Stress is not your teen’s real enemy
I’d like to let you in on a little secret: your teachers don’t want to reduce stress for your kids. Students in high-stress schools often told me that saying they’re feeling stressed was a way to show that they were aware of what was being demanded of them. Because stress signifies normalcy, asking for help is a sign of weakness. Teachers are in the business of growth and they know the important role that stress plays. Sure the kids are uncomfortable, but if everything was made easy, they’d be painfully bored.
The real enemy of performance in school, and in life more broadly, is not too much stress; it’s the inability to recover well from stress.
Meet Channing, a 15-year-old with a packed schedule
I recently spent several months working with Channing, age 15. He bragged about his erratic sleep; a few hours here and there, not always of his choosing. He attended one of the more reputable bilingual IB schools in Hong Kong, took lessons with a private teacher afterwards and filled his nights with keyboard, basketball, or college-level math online. I once watched him use his right hand to create study questions and his left hand to blindly shovel dinner into his mouth, with his laptop open. He reliably wanted to take a break. I’d be willing to bet good money that this very minute, Channing is telling someone around him that he hasn’t slept in a while and he needs a break.
Channing’s parents feel that they’re doing what they need in order to give him a fair shot at a respectable university. They push him. A lot. They feel he is more talented than he realizes. Reducing his schedule is not an option. What they fail to realize is that performance is not based on how much he does each day, but rather how effectively he recovers when he is not doing. Channing needs to learn how to recover. This is the stuff of professional parenting.
Mastering the Art of Recovery
Channing started improving soon after meticulously building recovery into his schedule. We sent him to school with a basketball to encourage him to play at recess. We scheduled 30 minutes of activity time after school each day too. When it was time to begin working at home, I placed a visible kitchen timer in front of him (visibility matters) and we worked in 25 minute blocks. When the timer went off, Channing had to set a second timer for 5- 10 minutes and take a break. It can be tempting to keep pushing your child when they’re working well, but nobody wants to work for a tyrant that can’t keep a promise.
When I first started working with him, Channing and I had a three-step drill for his 5-10 minute breaks. He was told he could practice this in class, at his desk, without making it too obvious. The drill began with:
- Inhaling and counting to seven and exhaling by counting to eleven
- Spotting five new things in the room that he had not previously noticed
- Some form of movement or brief muscle contractions
I explained to him that his higher-order abilities, like focused attention, are only further exhausted by a screen, and gave him extra encouragement for screen-free time. Some kids don’t know what to do with themselves without a phone; suggest drawing, exercise, telling a story; you get the idea.
After a few months of practice, Channing now sets the timer on his own, blasts terrible music, and dribbles his basketball around the flat. His motivation to work is way up because a finish line is always in his sights. He knows that recovery is an essential part of growth and learning. Unfortunately, he tells me that the neighbors didn’t appreciate his reasons.
About the author
Dr Rick Smith works with parents and teens as an education consultant with Central Health Partner’s Child Development Team. He helps teens maximize their performance in school. He is also the author of STOP Reading, creator of the Mindset Matters iOS app, and can be reached at Dr.Rick.Smith@Bath.edu