Student Success: Stress, Tests, and Mindfulness

I became a classroom teacher in 2000 and a personal trainer and weightlifting coach in 2007. Through the years, I have worked with adults and children, helping them meet various and multiple goals. It’s always rewarding, and my experiences have informed the way I approach formal instruction.

As parents and educators, we want our kids to succeed. For years, the measure of academic success equated to high test scores. This paradigm is changing with the growing trend of project based assessments, inquiry based learning, and the fact that now more than 1,000 colleges (including NYU and Brandeis) have flexible or optional admissions based testing policies. Meaning, institutes of higher education are realizing that the number on the test is not necessarily a reliable indicator of a student’s long term success. 

Why the shift and what can we do to ensure that our kids are prepared?

First, we need to recognize that grades are no guarantee of learning. People remember what they want to know and what they need to know. Imagine life if you had to sequence and coordinate the steps of driving a car every time you wanted to get out of the house. Driving is something you need to know for daily life, so you practiced it until you became fluent in it. Likewise, if you are attracted to someone, either romantically or platonically, you make an effort to remember who they are and what they say so you can build a relationship.

These two factors, wanting and needing, contribute to storing vital information for easy recall and knowledge building. How many students want, nay, need to know William Shakespeare’s birthday so they can store it in their memories for all time? Not many, unless they are particularly interested in The Bard and the Elizabethan period. In fact, the ease with which they can google this information makes it seem like testing this recall is a worthless task that has no real world transference. Of immense value, however, is student self regulatory behavior. 

The ability to manage stress, get a good night’s sleep, communicate effectively, and meet personal needs are essential skills. Interestingly, the anxiety that comes from high stakes testing can sometimes stand at odds with these basic habits, behaviors that we should be emphasizing given our current understanding of the brain and the body. By implementing consistent practices in mindfulness, students can actually ensure their success down the road. 

How does it work?

Learning takes two forms. Focused learning requires intentional concentration in order to internalize content. It’s linear. It happens step by step. Diffuse learning is quite different. This deep understanding of ideas occurs when the brain is in a state of calm distraction, allowing for creative connections and piecing together information in novel ways. Both types of learning are necessary as they each serve a unique purpose, and when used properly, can enhance true learning. 

Focused learning, done well, can motivate and engage a student. It can present enough of a stimulus to challenge a student without overloading him, and cultivate a sense of independence and perseverance as the student sticks with the process and enjoys the rewarding sense of accomplishment when he completes the task or understands the material. Focused learning requires just the right amount of stress to keep the student interested.  

On the other hand, diffuse learning happens when a person is relaxed. With the unique sense of calm, the student can feel safe to let his mind wander, jumping from idea to idea as pieces of information begin to connect and form a complete map of understanding. Diffuse learning is low stakes learning with an enormous payoff. It relies on previous experiences of focused learning and allows the student to internalize the knowledge in a meaningful way (and kids know it is meaningful because they will be able to use it in the future). 

It is our responsibility as parents and teachers to encourage a balanced approach in education lest we waste time and resources by overstressing or understressing our students. When focused learning becomes too intense, students shift into survival mode, memorizing, rather than understanding. When diffuse learning presents no end goal, students become bored and attention wanes. 

I mentioned before that we learn what we need to know and what we want to know. I think it’s important to emphasize that most of the content students “learn” for tests is not needed beyond the test, so there’s little impetus to retain the information. This applies even more to the “one time take”, high stakes tests like the SAT or the ACT which present questions out of context and do not allow for ongoing growth. Yet, test taking can still be a useful tool. Exams present students with the opportunity to practice mindfulness, and this, I argue is more important than the actual grade. 

Mindfulness is awareness. Mindfulness is the ability to notice without judgement and without the compulsion to act. Mindfulness is a practice. As such, it needs to be practiced. Every day. Let’s try a short guided meditation to understand what it entails. 

