Schools Battle Student Stress with Creative Strategies

Schools use mind-body relaxation techniques to help kids fight anxiety.

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At Jefferson Elementary School in Berwyn, Ill., state-mandated testing makes for one of the most nerve-racking weeks of the year. It's not uncommon for nervous third-graders, for example, to burst into tears or even vomit on testing days. At Needham High School, a top public school outside of Boston, gaining admission to selective colleges is the pursuit of many students, and anxiety is unusually high this year. Students are worried that colleges are being more selective and less generous with financial aid because of the recession. But in recent years, both schools have found an antidote for student stress: relaxation training.

Concerned about the myriad pressures on students, more schools are training children and teenagers to cope with stress through yoga, tai chi, and other increasingly popular anxiety-fighting methods. Besides offering relaxation training, some schools have eliminated class rankings, taken away midyear exams, imposed limits on how much homework teachers can assign, and allow students to take a "personal wellness day" off from school.

Experts say that schools are turning to relaxation training as more families experience financial hardship, which is causing students to stress out more. "People are more stressed than ever," says Marilyn Wilcher, senior director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind and Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. "A lot of it has been precipitated by the economic meltdown."

Some parents worry that the emphasis on stress gives students an easy out from necessary school and home responsibilities. Others find that certain responses—such as yoga—are inappropriate. Last October, for example, a school board in upstate New York suspended a districtwide yoga program designed for kids who struggle with test anxiety. District parents and religious leaders complained that yoga instruction in school violates the separation of church and state, citing yoga's origins in Eastern spirituality. Despite these concerns, studies show that yoga and other stress-management methods, which generally don't include religious teachings, can produce many benefits. Mind-body relaxation, including yoga, can improve self-esteem and boost grades and test scores.

Yoga lessons have helped 11-year-old Samantha Cano become a better student. Samantha's mother, Raquel, says her daughter's mood and grades have improved since Samantha enrolled in Jefferson Elementary, where all students, even kindergarteners, practice yoga for eight to 10 minutes every day. Kids take turns leading their class through a series of yoga poses and deep-breathing exercises while listening to soothing music. "Doing yoga helps me to concentrate better," says Samantha, a fifth-grader. Her yoga training came in handy earlier this month when students across Illinois were tested on their math, reading, and writing skills.

Violet Tantillo, the school's principal, says student behavior and test scores have improved since she added the yoga lessons three years ago. Tantillo uses a yoga program that was developed by her daughter, Carla, a teacher and certified yoga instructor. More than 40 other schools, mostly in the Chicago area, use her yoga program. "It empowers students in a moment when it's easy for stress and anxiety to take away their confidence," Carla Tantillo says. "What I've noticed is that students will experience anxiety, but they can pull themselves out of it quicker."

Some studies show that occasional bursts of stress can be beneficial. But for students with too many responsibilities, the stress can be overwhelming. One poll estimates that 27 percent of teens nationwide experience stress frequently. "It's the constant multitasking craziness," says Rana Chudnofsky, director of the education initiative at the Benson-Henry Institute in Massachusetts. "Students are doing homework at the same time that they are on Facebook, at the same time that they are [Instant Messaging]." Most teen surveys show that academic pressures—racking up a high grade-point average, scoring well on college entrance exams, and gaining admission to selective colleges—are a main cause of stress. But for other students, the stress is fueled by "life-death anxieties," such as violence in their neighborhoods and problems at home. If left unchecked, experts warn, stress can lead to academic dishonesty, depression, and destructive behavior.