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Northwest Takes Steps to Mitigate Student Stress – Is It Enough?

The Northwest community is stressed. It’s not a secret. When this article was originally written this stress came from homework and the ebb and flow of our collective day-to-day lives. Today, however, it would be ludicrous not to mention the impact of coronavirus on the mental and physical well-being of our school. To combat the stressful nature of school (whether in-person or online), the “Stress Better” course was incorporated into advisory periods to help provide students with the tools to cope with anxiety-producing situations. While it is unclear if Stress Better programming will continue with online learning, it is critical for us to raise the question of what we can do to improve our environment and lower our collective stress, online or off.

Learning new coping techniques is important; life will always be at least marginally stressful, and in some situations, stress can even be helpful. The implementation of the Stress Better course indicates that Northwest is in need of a larger conversation about how we stress, why we stress, and what subsequent changes we can make to improve our school environment. Ideally, the program would help redirect a student’s focus from worrying about a poorly-explained project, to tackling larger social issues. But to get here, students and faculty members need to engage in these conversations and the administration needs to be open to feedback.

It is not the goal of this article to propose a singular solution for the Northwest community but rather to begin a conversation, where, hopefully, a better environment for all can be created. Best said by a junior, “I feel like everyone’s stress levels depend and vary because of different factors such as involvement in activities and personal handling. I think it’s important to recognize that it’s multisided. This rings true. Stress is a highly personal experience and a conversation around it would more than likely focus on the school environment and would not fully address other contributing factors although they should be acknowledged.

Another anonymous junior comments that, “I think we need to be taught to handle stress, not decrease our stress. Life is stressful sometimes; it’s how we deal with it that’s important.” Many students cite homework as a primary cause of their stress, although to some degree this is unavoidable. In a recent interview, faculty member Joe Bisignano commented that “life is stressful, and no matter what we will at some point be put into a position where we are forced to cope with an excess amount of stress. There is an amount of stress we agree to take on in activities we enjoy. There are also unavoidable life events which can cause stress. My goal and I think the goal of “Stress Better” programming is to provide tools for students, so they have the tools to mitigate and manage stressors they face.”

When looking at stress within Northwest there is a need to look at our culture, analyze our communication with one another, and acknowledge what identities are affected by a school’s environment. For example, the presence of microaggressions creates a stressful, challenging environment for students of color, while having no direct impact on the white members of our community. Regarding the “Stress Better” course and its intersection with social justice, a teacher noted how they would “love to see a program that centers POCs, especially for a course that is about meditation, I totally appreciate the intention of this course, but it does not address any of the history of meditation. Which can feel like appropriation.” White students and teachers need to take accountability for contribution to a culture that is harmful for students and faculty of color. “Stress Better” could be an ideal pathway for white students to become more mindful of how they contribute to the stress of POCs in their community. This can begin by simply considering the potential harm of an action before doing it, or being accountable when we’ve done something harmful.

Opinions around stress culture at NWS range widely from those who believe that it is not the responsibility of teachers or the school to lower workload or stress, feeling like it is coddling students and leaves them without important tools to simply lower it; while others believe it is indeed the workload which must be lowered for stress to find a healthy baseline. However it is apparent that more intentional and transparent communication between students, teachers and administration could vastly reduce additional worries. An anonymous junior supported this in saying, “I think that the biggest problems that create stress at NWS are the lack of communication and organization from the teachers for the students. If teachers tried to teach us lessons about workload management and clear communication, I think that going to school would be a lot less stressful for everyone involved.” A teacher mirrored these claims, reaffirming that, “There seems to be a level of disorganization (and also poor communication) that causes unnecessary stress and could be improved.” Perhaps if we intentionally looked at how we communicate with one another in and out of the classrooms we could take steps towards an environment which is more effective and less stressful for everyone.

This begs the question “how can we effectively communicate?” Unlike many other life skills, there aren’t many classes on connection and communication. The dorm is taking some steps to rectify this, implementing a dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) course which covers many of these topics. Megan Reibel even has mentioned toying around with having an after-school class teaching basic lessons on DBT too. However, for many of us, these aren’t lessons we are taught. Nor are we graded on how well we can communicate interpersonally. It would behoove us all to take a moment to assess our needs and critically think about how they are being met or not, and beyond all ask and reach out for help. Ask for clarification if you have a question and keep asking.

Northwest is not the only school to practice mindfulness; Lake Washington Girls Middle School has implemented it into their program and Roosevelt High School refers to it as their daily “Rider Time”. As this is Northwest’s first year engaging in a form of mindfulness, there will inevitably be challenges and adjustments. Indeed, some members of our community have already expressed concern about the program. One Northwest faculty member even argued that “Stress Better” is “delaying far more necessary conversations around classroom policies, such as the amount of homework given, teacher communication, and clarity on standards. For teachers, it is delaying a conversation about the volume of work that the school assigns to us relative to our peer schools.” Another Northwest faculty member stated that “the issues with stress at this school are structural, and the only way they can be fixed is by changing the structure.” While these statements are true, faculty member Joe Bisignano reminds us that making structural change is hard and must first be initiated through individual conversations.

Finally, this would not be an article talking about stress without mentioning that there are times when stress is a bigger problem. This can be when:

  • It impedes your everyday functioning and impacts your mood in a pervasive way
  • You begin to have thoughts like “I’m not good enough”
  • Your sleep, relationships and/or appetite is impacted
  • When procrastination turns into avoidance

When it is important is to be able to make the distinction between these and acknowledge it. If you see a friend or someone that might be struggling, ask them how they are doing and be willing to get awkward to check in.

For further information please go to:

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/index.shtml or check in with Megan or Erin.

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