Is resiliency the most important skill schools should teach?

Going back to school every September evoked feelings in me that were a mix of anticipation and trepidation. There was the excitement that surrounded the newness of it all – new books, new clothes, new teachers, new learning – as well as the fear associated with the certainty that it would all soon become a slog of homework, pressure to get good grades, and conflicts with friends. The college students I teach are no different. After approaching the fall semester with optimism, by spring all five sections of our stress management course are usually full.

Back to school doesn’t have to mean back to stress, though. Or at least not back to overwhelming stress. There are tools we can pass on to kids that will make a significant difference in how equipped they are to handle the challenges of their young lives – tools that will improve their resiliency in both the short and long term.

A 2014 survey by the American Psychological Association showed that teens report more stress than any other age group, stress that is primarily due to financial insecurity, as well as conflict at home and with peers. Those higher stress levels are not benign – they can result in both physical and psychological symptoms, poor performance in school and the inability to make healthy lifestyle choices. But teaching teens appropriate self-care skills can mitigate the stress.

The Benson-Henry Institute recently reported on such a curriculum that they brought to Boston-area high school students. Over a 6-8 week period, the students were taught about the science of stress and relaxation, learned how to reframe thoughts and attitudes, and practiced meditation and mindfulness skills. Those who received the curriculum reported significant drops in perceived stress and anxiety, as well as higher productivity. The results also held up over time – one year later, the students still demonstrated a greater ability to manage stress, as well as the ability to make healthy choices in their lives.

The resiliency program taught to them included the same things that are good for all of us: How to use breathing, mindfulness and imagery to work through tough challenges, how to change our negative self-talk into positive statements, and how our healthy choices bolster us during times of stress. If all goes well, when these kids get to college a stress management course will just be a refresher for them, not a starting point.

Each of the skills they learned – meditation, mindfulness, and reframing — does something different. As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “Meditation is neither shutting things out nor off. It is seeing things clearly, and deliberately positioning yourself differently in relationship to them.” Meditation creates a shift in perspective, allowing us to live with emotions that are both positive and negative, to really see ourselves and others with blinders off.

Mindfulness helps us foster our attentional capabilities, and to bring greater awareness to our interactions, our work and the world around us. While the Benson-Henry researchers still want to look at which skills have the most effect, and for which stressors, my guess is that the mindfulness practices are probably connected to improved relationships and better academic work.

The third skill, reframing thoughts to be more positive, helps students understand that stress comes mostly from within, and that they can take charge of their thoughts with practice. Every single negative thought that crosses our minds can be substituted with a more accurate or positive alternative. Storyteller and artist Ilan Shamir has a book, Simple Wisdom, that is subtitled “A Thousand Things Went Right Today!” What if we simply stopped a few times each day and listed just 10 of those things that went right so far? I’m certain we would all immediately experience at least a slight shift to a more positive pole.

Actor Will Smith once said that, “The things that have been most valuable to me I did not learn in school.” I don’t think he is alone in that. But maybe if teaching resiliency skills in school becomes the norm, kids will grow up believing that they learned something there that is extremely valuable and applicable to all of life’s challenges.

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