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Questions to Ask Your Chronically Stressed Students

by Dr. Lori Desautels


This morning I sat in two middle-school inner-city classrooms in Indianapolis, as I do most weeks. But today, something struck me deep in the center of my chest as I was observing the boredom and apathy on those detached, sleepy and seemingly sad faces. What struck me was an arrow filled with questions  as I literally sensed and felt a feeling of ask me from all parties in the classroom.

Even with all the talk in Indiana and across the nation about the effectiveness of charter schools vs public schools, voucher initiatives and private schools, our children most in need are often the first to be rejected, socially and emotionally. They are the first to be expelled and the first to be relegated to sub-standard services. Children with learning and emotional challenges may choose a charter or private school option, only to discover that the available services are unable to meet the legal requirements, let alone the emotional, cognitive and least restrictive environment needs for these students. Too often, they are met with zero-tolerance policies and coercive behavior management practices that basically are fighting pain-based behavior with more pain.

Are six hours of compliance, a tucked in shirt, and walking in a straight line quietly through a hallway the behaviors of students who are learning to listen to their hearts, to use their intuitive knowledge or to live outside the walls of school? Or are they the signs of the way chronic stress affects their learning long- and short-term memory systems and their immune systems and health? Where are the behaviors that would signify engagement, passionate and question-filled learning, and creative problem-solving?

School stress levels may be worse than ever. Over 20% of adolescents nationwide (ages 11-17) have some type of a stress disorder (depression, reactive attachment disorder, learned helplessness, bipolar, etc.) Kids top three stressors are 1) school academic pressures 2) family pressure and 3) bullying ( Among kids from poverty, 60-95% have chronic stress.

Chronic stress hurts student achievement. It is well known that chronic stress contributes to over half of all school absences (Johnston-Brooks, et al. 1998).

I have seen amazing things happen when we adults start with questions rather than directives. While the questions themselves do not solve problems, they explore what cannot be seen with the eyes. They propel social and emotional self-reflection and foster a dialogue that may bring to the surface negative emotions and beliefs that have barricaded learning, blocked active school motivation and hijacked feelings of well-being. Choose two or three questions from this list and try working on posing and discussing them with those students who trigger your emotions and leave you sleepless at night.

What do I need?

What resources (people, activities or things) could assist me in reaching my small and larger goals?

How can I show that I am progressing to bigger goals?

What can my class do to assist me?

What can my teacher do to assist me?

How do I handle negative situations? When these situations occur, what do I typically say to myself?

What would be a statement that would encourage me?

Who are my heroes? What are the character traits I admire in these people that make them my heroes?

How will I personally know I am on the right track? What will tell me I strayed off the track to my goals?

What are three negative emotions I feel most often?

What are three positive emotions I feel often or sometimes?

How could creative visualization help me?

How could I learn to begin again even after a day of small mistakes?

Name three strategies that my school teacher could begin that would assist me in moving toward my goals?

What are two or three challenges or obstacles that prevent me from reaching small or big goals?

What are my strengths?

What are my challenges?

How will I plan to focus on my strengths knowing that my thoughts and feelings drive all my behaviors and words with others?

Questions can be powerful. What are the questions that have helped you and your students?

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