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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.

 

Alcohol and Drug Awareness Month

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Since the late 1980s, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence has spent the month of April educating the public on issues related to drugs and alcohol. This year’s theme, “Talk Early, Talk Often: Parents Can Make a Difference in Teen Alcohol Use,” focuses on the important role that parents play when it comes to negative influences in children’s lives. For this year’s event, the NCADD has helped to organize a series of local, state and national events aimed at educating people about the treatment and prevention of alcoholism, especially among our youth.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence encourages the practice of open and honest conversations between parents and teens. For many different reasons, these conversations can be uncomfortable for both parents and children. Not only is trust involved, but issues pertaining to peer pressure and maturity also impact a teen’s decisions and mind set. Ultimately, you know your teen better than anyone—but it never hurts to have a few suggestions on how to broach the subject of the detriments of drug and alcohol use.

Start the conversation before you think it’s time to start the conversation

Whether we’d like to believe it or not, the average age at which a young person first tries alcohol in the United States is 13 years old. Yes, this means that the average 6th or 7th grader has tried—or at least been given the opportunity to try—alcohol. As astounding as this statistic may seem, it is essential that parents realize that curiosity about drugs and alcohol may begin earlier than expected, especially with easy access to internet information via personal devices. Begin openly discussing these matters early and often. If your child or teen knows that they can come to you openly about these topics, they’ll be more likely to seek your advice when the time comes to make the tough decisions.

Know what is going on inside and outside of your house

Technology has done wonders in terms of connecting and informing today’s youth. Unfortunately, this connectivity can be a double-edged sword. According to recent reports, over 50% of American children own a cell phone by the age of 6. With the rise of social media forums, teens can access and share information like never before. Therefore, stories and photos from last weekend’s party will hit the internet before you’ve even realized that your child may have hosted the party. Between Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram, today’s kids are able to document their every move. As the parent, it is your job to be fully aware of your child’s activities. Yes, privacy and trust are important, but parents must be aware of the possibility that drugs and alcohol are realistic temptations.

Be direct and honest about the consequences

As we all know, part of growing up and maturing into adults involves making decisions—which sometimes means making mistakes. This is part of the learning curve that we all experience throughout our lives. As the parent, you are fully aware of the lessons, morals, and wisdom that you’d like to instill in your child. Discussing the honest consequences of drug and alcohol use is a difficult yet important step in keeping the communication lines open. These conversations are not meant to scare, but rather to realistically inform about the dangers of harmful decision-making. Teenage brains are naturally curious, impulsive, and spontaneous. That said, teens will possibly make difficult decisions without the slightest bit of contemplation, especially about the severity of the potential consequences. Talk honestly about the dangers of drinking and driving—make sure that you child knows that there is always another (better) option. Prompt your child to think about everything that is important in his or her life—and be sure to highlight the fact that making poor choices could mean gambling all of these things away. As scary as it may sound, teens need to know that some mistakes, while unintentional accidents, are still too severe to be undone.
Even if you still think you have a few years before you need to have this conversation, consider using the NCADD’s “Talk Early, Talk Often” awareness campaign to introduce the topic with your child. It’s never too early to be proactive in shaping good decision-making.

Homework Time Made Easier

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Homework is simply a fact of life for today’s students. As early as kindergarten, children are bringing homework home from school. While homework has its many benefits, the majority of students would rather forget about the additional practices, projects, and papers. With such an aversion, homework time at home can be a real battle. Yet, it does not have to be. There are many tried-and-true strategies when it comes to alleviating the stress of homework.

Here are some of our favorites.

First and foremost, a key to easing homework stress is to make sure that the homework actually makes it home. Depending on your child’s age, it may be a struggle to simply keep track of the many worksheets that need to travel to and from school. Keeping your child’s work organized can make all the difference when sitting down to work. Try using a homework folder designated for nightly assignments. Use color-coded tabs or sticky notes to manage daily assignments and due dates. Staying organized is a significant start to managing the homework routine.

Set a Schedule

Set expectations by creating a homework schedule. Between the many afterschool activities and busy schedules that each family undoubtedly juggles, homework may become an afterthought. Make sure that your child knows when and where he or she should be completing homework each night. Set limits on the use of technology during homework time. Cell phones, television, and other distractions can make homework completion impossible, so it is best that these things remain off limits until homework is completed.

Break It Down

When homework has mounted to a seemingly unmanageable level, break the assignments down to avoid a mental meltdown. Especially during the middle and high school years, the amount of homework assignments can increase greatly. Staring down a mountain of papers can stress out both you and your child. If your child is unable to chunk the assignments into manageable pieces, help them out by creating an “order of importance” list. Arrange the work into a schedule based on difficulty and due date. This way, you and your child can prioritize the homework and alleviate any stress from the many assignments.

