Seven Steps to Help Students Create Margin and Reduce Stress

Gary Davison, Principal of Lambert High School, noticed the rise in stress and anxiety levels in his students and decided to think outside of the box. When he asked students why they were so “stressed out,” many said it was because they had demands on both ends of their school day. They need as much sleep as possible in the morning (as most teens do) but have several obligations after school, including sports, jobs, homework and other extra-curricular activities.

Pause and reflect on this reality.

Many students today have pressures on both sides of their day. Adolescents aren’t sleeping long enough and need to wake up early as their day begins at the crack of dawn. At the same time, once their classes are over, most of them have demands that fill up their afternoon and evening hours, leaving them with no margin.

Keeping Up and Catching Up

Gary was noticing that hundreds of his students couldn’t keep up (without lots of stress) so he decided to schedule a time to catch up for those who found it tough to keep up.

Gary told me, “We had seven class periods in our day, but we decided to restructure it to give an extra hour just to ‘catch up.’” The school shaved a bit of time off of the normal schedule to create an eighth period in the middle of the day during lunch, they call, “Lunch and Learn.” Half of the student body has lunch the first portion of that midday period and the other half has it the second. (About 1,500 students per half). During this longer period, students eat but have time for support if they need it, where they can go to the media center and meet with faculty specialists in any subject. Students who’ve fallen behind or need to make up a test can catch up.

If students haven’t fallen behind, it’s simply a time for them to relax and experience margin in their day. They can get homework done, start projects or outline papers. Additionally, Lambert High School has therapy dogs students can pet or play with and spend a few minutes being refreshed in this creative space. In short:

  • Some kids need mentors.
  • Some kids need margin.

Has this “Lunch and Learn” period helped?

Gary told me recently that he’s noticed the stress levels on campus have diminished over the last four years since they restructured their days. In addition, the social and emotional health of the staff and faculty has improved as well. The data shows that failure rates have dropped 160 percent. It’s been a win for the school, for the staff and for the students and it didn’t cost a nickel to make the change.

Seven Steps You Can Apply

Regardless of the age of your students—middle school, high school or college—I think there are transferrable concepts we can all apply in our work with them:

1. Determine your most important priorities.

Gary decided it was more important to enable kids to learn and for him to improve the social and emotional climate of his school than to do business as usual. He got clear on what was more important than maintaining the “status quo.”

2. Rethink your assumptions.

Gary thought outside the box. School days always had seven periods, but he reconfigured the time slots and was able to find more time to meet a need. Once we kick over our “sacred cows” it’s amazing what we can accomplish.

3. Use what you already have.

Gary told me he simply restructured the resources he already had in his possession: Periods. Places. People. When leaders are resourceful, they often find they already have the resources they need right at their disposal.

4. Get buy-in and ask for help.

Gary’s decision didn’t require any more money, but it did require him to cast vision to his faculty and staff and get them to invest extra time in students. He connected their aspirations to a little inspiration and people got on board.

5. Find neutral places to achieve your new goals.

Gary identified the media center as the right place for staff, teachers and students to gather and connect. It was a neutral spot away from the noise. Teachers are present for every discipline, rotating as needed.

6. Enable people to still pursue other priorities.

Gary didn’t eliminate other class periods. He simply shaved some time and created a new one. Classes still meet. Sports teams still practice. Bands and actors still rehearse. People need to feel you still value what they value.

7. Celebrate the outcomes with everyone.

Did you notice the numbers above? Lambert High School now experiences better social and emotional health among staff and faculty as well as students. In addition, failure rates have dropped by 160 percent. Everyone wins.

Gary told me the parents now insist the school keeps this plan in place. They are enjoying children who experience happier lives. Thanks, Gary. This is just good leadership.

This is a taste of our new book: Generation Z Unfiltered—Facing Nine Hidden Challenges of the Most Anxious Generation. It’s loaded with research and creative ideas for you to practice in your environment.

Seven Steps to Help Students Create Margin and Reduce Stress