From pet therapy to yoga, schools address kids' stress

10:34 AM, Aug 17, 2013   |    comments
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by Michelle Healy, USA TODAY 

As school counselor Jennifer VonLintel gears up for the start of the school year at B.F. Kitchen Elementary School, there are new students to enroll, files to update and schedules to plan - including the schedule for Copper, her registered therapy dog and a popular presence in the hallways of the Loveland, Colo., school.

Three days a week, the 3-year-old golden retriever's assignments can include mingling with kids during recess, being assigned to students who struggle with reading or math anxiety, and providing general companionship and support in the classroom, during counseling office visits, and during after-school programs. Any time a friendly, furry face can provide an extra measure of comfort and assurance, says VonLintel.

When there's a death in a family or a child receives bad news, "with the parents' permission, we'll introduce Copper to the situation," she says. "Kids find comfort in petting him, and sometimes the parents do, too. "

Pet therapy is just one way that schools are attempting to dial down the level of stress and anxiety facing students today and help them prepare to better handle such situations. Among others:

• Montpelier High School in Vermont is adding a daily 20-minute recess starting this school year and encourages students to get outside and play during the break.

• Shakopee High, southwest of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, has a 25-minute flex period built into each student's daily schedule during which they are free to check in with teachers, counselors, coaches, go to the library or get started on homework.

• Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, has a "Quiet Time" program, consisting of two 15-minute sessions a day in which students have the option to sit quietly and rest or practice Transcendental Meditation (TM), which is taught at the public school.

• Both Belfast High and Camden Hills High schools in Maine have "wellness rooms" in which students, faculty and staff can sign up for massage therapy, acupuncture, and other stress-relieving therapies, all donated by local practitioners.

In the past decade there's been "an increasing recognition of the connection between mental wellness, success in school and better life outcomes, so schools have started to implement more supports and services," says Kelly Vaillancourt, of the National Association of School Psychologists.

 

Whether a nagging sense of unease or an overwhelming feeling of pressure and anxiety, stress can interfere with all aspects of well-being, including sleep, emotions, focus, even how people eat, all of which are important to the ability to learn, says Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of The Mindful Child.

Greenland trains teachers, counselors, therapists and other adults working with kids and teens in using mindful awareness - "an enhanced ability to pay attention" through breathing activities and other strategies - to help kids "focus and calm (the) mind and body" when they're "over-scheduled, over-pressured and stressed."

Pedro Francisco, 15, says the targeted breathing techniques he learned almost two years ago through the Youth Empowerment Seminar (YES! for Schools) program at his Los Angeles middle school has had a lasting effect. "It still helps me now to keep myself together" instead of automatically talking back in class or getting angry, says Francisco, a sophomore at Ánimo Ralph Bunche Charter High School.

Run by the non-profit International Association for Human Values, the program has worked in 127 schools since 2005 teaching students stretching, exercise and breathing techniques, along with life skills in conflict resolution and human values with the goal of managing stress, regulating emotions, resolving conflicts and controlling impulsive behavior.

"Whatever environment kids are in, they need to (learn to) negotiate their own stress level, their own emotional well-being," says YES! co-director Elan Gepner.

A study conducted by UCLA researchers and published in July's Journal of Adolescent Health found that students who participated in the four-week program felt less impulsive, while students who didn't participate showed no change.

Even in schools that don't have specialized stress-reduction programs, teaching students how to handle stress is increasingly a component of the health education curriculum, right along with substance abuse, nutrition and healthy relationships, says Christopher Pepper, a health education teacher at Balboa High School in San Francisco.

"I see health education class, for many of my students, as the only time in their lives, possibly, to have concentrated time to learn techniques to deal with some of the situations that will come up as they move into adulthood and help them prepare for the choices they'll make," says Pepper, who writes the Mr. Health Teacher blog.

Montpelier High's new recess program is another attempt at reminding students of the importance of stepping back and recharging in order to stay emotionally healthy, says school Principal Adam Bunting. "The research about the learning gains (associated with) activity and rest on the brain is too powerful to ignore," he adds.

Although the program is not mandatory, Bunting says that when classes start Aug. 28, he hopes students, as well as faculty and staff, will put down their books and pens during recess and get involved in some type of fun physical activity, from kickball to yoga.

Most Montpelier students welcome this addition to the schedule, which also comes with a switch from the traditional eight classes a day to a four-class block schedule, says Charlie Aldrich, 17, president of the Student Government Association. "It's exciting to have that period just for relaxing, going outside and playing," he says.

While Aldrich expects many students to take advantage of the recess when they can, there will be occasions when he thinks he and others will use the break to catch up on unfinished work or cram for a test.

"It's high school, and kids have a lot of work to do," he says.

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