Promote Practice, Not Perfection

When it comes to difficult assignments, emphasize the importance of effort and completion, not necessarily perfection or 100% correctness. When homework becomes a frustrating tear-session for your child, explain that homework is meant to be practice. Too often, students stress over the need to answer questions and submit flawless assignments. Yes, that is the eventual goal, but homework is meant to provide practice—not display perfection. In fact, most homework assignments are intended to show the teacher whether or not students understood the content. Teachers also use homework assignments as a way to gauge the pacing of lessons or content. So, when the tears start welling, remind your child that homework is for practice.

Building Up Self-Esteem in the Classroom

i-741519_1280Social-emotional development is a key aspect of growth for children, especially during the teenage years. Questions, conflicts, and angst revolving around one’s identity are indicative of this tempestuous stage in life. Many adolescents, if not all, struggle with building self-esteem. As educators, we have the opportunity to not only teach, but to lead by example.

I, like many adults, can personally relate to my sporadically insecure and apprehensive middle schoolers. The braces, blemishes, and all of those other lovely aspects of my own adolescent years are fresh in my mind when I stand in front of my classes—their hesitant expressions are another reminder of how hard it is to be a teenager. However, two things that can lessen the blow of adolescence are a positive outlook and a resilient self-esteem.

Methods to address the insecurities change from day to day, and vary depending on the student. Obviously, what makes one student feel comfortable and confident may not be the key for another. Even so, there are ways to make a teacher’s classroom, instruction, and demeanor more conducive to building students’ self-esteem.

Be open about your own flaws or weaknesses

For the most part, it is common for students to expect perfection and level-headedness from their teachers to a certain degree. This is evident by the fact that they are shocked and humored when we miscalculate, misspell, or misconstrue something. They are even more shocked to see us scrambling through the mall in sweats and a baseball hat on a Saturday. While mildly embarrassing to us, these somewhat amusing instances are truly beneficial to building our students’ self-esteem.

Capitalize on these opportunities by shattering the belief that perfection is the key to high self-esteem. Yes, teachers are tasked with teaching our subjects, but we are not the “almighty keepers of the knowledge.” We are human beings that have flaws and make mistakes. Embrace these blunders in the classroom—they show our students that, just like teenagers, we adults make mistakes, too. This realization that everyone makes mistakes helps students accept their own missteps and build self-esteem.

Show your true colors

Learning occurs when students take risks in the classroom. Risk-taking is also a sign of confidence and self-esteem. If we teachers are not presenting our true selves, how can we expect our students to feel comfortable enough to show their own true colors? In order to foster these themes of confidence, honesty, and authenticity in the classroom, we must truly practice what we preach.

Beware, though, that adolescents have the uncanny ability to detect phoniness. They are observant, intuitive, and critical. Therefore, it is not the easiest task for teachers to wear all of the hats and still remain authentic in the classroom. All at once, we must maintain professionalism, provide engagement, and remain enthusiastic about the lesson, while also cracking down on behaviors and managing 30+ teenagers in a room. This can be quite a tall order; however, exhibiting your own confidence in the classroom is key to encouraging your students’ self-esteem. Just as parents should model good self-esteem at home, teachers should lead by example, as well.

Explain that “this too shall pass”

Another honest conversation that teachers can have with students in order to foster self-esteem involves discussions of the future. It is easy for anyone to get caught up or discouraged by difficulties happening in the here and now. This is especially true for teenagers. Teens are developmentally prone to “sweat the small stuff.” As a teen, I remember overreacting, dramatizing, and fixating on what turned out to be tiny non-problems. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but genuine discussions about how to look past our problems and put things into perspective will nurture a positive outlook.

As teachers, we know that personal connections can make all the difference with our students. Sharing anecdotes about my own struggles and slip-ups growing up allows me to relate to my students and relay strategies that worked versus those that didn’t quite pan out. Showing your students that you can relate to their insecurities is beneficial; showing students that you’ve shed your insecurities and built-up your self-esteem over time can be even more beneficial.

At the start of this school year, I hung two pictures outside of my classroom—my school photo from 6th grade and another from 8th grade. I don’t have to tell you that these photos are beyond embarrassing. My students know all too well that, since hormones run high and self-esteem runs low, these teenage years present plenty of challenges. By sharing your own weaknesses, exhibiting authenticity, and discussing your own fluctuations of self-esteem, teachers have the ability to lead by example and foster positive self-images in the classroom.

