are at a significant risk, as well. Because a child’s emotional coping responses develop as they age, they may be even more prone to symptoms of PTSD after a traumatic event. Thus it is imperative that parents and educators know the signs of PTSD in children and teens.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, PTSD is diagnosed after a person experiences the three main types of symptoms for at least one month following a traumatic event:

      –  Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks, and               nightmares.

      –  Avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma, and emotional numbness.

      –  Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated and angered.

So, what should educators look for? PTSD in children and teens most frequently occurs when the child has witnessed or experienced a violent or dangerous event. Most common reasons that a child may develop PTSD involve death or injury of a parent or loved one, witnessing or experiencing physical or sexual abuse, and any unexpected disaster, including a car crash, house fire, etc.

The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder estimates that anywhere from three million to 10 million children and teens witness violence in the home every year. Since domestic and child abuse is largely underreported, the true number of cases is thought to be even higher. That said, identifying PTSD involves vigilance, as every child copes and expresses emotions differently. For teachers and family members, it is important to have all of the necessary information when dealing with children suffering from PTSD.

To be proactive, adults in the child’s life should be informed about any recent trauma or violent event. Children may exhibit avoidance behaviors when something reminds them of the traumatic event. Any sort of flashback or familiarity of the event could cause extreme distress, agitation, or anxiety. Therefore, it is especially important that teachers know which subjects to avoid discussing in class, as certain topics could trigger an unpleasant memory or flashback.

Also, loud noises or sudden changes in the environment could cause flashbacks and emotional distress. Children may exhibit this distress by crying, shaking, appearing jumpy or skittish, etc. This hypervigilance is an attempt to foresee the possibility of another traumatic event. It is as though the child is expecting violence or danger at any moment. This sort of hypervigilance can cause sleeplessness, lack of focus, anxiety, and severe shifts in behaviors and emotions.

While some children may exhibit extreme temper tantrums, others may cope in an opposite manner. In an effort to self-soothe, some children may refuse to speak or fail to respond to comfort. In some cases, children and teens with PTSD exhibit selective mutism, in which they refuse to speak, interact, or make eye-contact with anyone.

Since symptoms and age of onset of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder vary from child to child, treatment options are just as diverse. Some cases of PTSD in children have been known to dissipate on their own after a few months. However, it is not recommended that PTSD symptoms be ignored in the hopes that the condition will fix itself. Different therapy options, such as cognitive behavior therapy, crisis management therapy, and play therapy offer various methods for children and teens to confront past trauma. The most important thing that parents and teachers can do is be vigilant and aware of behavioral, academic, and emotional changes in the child.

National Stress Awareness Month

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April is National Stress Awareness Month. Stress is an unfortunate aspect of our everyday lives that everyone experiences from time to time. Truth be told, even simply thinking about how stressed we are can sometimes result in even more stress. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of stress is the fact that we should expect to experience it at any age. So, how can we combat this culprit without adding to the stress? How can we stop stressing about stress? Take a look below at some tried-and-true methods of managing your day-to-day stress.

Get a healthy handle on the family’s eating and exercise routines.

Too often, our schedules are so hectic that there are not enough hours in the day to accomplish everything. With all of the hustle and bustle, regular exercise and healthy eating habits are left by the wayside. Instead, we may opt for the “quick-fix” dinner options and neglect the gym all together. The unhealthy food and lack of exercise will undoubtedly leave the family feeling sluggish, unmotivated, and yes—stressed. Healthy eating jumpstarts motivation and provides the body with nutritious energy. This energy then motivates us to get out and get moving. Exercise is a proven method of managing stress because it releases endorphins—the body’s natural “feel-good” chemicals. Therefore, daily cardio is not only a method of fitness and weight management, but it is also proven to greatly reduce stress.

Partake in some spring cleaning to reduce the clutter.

April is the perfect month to handle the spring cleaning that you’ve been putting off. Studies show that unkempt or messy environments can contribute to a person’s stress level.  Something as simple as reorganizing your closet can alleviate unnecessary stress and anxiety. Not only will the lack of clutter and mess make you feel better, but it will also allow your morning routine to progress a little smoother.  

Get the family outside.

Now that winter has passed and the weather is improving, it’s time to enjoy the outdoors and get some fresh air. While you may not suffer from full-blown seasonal affective disorder, we can all relate to the notion of the “winter-time blues.” In fact, recent research has shown a strong link between vitamin D deficiency and symptoms of depression. This means that sunshine, one of the body’s main sources of vitamin D, can greatly improve mood by reducing stress.

Focus on the present.

Too often we dwell on the past or future. We perseverate, replaying our thoughts over and over again. We agonize over what we could have done differently, or what we must do next time. Instead of indulging in this act of self-torment, focus only on what you can control right now. It only compounds stress when we allow ourselves to worry about things that are out of our hands. Manage what you are able, to the best of your ability, and let the rest be. Of course, this practice is much easier said than done. However, it is helpful to take a moment, take yourself off of the worry-wheel, and focus solely on what is in front of you.

What NOT To Do When Students Are Stressed

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Seeing as April is National Stress Awareness Month, I thought it would be important to seek the child’s perspective on stress. As educators, we tend to see ourselves somewhat as ambassadors or liaisons between the world of academia and the youths that we are instructing every day. While we may think we know how to help students when they are experiencing overwhelming stress, it is possible that we greatly miss the mark sometimes, too.

In an effort to better understand how children respond to stress, I asked a simple question: What does NOT help you when you are experiencing stress? Here are the answers, “straight from the mouths of babes,” as they say.

Do not tell me that I’m overreacting.

When students were asked what does not help them in moments of extreme stress, many said the same thing, “Don’t tell me to calm down.” This is true for adults, too. Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down after being told to calm down. Students want to know that their feelings are validated. The initial “it’ll be ok, calm down” response is not only ineffective, but it also discredits what they are feeling in that moment. Instead, sometimes students simply want to know that they’ve been heard.  

Do not correct me.

Another unexpected response was the fact that students are not always seeking straight answers or constant perfection. In moments of stress, teachers or parents often want to alleviate the anxiety by removing the stressor or solving the problem for the child. While at times adult interference is absolutely necessary, sometimes it simply is not. When a student is struggling with a difficult concept or task, it is normal that he or she will experience stress. Working through the struggle independently is part of the process of learning how to self-soothe and persevere through the strife.

Leave me alone.

As adults, we know that sometimes, especially when the stress level is at its peak, we simply need some solitude. This is true for students, as well. As much as we may want to comfort or provide advice, students sometimes just want some alone time to decompress. Respect that.

Don’t tell me to manage my time better.

Similarly to tip number one, recommending that students practice time management and prioritization sometimes only adds more stress. Suggestions are great; however, often times, students are truly overbooked. Validating the stress that is attributed to their packed schedules and to-do lists shows that you understand and care about their emotional well-being. Time management is a great skill that comes with practice as children mature. However, sometimes we need to be mindful of the age-group and help students to taper back.

Don’t skip the reward.

No matter the age, students need to know that their hard work and stressful efforts have paid off. Whether large or small successes, it is important to pause at those achievements that didn’t come easily. Reward students with praise when you’ve recognized great effort and perseverance. Skipping the opportunity to praise a job well-done leaves students wondering if they’ve worked hard enough. We all know what it feels like to persist through stressful situations—recognition after the fact never hurts.