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How Stress Affects Our Students (& Their Parents) — Plus, How We’re Trying To Help


There’s an impressive article in this week’s New Yorker Magazine titled The Poverty Clinic, written by Paul Tough (unfortunately, it’s behind a paywall for now, but the New Yorker usually makes it publicly available at the same url address a week or two following publication).

The article describes research being put into practice that demonstrates high stress levels among children result in serious heath problems as an adult. In fact, it actually alters a person’s DNA in the brain. Scientists found that certain stresses have a direct connection to adult health problems through using a simple nine question Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) test.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

The researchers looked at patients with ACE scores of 7 or higher who didn’t smoke, didn’t drink to excess, and weren’t overweight, and found that their risk of ischemic heart disease (the most common cause of death in the United States) was three hundred and sixty per cent higher than it was for patients with a score of 0. Somehow, the traumatic experiences of their childhoods were having a deleterious effect on their later health, though a pathway that had nothing to do with bad behavior.

The article provides some very accessible descriptions of how stress affects our body, and suggests some ways to help. It cites examples of foster parent education programs that have helped them “be more responsive to the emotional cues of the children.” In studies, the children in these programs show “cortisol patterns that echoed those of children brought up in stable homes.” (Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone).

In addition, the article discusses that cognitive-behavioral therapy has been effective with adolescents in reducing stress. There has been a lot written about using cognitive behavior techniques in classroom management, which echo a lot of the ideas in my upcoming book, Helping Students Motivate Themselves. One key element of this strategy is encouraging positive “self-talk.” Visualizing could be another.

One example of this is something I recently tried with a student who has a history of having many behavioral challenges. One day, he and I were talking, and he was telling me he knew he needed to get a handle on his behavior, but he didn’t know how. I told him I wanted to suggest an idea, that he could feel free to reject. I first showed me several different colors of large Post-Its, and asked him to choose one. We then put it on his desk, and I asked him to think of a word or a phrase that he thought would remind him to stay focused on what he was doing, and to remind him to work hard on controlling his behavior. I told him to think about it for awhile, write down whatever he wanted, and let’s just see if it helped.

He was extraordinarily focused that day, and has been the same for the past week. He chose to write down “Future,” and everyday he gets a new post it. When we go to the computer lab, he places it on the screen. Sometimes he has forgotten to get the post-it, but he has been able to maintain his self-control even during those times, he says, “because I say it to myself.”

You can’t tell a whole lot by one week, but it is a start.

My colleague, Katie Hull, and I are creating a life skill lesson (in a long line of ones I’ve posted about in this blog that combine literacy development with social emotional learning, including lessons on the brain, goal-setting, sleep, etc. — more extensive versions are in my book) on the issue of stress management. We’ll uses excerpts from the New Yorker article, along with this article from the Mayo Clinic on Stress Management (though we will not have students take the ACE test for a variety of reasons). We’ve discussed working with students to explore ways to reduce stress, including getting more sleep and eating healthy, plus working together to make a list of potential words or phrases that might help students become calmer during stressful times. We might have them place the phrase or phrases of their choice on their school binder and on other things they see regularly as a reminder to encourage positive self-talk, then have them use it for a week and reflect on how it went.

I’ll let readers know what we end-up actually doing. I’d love to hear your ideas, too.

Also, as I’ve previously posted, our school has what I and others consider to be a national model for a Parent University that demonstrates parent engagement at its best. At their next meeting, parent leaders might discuss if they’d like Katie and me to come share what we’ve learned and tried with them, and possible have parents take the ACE test themselves as a tool for self-reflection.

Here are a few other resources on cognitive behavior strategies in the classroom you might find interesting:

Applying Cognitive-Behavioral Techniques to Social Skills Instruction

Improving Behavior and Self-Efficacy Beliefs In the Classroom: Through Cognitive-Behavior Modification

Cognitive Behavior Modification

Also, coincidentally, today Edutopia published an interview with one of the authors of a major study I posted about earlier this year that found this kind of “Social Emotional Learning” (including the other topics I cover in my book) have a significant positive impact on student academic achievement.

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

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