There are three ways educators can reduce the effects of chronic stress or acute stress on kids.
One is reduce your student’s capacity to deal with stress (somewhat difficult to do, but it can be done). This approach means strengthening time with the arts, positive social contacts, community building, conflict resolution skills, and social skills.
The second is to give kids more control over their lives. Ask for their ideas, give them leadership roles and provide more choice. These help students FEEL more in control.
Finally, the third is to strengthen the brain/body’s response to stress by consistent exposure to it with moderate and predictable stress. This approach means we encourage more physical activity and the use of drama and theater. Bottom line is keep kids active at school!
So, what’s the reason that these strategies work?
School stress levels may be getting worse than you thought. How much stress do kids feel in school? Nearly 20% of adolescents (ages 11-17) have some type of a stress disorder (depression, reactive attachment disorder, learned helplessness, bipolar, etc.). Top 3 kids stressors are 1) school academic pressures 2) family pressure and 3) bullying (kidshealth.org). It is well known that chronic stress contributes to over half of all school absences (Johnston-Brooks, et al. 1998) and even a reduction in neurogenesis (the production of new brain cells. (DiBellis, et al. 2001). This contributes to impaired attention, learning and memory (Lupien, et al., 2001).
But there’s more to the story than this.
There is a difference between boys and girls in stress processing. This plays out in gender differences in academic performance and internal distress (Pomerantz, Eva M.; Altermatt, Ellen Rydell; Saxon, Jill L.).
We know that girls outperform boys in school, particularly in stereotypically feminine subjects. But paradoxically, girls are also more vulnerable to internal distress than boys are. Girls doing poorly in school were the most vulnerable to internal distress. However, even girls doing well in school were more vulnerable than boys were.
Is this all about brain chemicals? Well, some of it is!
Girls have higher serotonin levels than boys, but they use it up faster. Boys with higher brain serotonin levels as children have less risk of being aggressive adolescents. But not all boys with low serotonin levels became aggressive during adolescence, it’s only a contributing factor (Halperin, J. et al, (2006).
In the short haul, exercise boosts dopamine and norepinephrine which elevates mood (Gillberg, M, Anderzen, I., Akerstedt, T. and Sigurdson, K.).
But, interestingly, a long-term consistent diet of exercise upregulates serotonin and reduces the likelihood of depression (Meeusen R, Piacentini MF.(2003).
So it’s quite a powerful ally in school. Interestingly, both of these (PE and the arts) have been shown to raise academic performance of students!
The take home message is that PE and the arts have a solid brain-based reason to stay in your school—happier kids mean higher achievement.