Teacher’s Learning Secrets to Use at Home

censorship picGetting 30+ children in a room, and keeping them quiet, engaged, and focused for any length of time is no easy task. As educators, we must show prowess in pedagogy and behavior management at any given moment. We know what it takes to manage, encourage, educate, and inspire children—after all, it is our job. However, it is not our job, alone. As parents, you help to shape your child’s educational experience and expectations. It’s a team effort, which is why I want to share some tried and true learning and behavior management strategies that can boost comprehension and cooperation at home.

“You don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to do.”

This statement will literally stun your child at first—as it should. Children are used to following rules and listening to directions. So, if you’re ever in the “But I don’t want to” battle over homework or studying, start with this statement: You do not have to do anything, but you must be ready to accept the consequences. When you explain to children that they have some autonomy in their own decision-making, they begin to comprehend independence and consequences more clearly.

When students ask me if they have to do something, I always respond like this: There is nothing in life that we have to do, necessarily. We do not have to show up to work every day. We do not have to brush our teeth. We do not have to tell the truth. But in every decision that we make, we must be prepared to face the consequences. So, the next time your child asks if she has to read for her book report, give her the honest truth—she does not have to read the book, but she will have to accept the consequences of neglecting the reading, i.e., failure, stress, lower GPA, etc. Your child will make the right decision when faced with the options and consequences.

Push reading of any sort or genre

I often get questions like, “What should my child be reading in her spare time?” or “How can I get him interested in a different genre?” Too often, parents want to steer a child’s reading interests, or discourage certain juvenile or fictional selections. The key to reading for pleasure is that it is pleasurable. Encourage more reading at home by allowing your child to select from any genre. When children have a genuine interest in a book, they’re more likely to retain the information. The same thing is true with engagement in the classroom. This is why teachers are constantly tasked with making lessons relevant to our students’ real lives. That said, encourage reading for pleasure by leaving the selection up to your child. After all, when kids are picking up a book instead of a remote control or smartphone, I consider that a win.

Master the follow-up question

The follow-up question is a great technique to prompt your child to expound upon a statement or idea. You can use a follow-up question for conversations beyond homework, as well. For instance, the ever-so-popular “How was your day?” question often elicits an unenthused response. Instead of settling with a blasé reply, follow-up with another question. Ask your child what exactly was “fine” about today? Prompt him to define the word “fine.” Ask how the day could have gone differently or inquire about what your child hoped would have happened today.

Of course, the follow-up question applies to academics, as well. Ask your child how he or she would describe the main character of an assigned novel. Then, follow-up with the “why” question. What happened in the story to bring him to this conclusion? Does he think that his opinion of this character will change as the story continues? These questions urge your child to elaborate and explain in detail. This practice, which teachers use frequently, demonstrates the importance of being able to not only answer appropriately, but to explain how one came to that conclusion.

These teacher’s “secrets” can be just as effective at home as at school. And when employed by both parents and teachers, these learning strategies encourage and enhance student autonomy and achievement.

Self-Esteem: Building a Strong Foundation

qualities-795867_1920February is National Boost Your Self-Esteem Month. Boosting one’s self-esteem is something that everyone has surely dealt with at some point. Even adults struggle with issues of self-esteem and self-worth from time to time. For teens, self-esteem, or the lack thereof, can greatly affect social and emotional development.

Merriam-Webster defines self-esteem as, “a feeling of having respect for yourself and your abilities; a confidence and satisfaction in oneself.” I consider self-esteem to be closely related to comfort level—how comfortable am I with my person as a whole? The tricky thing about self-esteem is that it can take decades to develop a strong sense of self-worth. Even then, once achieved, the comfort level is not concrete or guaranteed to last. Perhaps the most interesting thing about self-esteem is its plasticity or fluidity. Similarly to happiness, self-esteem can and will fluctuate throughout one’s life. You can be a happy person, and still experience low moments in the same manner that you can be a confident person, but still have periods of insecurity or low self-esteem.

This fluidity is especially important when discussing self-esteem with adolescents. The important thing to teach teens about self-image and confidence is that it can and will develop as we age. Furthermore, there are strategies that we can personally employ to build self-esteem.

Exercise positive self-talk: At any point throughout the day, teens are conversing with themselves using “self-talk.” This internal dialogue that we all employ from time to time has the ability to sway our moods and affect our self-perception. Almost like a chain reaction, what we think influences how we feel, which then influences how we behave. A teen that engages in negative self-talk is setting a self-fulfilling prophecy into motion. When people constantly put themselves down about their appearance or abilities, they orchestrate their own obstacles. Instead, encourage your child to engage in self-praise. Model that behavior by engaging in your own positive self-talk. Ask your child what he believes is his best personal trait. Ask him if he has any hidden talents or unique skills. Simply discussing the positives can alter your teen’s self-perception.

