The Five Ds of Destressing - ASCD
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December 1, 2018

The Five Ds of Destressing

Teachers and students can't avoid stress altogether—but they can learn to cope with it. Model strategies for stress management to prepare students to handle challenges in the real world.

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Classroom Management
Social-emotional learning

It's meltdown o'clock and my 2-year-old is screaming about some injustice. He's posted up in timeout hollering, "Mammmaaa!! Dadddddyyy!!!"

Then I hear the phrase we've been working on for months: "I want to take a deep breath!"

He inhales slowly. Exhales.

The screaming and crying stop, and all is quiet on the toddler front. It still amazes me how well a slow, deep breath can calm a 2-year-old. Through our explicit and consistent efforts, our son is already learning how to manage stress.

Stress management is essential in education: I see how my students' stress disrupts their ability to learn and problem solve. As a parent, spouse, and educator, I feel the effect of stress on my own world. Although we can't permanently avoid stress, we can manage it with the right strategies. These are my five Ds of stress management—the strategies we can use ourselves and teach to our students.

Distract from It

Glorious, glorious homeostasis. Although an increase of stress can instantly trigger fight, flight, or freeze, our bodies naturally want to regulate our hormones and bring us "back to normal." Slowing our stress response takes time, however, especially if we ruminate and "relive the stress."

This is where distraction can help. Sometimes doing something else can shift our thoughts away from the stressful rumination and allow our bodies and brains a chance to regulate. Give yourself or your students time to wind down from stress through distractions like going for a walk or exercising (cardio exercise releases endorphins and helps our bodies better regulate cortisol, our main stress hormone), doing a flow-inducing hobby, listening to mellow music, or resting.

Deal with It

Although distraction can provide a temporary and sometimes necessary reprieve from stress, avoidance becomes problematic when it's our only strategy for destressing. If I binge on Netflix or social media instead of dealing with a stressful grading deadline, my stress will only multiply as the deadline looms closer. Eventually, I need to learn how to deal with the problem: how to break a large task into smaller, manageable chunks. Other ways to deal with stress include these:

  • Apply conflict resolution strategies, like active listening and using I-statements, when engaging with others on a stressful issue.

  • Use creative problem-solving processes: rephrasing problems as questions, suspending judgment, and moving from divergent brainstorming to convergent, critical evaluating.

  • Adapt the WOOP method to address your challenge: write down your Wish, the Outcome or benefit of that wish fulfilled, any Obstacles to achieving it, and your Plan for overcoming each obstacle.

Dispute Your Distortions

Sometimes a stressful experience is made worse by our thought patterns. For example, a failed lesson is in the past and we can't time warp to fix it. Our mental processing after the fact can exacerbate stress if we cling to cognitive biases or distortions, such as

  • Black-or-white thinking: something is either great or terrible, with no in-between. For example, "That lesson was a disaster."

  • Permanence: nothing can change the circumstance in the future. "I ruined my kids' ability to understand fractions."

  • Pervasiveness: one bad event gets generalized to our personality or ability. "I'm a terrible teacher."

Coach yourself and your students to recognize and reduce biased or distorted thinking using one of Martin Seligman's (Learned Optimism) four suggested methods:

Review the Evidence: Do the objective facts of the situation support your mental conclusions? "Despite that bad lesson, my students still averaged a 72 percent on the assessment."

Question the Usefulness: How are our thoughts guiding us to positive action? "Wallowing in my mistakes won't help my students learn fractions any better. I have tomorrow to try again."

Check the Implications: Do your conclusions match the big picture? "That lesson doesn't mean I'm a terrible teacher. The rest of this week has gone well."

Consider the Alternatives: What other factors lead to this adversity? "Fractions are a tough topic, and my students have struggled in the past with difficult lessons right after lunch. Next time, we'll tackle fractions in the morning."

Discuss It

Ever talked through a seemingly implacable stressor with someone and found that the weight has lifted? Creating an avenue for processing stress, whether through journaling or seeking guidance from a trusted source, has multiple benefits:

  • Writing or talking provides time for our bodies to return to homeostasis.

  • Organizing our feelings into words can create clarity and activate the logical parts of our brains.

  • Talking with a supportive individual may give us new perspectives and ideas.

What are the outlets for students to "discuss" their stress in your classroom? For example, give your students five minutes to respond to the prompt, "What's going on in your life that I should know? What can we both do to help you learn today?" Or, have them decide on a scale of 1 to 10 how their day is going. They can show you their number on their fingers before taking a couple minutes to briefly check in with a neighbor.

Develop Frontal Control

Visualize your limbic system—the emotional control sector of the brain—as a gas pedal. It creates action to help you survive, even if it means sudden bursts of anger or retreat. Your frontal lobe—the logical processing sector—acts as the brake pedal. It helps you evaluate your situation and take more rational action. Our brains evolved to prioritize the limbic system: We hit the gas first. Although we can't stop stress responses from activating, we can strengthen our ability to slow them down through deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, and other calming focus strategies, like counting backward from ten. The more we practice these, the better we get at activating the "brake pedal."

Our students might not tantrum like toddlers, but all humans have moments of stress. Simply protecting students from stress doesn't give them the life skills to live in the real, stressful world. Prepare students for stress by teaching and modeling strategies for stress management.

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