Feel free to close your eyes if you feel comfortable, or focus your gaze on the floor a few feet in front of you. Sit tall and attentive. Feel your feet planted on the ground. Feel the ground supporting you. Follow that feeling up your legs. Notice the way your legs feel. If they are holding tension. And relax into the tension, knowing that you’re supported. Feel the pressure of the chair against the back of your legs. Feel the weight of your body on your sit bones. Shift your weight and notice what happens. First to the right and then to the left. See if you can find a comfortable place of balance. And relax into that feeling, maybe growing a little taller in your spine, feeling a little lighter in your shoulders, like a burden has lifted. Focus your attention to the breath. Notice the inhalation and the exhalation. Follow the breath from the moment it begins through your nose, your throat, into your lungs, and finally filling your belly. Watch your breath as it leaves your belly, moves through your lungs, up through the throat, and out your nose. Feel the sensation at the tip of your nose, as the air passes through. Focus on the breath…If your mind starts to wander, return to the feelings in your feet, in your legs. Feel the sensations of the breath and hold your attention there. Notice how you feel inside, your heart beat. And slowly open your eyes so you can be ready for the present moment.

If we look at the components of mindfulness, we can see the inherent similarities in successful learning. The ability to notice surroundings or stimulus. The ability to identify the focus of attention. The ability to direct or redirect attention. The practice of patience. The practice of discipline. The reward of accomplishment. The self affirming success of transferring the knowledge and skills to other areas. Successful mindfulness practice breeds successful students. 

By reinforcing the importance of mindfulness in the classroom, students will be able to:

  • Recognize relevant stimulus or information
  • Identify when they are losing focus
  • Redirect their attention to the task/learning objectives
  • Connect with their needs 
  • Evaluate if/how to take action (when they no longer comprehend, when they need to take a break, when they don’t feel well and aren’t absorbing the information…)
  • Communicate without judging themselves and without blaming their instructors
  • Pursue their goals despite setbacks
  • Implement the knowledge in new situations

Mindful awareness extends to the physical and emotional realms. If stimulus is strong and causes enough stress, a person will default to survival mode until the stress is resolved. This state negates the conditions of learning because all he can focus on is the stimulus. If a student has severe stomach cramps and begins vomiting, she will not be able to focus her attention on factoring polynomials. Similarly, if the same student sees her friend have a seizure in the middle of class, she will be so distressed, there simply won’t be brain space to learn the reasons for the decline of the Roman Empire. In both instances the body assumes a reactive, survival mode to reclaim physical and emotional safety. 

Common needs beyond food and shelter are:

  • Physical and emotional safety
  • Sleep and restoration
  • Connection and belonging
  • Independence and self reliance

Not meeting these needs can lead to an accumulation of stress which eventually becomes unmanageable. Unfortunately, our kids face multiple stressors on a daily basis. Friends, family, school, activities, social networking all play a role in dysregulation – affecting sleep, hormones, biology, and psychology. Mindfulness training assists with strengthening the ability to slow down, resolve the tension, and return attention to the intended source. It fosters prioritization and wise decision making by releasing the stressful charges that threaten to unhinge them. 

Especially challenging for youngsters is self regulation, Thus highlighting the importance of repetition. Their prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for decision making and moderating behavior) is not yet fully developed, which is wonderful; it means they have tremendous flexibility with regards to neuroplasticity. The flip side is that their executive functioning is not fully mature and requires frequent redirection to the task because the “Lizard Brain” can easily usurp their thinking. “Lizard Brain” is the affectionate term for the Limbic System, the part of the brain responsible for survival. It also heavily dictates emotions, and as we’ve all experienced, impulse control is null and void when a teenager’s emotions are triggered. Ideally, consistent and sustained mindfulness practice will enable students to monitor themselves. By creating space for awareness, students can forge default patterns of behavior to identify and meet their needs more effectively and efficiently. They will have the power to restore balance to their lives and their relationships. 

