The following article was written for the Lethbridge Herald and published on May 15, 2019.
During my career in education, and especially these past ten years as Superintendent of Schools, I’ve witnessed an almost epidemic rise in student anxiety. School systems continue to support the hiring of more counselling staff and offer programs to build resiliency in students, but unfortunately the cost continues to outstrip the resources available. Most often a reactive approach does not fix a problem and so the question becomes, “What might be some proactive strategies at home and in school to foster healthy students?”
Let’s begin with play and, more specifically, unstructured play. Too often our children are not permitted to engage in unstructured play. The Canadian Public Health Association lists these benefits from unstructured play: promotes creativity, strengthens problem solving and conflict resolution skills, promotes positive self-concept and self-esteem, promotes healthy weight, improves gross motor skills, positively impacts learning and attention at school and promotes resilience and independence. It is time to stop bubble wrapping our children, get them away from the TV or other electronic devices and let them head outside and experience age appropriate risky play.
Secondly, it is time to stop giving stress a bad name. As suggested by Dr. Sharron Spicer, a pediatrician in Calgary, “It is a normal, even healthy, part of life for all of us.” There are different types of stress and children need to understand the difference and respond accordingly. The Alberta Family Wellness Initiative has some great resources to assist parents and educators in understanding the differences between positive, tolerable and toxic stress. Supportive adults who work to calm a child’s stress response and teach coping skills are necessary for brain architecture to develop resiliency. Jumping in and “saving” children rather than helping them through that “tummy ache” or other stress indicators may make the adult feel better but does nothing to build a resilient child. MyHealth.Alberta.ca also has some great suggestions for adults like keeping calm, encouraging rational thinking and talking openly.
Thirdly, we need to allow our children to fail. That is a hard one for many adults, especially parents, but failure should be seen as a process of learning and not a permanent condition. I’ve used the term “fail forward” in our school division for most of my tenure and, though some don’t like that terminology, it really allows for students to be learning and engagement driven rather than simply achievement focused and perfection seeking. Learning is a process and if we continue to not allow our children to fall and scuff their knees or stumble, we are doing a disservice to them. They will learn that perfection is everything and will almost become paralyzed at trying anything new for fear of not being successful right out of the gate. I like to use the FAIL acronym – First Attempt In Learning – to support my belief in this strategy.
All kids, just like all adults, will experience some sort of anxiety in their lifetimes. Simple strategies like ensuring proper sleep and good nutrition are excellent at mitigating that anxiety. Finding the right balance so that children are not negatively stressed with competition or overloaded with schedules is also important. Kids, just like adults, need time to decompress. Finally, real social connections, NOT via social media, have to be encouraged and maintained. Our society can ill afford to raise a generation who are unable to talk face to face to one another and build real friends, not just simple “likes” on social media. We are a busy society, but if we don’t slow down and put some proactive strategies in place, our children will not grow into the resilient and healthy adults we desire.