Discuss reasonable expectations: Self-esteem is more often compromised when we experience some sort of failure or rejection. It is important to talk through these disappointing moments with teens. Let your child know that failure is an important part of learning and growing that everyone experiences. Think of these moments as setbacks, an opportunity to simply begin again with more knowledge this time around. Also discuss the idea that perfection does not exist—there is no perfect athlete, artist, or musician. The perfect face and body are fantasies, as well. The idea is not to encourage your teen to aim low, but instead to prepare her to expect challenges in life. The more prepared your teen is to face challenges, the less she will internalize a set-back as a personal failure.

Defuse negative energy from others: Self-esteem can be greatly influenced by peers and others’ perceptions. This is especially true for adolescents, when fitting in and being socially accepted becomes more of a priority. No matter how much we want to deny or ignore it, other people’s words can greatly affect us. During adolescent years, when teens are most vulnerable and sensitive to peer pressure, teasing and other unkind gestures can compound the negative “self-talk.” When we hear others saying negative things about us, true or not, we may begin to question ourselves. Am I stupid like they say? Am I ugly like they claim? How can I be better so that others will like me? These types of questions arise when we internalize the negativity that others inflict on us. While we can’t control what other people say, we can control how we react to them. Teach your teen to ignore the negativity and focus more on his own feelings. Encourage teens to focus on the opinion that matters most—their own.

A fascinating aspect of self-esteem is the fact that we have some authority over it. In the same way that we work out to build and maintain muscle mass, we can shape our self-esteem. Yes, it takes time. It can be a lifelong process, but everything worth having requires time and effort. Talk to your teen about self-perception and self-esteem. The earlier that a child begins to feel confident in himself, and learns to maintain and build that confidence, the better.

The Pros of Conflict-and How to Manage it Productively

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The Pros of Conflict—and How to Manage it Productively

After graduate school, one common question that I continued to encounter from one teaching interview to the next involved conflict resolution. Of course the wording varied, but the overall query went something like this: How would you handle two students that do not get along in your classroom?

My response may have been somewhat surprising, but the explanation behind the response is something that I continue to practice in my classroom regularly.

Q: How should you handle children that are having a conflict?

A: Put them together.

Now, of course, there are underlying details that correspond with this concise response—we cannot simply force friendships amongst reluctant children. But, as much as conflict is inevitable, so should be a resolution. What I try to teach my middle schoolers every day is this: life involves conflict. Life means working with people that you don’t necessarily enjoy. Conflict can simply be a difference of opinion—it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

That said, conflict is not mediated by merely avoiding certain people. An important indicator of future success involves the ability to work with others. In any phase of the personal, social, educational, spiritual, or professional realm, we must always be capable of communicating, collaborating, and respecting others, no matter the situation.

Here are a few tried and true methods of teaching conflict resolution:

Put opposing students together

The key to this notion is simple—conflicts should not be swept under the rug. Ignoring a problem does nothing to resolve it. Instead, the negative feelings continue to fester and grow. At some point, the pressure will build to a volatile level. To avoid this, encourage students to confront conflicts as they arise. Create a safe space for students to practice healthy conversations with the help of an impartial mediator. The root of many conflicts is a misunderstanding. Often times, the best way to begin mediation is by clarifying the misunderstandings or calmly explaining each person’s interpretation of the conflict.

Encourage “I feel” talking points

When putting conflicts center stage, it’s important to demonstrate healthy communication. Have children focus on their own personal feelings, instead of what the other person is doing. Model conflict resolution by beginning with “I feel frustrated when…” This phrasing removes the tendency for people to place blame and find faults. “I feel” phrases also allow both parties to display vulnerability and practice empathy. Recognizing how and why someone feels a certain emotion opens the door for better understanding.

Facilitate collaboration on a common goal

Once students have calmly discussed the conflict or issue, encourage a working relationship amongst the students in the classroom. This does not mean that the two students will end up as “besties.” Strengthening a respectful working relationship teaches children several life lessons:

  • Students learn that cooperation is key when working with others.
  • Students learn to listen to one another in order to effectively collaborate.
  • Students see that others’ opinions are valuable—and sometimes more beneficial than their own.
  • Students begin to understand that problems are solved by communication and compromise.
  • When students share the weight and complete a task together, they unknowingly build trust and mutual respect in pairs or groups.

Conflict, while not encouraged, is inevitable. The earlier that children learn how to effectively communicate with others, the more success they will have in future collaborative efforts.  Conflict resolution can also be a very introspective process. Talking through an issue sheds light on one’s own personal biases, exposes alternate perspectives, and reveals our own “pet peeves” or “tipping points.” While conflict cannot be avoided, we must teach children how to productively utilize and learn from clashes with others.