Consider how mindfulness might benefit you if you were a 16 year old girl: 

It’s Monday. Your best friend unfollowed and blocked you last night from social media. You spent your evening sending frantic messages trying to understand what was happening instead of getting a good night’s sleep. You bombed your science test because you couldn’t concentrate. You got your period during English. Your ex-best friend ignored you during lunch, and you’re overwhelmed by figuring out how to complete the history project the two of you are supposed to submit on Wednesday. When your mom asks you to babysit your younger brother that evening, you flip out. 

It is possible to prevent this snowballing effect though. At the onset, a skillful mindfulness practitioner might free the mind to notice bodily sensations, tense muscles, elevated heart rate. Perhaps the next step would be to recognize the feeling of anxiety and pain at being rejected by a close friend. The relationship is severed, there’s a sense of confusion. An appropriate intervention might be to complete several rounds of EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) in order to neutralize the intense emotions. Once the feelings are addressed, some deep breathing or a guided meditation could help to induce sleep. Mindfulness deals with the present reality. There’s nothing left to be done tonight. The severed relationship and looming science test are tomorrow’s concerns. 

Let’s experiment with EFT tapping. Consider a problem you might be having. How intensely is it affecting you? Let’s tap and try to calm it. Remember though that this can have profound effects on our kids who are in the midst of defining themselves and constructing their identities. To put this in perspective, I had a student who was 10 out of 10 distressed by the mere idea of public speaking. When I asked her what came to mind when she thought about standing in front of a group of people she said, “I might as well die.” And she meant it. We tapped for one round and brought her distress from 10 down to 8. Another round brought her to 7. Then, as she tapped a final round, I gently guided her to a transformative thought. It went something like this…

Everyone’s going to laugh at me.

Why? 

I’ll mess up. I’ll make a mistake and embarrass myself. 

So what?

I’ll look like an idiot.

Do you think I’m an idiot when I make mistakes in class?

No. 

So do you really believe your friends would think you’re an idiot if you make a mistake?

I don’t know. No, not really.

What’s still bothering you about this presentation?

I’m scared I’m going first.

Is there a positive side to going first?

I’ll get it over with sooner. 

If you were reading a book and the character jumped to do something, even though he was scared, how would you describe him. 

Stupid.

Try again, something more admirable. If someone was faced with a scary challenge, and stood up and accepted the challenge, what would you say about him?

Brave. 

Why?

Because he’s doing something really hard and really scary, and that makes him courageous. 

And what kind of person are you for doing something really hard and really scary?

I’m the type of person who can do really hard and really scary things.

 

**Interestingly, she didn’t want to say she was brave because her actions were not a form of sacrifice to help anyone else, but she did recognize she was confronting one of her biggest fears. I then prompted her to list other times when she proved she was the type of person who could do really hard and really scary things. She mentioned moving to a new school and making new friends, and acknowledged that she did that successfully.

She tapped a final round with this new concept of herself. From start to finish, her distress level was down to 3 in less than 15 minutes.

Having the presence of mind to employ these strategies is daunting especially for a novice, just like driving a car for the first time. Students need guidance and repetition. Consistent practice serves to ingrain the patterns so they become automatic, preparing kids for success under stress. Mindfulness underscores our human capacity to rewire the brain, to override deeply rooted patterns, to adapt to new demands. The process is long and arduous, all the more reason to introduce students to the techniques early in their academic careers. Mindfulness necessitates diligent and careful application over the course of time. But it can be achieved. This is the beautiful hope that neuroplasticity offers. 

Grooving new synapses through guided meditation, deep breathing, and EFT are just three ways of engaging the mind-body connection. Exercise is a fourth, and vital complementary component. 

