Controlling Back to School Stress with Science

Parents in America are now being challenged like never before with the question -- should I send my kids back to school, and if not, what in the world should I do? School leaders in America are also facing the most difficult summer in their careers -- how can we possibly reopen schools safely and serve our kids at the same time, and all of that without additional funding? And teachers in America are challenged with their own dilemma -- how do I protect my own health and wellbeing while also doing right by the job that I love while also completely rearranging everything I do in the classroom, from furniture to lesson plans? We have the perfect conditions for stress overload in the education sector but it doesn't have to be this way. Let me give you a quick breakdown about where stress and anxiety come from, and how we can use science to reduce its effects on our bodies and on our ability to make grounded decisions.


Why People Get Stressed

Our body's stress system was designed evolutionarily to handle immediate threats to life and limb: a lion jumping out of the grass or a nighttime raid by a neighboring tribe. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline pour forth. Your brain gets super focused. Heart, lungs, and muscle are prepped for immediate action. Digestion, reproduction and immune responses shut down. You survive the five minutes of abject terror as disaster rains down, then get back to life as normal.


Yet COVID-19 coupled with back to school uncertainty triggers the same stress response for months on end. How do we break the cycle? Stress scientist, Robert Sapolsky (and one of my all time heroes) says "you are more likely to get a stress response—more likely to subjectively feel stressed, more likely to get a stress-related disease—if you feel like you have no outlets for what’s going on, no control, no predictability, you interpret things as getting worse, and if you have nobody’s shoulder to cry on."


So, to mitigate back to school stress try the following:

  • Find an outlet - For me, that's been camping and getting outdoors with my kids. I'm also doing some intentional mindfulness practice. And making time to serve others. The research says (and by that I mean at least 5 peer-reviewed published studies) that the following activities reduce stress: meditation, modest physical exercise, yoga, prayer to a loving God, tai chi, being hopeful about the future, being grateful for what you have, petting your dog or cat, connecting with the ones you love, helping the elderly or the less fortunate, joking and laughing, and walking in nature. Try one. Try them all.

  • Get control - For me, that's been identifying the things I actually have control over in this out of control situation. I can't impact global politics but I can decide whether to send my kids back to school and whether to enroll them in after school programs if I do. I can't change other people's stance on mask wearing but I can make sure I am consistent about my own behavior. I can't go on that vacation I had planned for my summer, but I can go camping every weekend and recreate the same feelings of vacation-level unplug and recharge here at home.

  • Manage uncertainty - My analytical brain manages uncertainty by digging into the scientific data. Facebook doomscrolling increases my uncertainty so I've put a daily time limit on Facebook on my phone. Instead, I read science magazines or check my local health department's data. Being grounded in scientifically verified research allows me to make decisions based on facts, not fear. For you parents out there, call your school leader. We LOVE to hear from you and need your perspective right now. (My next blog post will break down the data around COVID-19 that has been driving the CDC, Public Health, and American Academy of Pediatrics' support for reopening schools. Subscribe to my blog at the top of my blog page.)

  • What's getting better - Yes, the number of cases in the USA are going up alarmingly quickly. But what's getting better? Access to testing. Schools may actually reopen (unlike lockdown distance learning last spring). Scientists know way more about COVID-19 now than they did in April. I'm grateful for these bright spots.

  • Find a shoulder to cry on - My husband. My friends. My coach. Thank you for being there for me.

Last piece of advice... whatever you decide in going back to school, you can change your mind later. When my husband and I were considering whether to enroll our kindergartener in a public charter school in tiny rural Palo Cedro versus a private school in Honolulu, we agonized over the choice until we realized that whatever we pick doesn't have to be permanent. Two weeks, six months, one year down the line, everything will be different and you'll have more data (just think about life now versus two months ago versus two months before that). If we didn't like Palo Cedro, we could alway pick up and move later. Go with your best guess in the moment. Gather data as you go. Adjust course as you need. Stay nimble. Be brave. You got this!!!


Read More

Read Robert Sapolsky's article in Greater Good Magazine on how stress affects us and what we can do to relieve stress in our lives.


Going Further

Are you a parent, school leader, or teacher anxious and uncertain about going back to school? I'm offering FREE 1-hour spots on my calendar to do whatever I can to help you reduce uncertainty, reestablish control, manage emotions, and make grounded decisions. I give you the gift of my experience as a mom, school leader, teacher, and scientist. 100% dedicated attention to you and your needs. No strings attached.


Sign up to join my mailing list at the top of this page. Next week will be about the science that is driving school reopening. One short e-mail. Once a week. No spam.

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