We Are Westridge
A community blog featuring Head of School Elizabeth J. McGregor, the Westridge Leadership Team, our esteemed faculty members and occasional special guests
Jim Holland, Ed.D. on Deconstructing Stress and Other Wellness Tools Developed at Westridge
Our September Parent Association focused on the school’s work to promote wellness and balance. In addition to faculty and student panels, the evening included a presentation by Westridge English Teacher and Coordinator of the Westridge Research Initiative, Dr. Jim Holland, who gave an overview of the two ways Westridge helps students address challenges and stress (developing tools, including growth mindset and resilience, to address challenges and tools to deconstruct stress) and the research behind this work.
Deconstructing Stress and Other Wellness Tools Developed at Westridge
by Jim Holland, Ed.D.
In my work for the Westridge Research Initiative, it is my job to review research relevant to Westridge’s Strategic Plan and mission and support the faculty in pursuing research based practices as they seek to accomplish their goals for our students. My goal tonight is to provide some background for you on the research which underlies some of the work that Westridge is doing to support the overall health and wellness of our students, as well as to strive for an effective balance in a landscape where many bright lights and shiny objects vie for their attention. I’ll say a little more about my choice of that metaphor later.
Westridge is a school built on the belief that students who are challenged can develop self-confidence, purpose, and resilience.
The challenge for schools like Westridge is to provide appropriate challenge that inspires students to set and reach meaningful goals.
In a competitive world, Westridge can serve as a path to achievement and success. How this achievement and success is accomplished varies from student to student. Each student’s progress follows an individual developmental path.
In pursuit of its goals, the school risks contributing to a culture of anxiety that undermines the ability of students to formulate and reach their goals.
As the Strategic Plan indicates, Westridge values the health and wellness of our students as essential to the commitment to academic excellence, leadership, and service. College health services report a dramatic increase in the number of students with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Many are taking steps to expand their services in response to these increased demands, including the UCLA Peer Counseling program, which uses principles similar to Westridge’s Peer2Peer program, about which you’ll hear more in a few minutes.
There are two different ways in which Westridge seeks to address the issue of challenges, both academic and personal, that students face: tools to deal with challenge and tools to deconstruct stress. Here is a quick overview.
Tools to deal with challenge:
- Growth mindset
I’m sure many of you are familiar with the work of Carol Dweck. The concept of a growth mindset has gained prominence in educational thought – understanding that intellectual abilities are not fixed limits opens both students and teachers to the possibility of growth and change. In related research, David Yeager of the University of Texas has demonstrated that beliefs about changes in personality also play a role in managing stress. What links Dweck’s and Yeager’s research is the recognition that beliefs about the possibility of change actually enable change to take place. In Yeager’s study, students who were introduced to the notion that personality is not fixed were better able to create a “mental buffer” that helped them manage social stress.
Research conducted by the Laurel Center for Research on Girls has demonstrated a link between creative problem solving and the ability to find alternatives in situations requiring new thinking about familiar situations, whether that’s studying for a big test or negotiating the shifting dynamics of social and personal relationships.
Research also shows that forming relationships with trusted adults is a key resource for students as they face challenges. In the Independent School Health Check survey that students completed last spring, we were reassured to learn that the vast majority of student said that they did have a trusted adult with whom they could discuss important issues. You will be pleased to know, I hope, that most of those students identified this trusted adult as a parent.
Research at Stanford University focused on the role of purpose in students’ lives. The researchers found that students who felt a strong sense of purpose, in the form of making a contribution to their school or community, were more confident and self-directed in all their work. Westridge seeks to provide the opportunity for students to discover this kind of greater purpose in a variety of ways, most directly in the Community Action program developed in recent years.
Finally, research also at the Laurel Center for Research on Girls has shown that self-care, in the form of sleep habits, healthy eating, and reflection can provide girls with the strength and resilience they need when facing the inevitable challenges of school and life.
In addition to working to provide tools for responding to challenges and the stress that they generate, Westridge also help students deconstruct stress. In many ways, the perception of stress plays a greater role in students’ lives, distorting their view of what they can and should do. By helping students to bring a lens to work and expectations that reduces unproductive stress, Westridge can strengthen students’ resilience and accomplishments.
Tools to deconstruct stress:
- Stress and perceived stress
In some cases, how students perceive work and expectations leads to a perspective that can exaggerate the actual work to be done. Such perceptions of stress can be both self-fulfilling and self-defeating. By encouraging students to break down assignments to make them manageable, we can help them reduce some of the unproductive anxiety that impedes their progress.
- Resistance to perfectionism
Fear of making mistakes can be debilitating. Much recent research shows that mistakes and errors are essential to learning. Engaging authentically with new material requires the willingness to risk vulnerability. See particularly “The Miracle of Making Mistakes” in the Harvard Business Review. The more we can control the tendency toward perfectionism, the more students will be able to use errors and false starts to forge more powerful understanding.
- Framing and reframing
How we pose dilemmas can shift the way that we approach them. Kahneman and Tversky’s research is based on the premise that we do not make choices between options but rather between descriptions of options. If a student describes a choice between two courses as the difference between “a course that will get me into the college I want” and “a course that will weaken my transcript” the choice is different from “a challenging course in a subject that doesn’t interest me” and “a course that will enable me to pursue an interest that fulfills a personal passion” even though the two courses might be the same. Helping students to reframe their choices in terms closer to experience than expectation will lead to more authentic choices.
To return to my metaphor of bright lights and shiny objects, one way to support students in meeting the challenges they face with less stress and anxiety is to help them form goals from within, goals that are authentically their own. With a sense of purpose and confidence, students can begin to, in the words of the school’s purpose, find a “path to self-discovery and personal fulfillment.”
This is not an easy task, but working together, we can build the kind of relationships that allow student to encounter challenges, work to overcome them, learn from their struggles, and acquire the skills that they need to support one another and to thrive as members of this community.
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