All exercise is beneficial for improving general health and well being. Movement improves circulation and oxygenation of the blood and organs (including the brain), it offers opportunities to bond with others, it solidifies a sense of confidence and independence. In the past few years, various studies confirm the notion that exercise facilitates learning, suggesting that each form of physical activity accesses different aspects of the mind-body connection. For instance, walking, especially outside, promotes diffuse thinking and improves focus and concentration. Short bouts of high intensity exercise also upregulates Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which positively impacts memory consolidation, neuroplasticity, and mood. The resonating effects of any form of exercise are significant, especially when the goal is to foster life-long learners; exercise contributes to cognitive health as we age. In fact, there is interesting research now looking into the relationship between grip strength, which can be worked through heavy weightlifting (my preferred mode of exercise), and dementia. Essentially, a person’s ability to maintain muscle strength as he ages indicates that he is less likely to experience cognitive decline. Similar results can be found with gait tests, as slower gait is linked to higher rates of Alzheimer’s and dementia several years down the line.

Moreover, there are other types of exercises designed specifically to tax the neurological system. These are called proprioceptive exercises. They intentionally stress the system to force students to slow down so they can sequence and coordinate their movements and subsequently, their thought patterns. These practices force integration of the right and left sides of the brain, which is essential for students who are emergent readers (consider how the brain needs to fluidly coordinate eye movements as they move through the words on a page). For students who struggle with ADHD and ASD this can be especially transformative as they form new connections in their brains which allow them to ultimately become more successful in the classroom. 

Let’s do a quick warm up and practice of these exercises patterns

Warm Up – Gross motor skills and balance…

  • Toe walks
  • Heel walks
  • Heel to toe raises
  • Half squat

Exercises – Active Patterns Sample, Running

  • Front
  • Back
  • Side

We’ve seen how attention to the mind body connection can actually change the way we think and the way we respond to stress. An additional factor that should not be ignored, is nutrition. Some foods get us “wired”. Others soothe. Mindful eating brings an awareness to how we nourish our bodies in a way that meets our needs. Food allergies and intolerances can wreak havoc on our system until we are so accustomed to feeling less than optimal, that we forget what it’s like to feel good. I’m not a nutritionist and therefore, I cannot offer nutritional advice. However, I will recommend that you pay attention to how you feel in your body and your mind when you eat. Look for how your body responds, see if your mental clarity changes after eating certain foods. Do you have energy? Sudden gassy stomach? Are you unexplainably irritable? What are the patterns? As science continually confirms the significant impact of the gut microbiome on the rest of our systems, the more we need to be responsible for how we choose to nourish ourselves. 

How can we structure a framework for implementation?

The priority should be sleep. The necessity of quality sleep cannot be stressed enough, it is arguably the most important thing we do each day. Sleep impacts decision making, emotional regulation, ability to focus, memory consolidation, and attention. Scientists have recently discovered that during sleep the brain clears itself of toxins, an essential function for health and longevity. Esteemed educator, Tony Wagner, suggests “parents also need to be advocates for less homework, urging teachers to focus more on making learning less stressful and more intrinsically interesting.” Indeed, a new model of education that harnessed the power of curiosity, as opposed to the grind of homework, would serve our students well. It would certainly lessen the associated anxiety, a critical component of getting quality sleep. 

Remember, just because a child CAN sit at a work station for hours innumerable, doesn’t mean they SHOULD. Kids need to learn to balance childhood and friendships with study and self care. At the end of the day, it’s more important to go for a 20 minute walk and get to bed early, than drink another cup of coffee and cram in a late night study session. We must encourage kids to get 8-12 hours of sleep a night and remind them that social media is intended to activate and trigger emotions. To ensure refreshing and restorative sleep, consider putting phones away an hour before bed time (this applies to every member of the family). If your child is having trouble getting to sleep, you can try box breathing. Let’s do a few rounds now. Inhale. Hold. Exhale. Hold. All on a count of four, for 6 rounds. 

Kids learn through our example; it remains our obligation to improve our own self regulatory behaviors so they have a model for developing their own.

In a nutshell:

  • School is meant to educate and inspire
  • Anxiety is the enemy of curiosity and learning.
  • Sleep creates space for creativity and mindfulness.
  • Mindfulness practice enables awareness, which leads to empowerment.
  • Empowerment creates independence.
  • Independence is success. 

 

Photo: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-4136760


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