Space and Time

The kids are alright. Or are they? Teenagers have always been prone to angst, and some stress can be motivational. But adolescents today have more mental stressors than their parents, and smart technologies that ramp up their daily exposure. If they’re unduly stressed, where are the coping resources to help them manage their emotions?

After interviewing more than 300 middle and high school students, Denise Pope finds that many are sleeping less, stressed out and isolated. Some suffer existential crises and cannot meet perceived expectations. Eighty-three percent have at least one stress-related physical health symptom. Some are angry at the older generations for climate change, political divisiveness, the pandemic and other problems they’ll inherit. Even students who are succeeding and getting good grades may just be going through the motions, disengaged from the joy of learning. They complete the work but may not consider it valuable or meaningful.

Peace on Your Wings“We’re living in a world of deep uncertainty, cellphones scream at us constantly, and each piece of news is treated as a 4-alarm fire,” says Pope, the co-founder of Challenge Success, an organization that grew from the highly successful Stressed-Out Students Project she started at Stanford University's Graduate School of Education.

“The good news is, we as educators work upstream, so we have an opportunity to be preventive,” she says. “Without belittling the issues important to kids, we can help them recognize what’s important.”

SEL Trifecta

Engaged learning, personal wellbeing, and a sense of belonging – these are what some students need. They’re eager for a renewed sense that school is purposeful and meaningful. They’re excited for educational experiences that can build their affective, behavioral, and cognitive engagement. They want to feel successful, beyond the narrow definition of a prestigious degree or monetary wealth. They need to fit in socially, to be accepted and respected as valued contributors. To help our teens get there, Pope suggests you try out these “SPACE” and “PDF” strategies:

  • Schedule: Students need to digest the day’s events, move their bodies, explore deep thoughts, and have social conversations. Transition times are key, so embed them into the daily classroom schedule. Consider time for reflection and connection – maybe have fewer class meetings each week but for longer periods of time.
  • Project- and Problem-based learning: Opening up the pedagogy to include students’ voices and choices immediately creates relevance for them and gives agency. When students perceive relevance, their engagement goes way up. The focus shifts from, “I’m really scared of getting a bad grade” to “What do I want to do with this information?”
  • Alternative/Authentic Assessment: How we’re assessed in school is not how we’re assessed in the real world. Let’s find new ways to assess mastery that reduces the focus on grades, without lessening the rigor. Utilize more revision and redemption policies, and performance assessments as opposed to the timed, often closed-book, quizzes and tests and traditional grading structures.
  • Climate of Care: If students think no one has their back, they simply can’t succeed. Strengthening the teacher-student relationship, teaching positive coping strategies, slowing things down when situations escalate, and modeling the joy of learning in the classroom creates an atmosphere where students feel cared for and valued. Students need to feel they have an adult they can go to, and that they belong.
  • Educating: It takes a village to teach a classroom. When parents, students, faculty and the community are involved and on the same page, schools are empowered to make concrete changes.

Play Time, Down Time, Family Time (PDF)

Did you know? 1.5 hours is the max that our learning and studying brains can take. At times, it might appear like our students aren’t on task, but teens need freedom and space to explore their world creatively, to think out of the box, and learn from others. Part of their job as a young person is to ask themselves, “Who am I?” and wander around for the answer. They also need a safe homebase where they know someone has their back. When students have at least 25 minutes of family time, five times a week, it’s much harder to fall through the cracks.

“Are the kids alright? What about the rest of us?” Pope asks. “I believe the answer is ‘Yes,’ but there were a lot of stressors before 2020 – and a lot more since then – so it’s going to take all of us to get our students back on track. With a lot of reflection, moving on, getting beyond the divisiveness, we can still find that pot of gold of happiness.”

She adds, “Our students want to be excited, belong, be successful, and have fun. If we allow them to take part in the discussion of what’s working and what needs improvement, and what we can do to help, we will help them engage with learning and embrace a broader definition of success.”