Live-Work balance, Student experience

Chronic Stress

Every so often, I hear from faculty saying that there seem to be more students with disabilities each year- that we seem to be accommodating more and more students.  From a numbers standpoint, that is not quite true.  We have actually been trending downwards (with an attrition rate of something like 1-2% each year).

However, I will concede that I have seen more students impacted by anxiety and depression that result in the need for accommodations, or different accommodations.

Now, I have not run any study of sorts, but I have a gut theory that I want to share.  I think our students are stressed… chronically stressed.  Stressed to the point where their brains can only think in a fight or flight situation or where they are completely paralyzed by fear.

I don’t blame them.  I am no stranger to stress myself. I have three kids, I work full time, make dinner, do the dishes, I drive kids to music, taekwando, cathechism and swimming, I yell at my kids, soothe their fears… , somedays I just want to stab my eyes out when I read emails. But all in all, I have the resources to balance this out.

Not all our students have those resources though and for them the stakes are high.  One student I know works a graveyard shift, goes home to sleep then wakes up in time for a 10am class, then picks his kid up from school.  Another one I know goes to school from 10-2pm every day, then takes the bus for an eight hour shift at Bloomingdales so she can make rent.  And another student I know of is going through a divorce, fighting for full custody of her three children, taking a full load of classes, hoping to graduate with a degree.  I don’t know how they make it to class every day, let alone do homework.

The student who is going through a divorce needed more time for her exams.  “I cannot think straight like I used to,” she says.  She needed the extra time to calm down, focus and keep her anxiety in check.  Who can blame her?

The student who works a graveyard shift has trouble focusing.  “You don’t sleep enough… how can you possibly focus?” I say to him. He says he has no choice.

I found this great video on TedEd the other day that explains how stress affects our brains.  In short, chronic stress affects the structure of our brains, impacting in particular, executive functioning- the part of our brains that help us filter, prioritize and make informed decisions and memory.  From our students’ standpoint, they can’t remember what they study, even though they spend hours studying; they can’t calm down enough to make good decisions on multiple choice test, and they are constantly overwhelmed.

Beyond the accommodations, what can we do as a school to help our students with their stressful lives?  That I think is the million dollar question which I do not yet have an answer.  Do you?