This morning our wonderful middle school Director of Student Development, Kate Davis, sent out an update to the 8th grade teaching team. The title of her e-mail, “Social Upheaval,” gave teachers some insights into the shifting friendships in the grade and the resulting anxiety among students. Though the contents may differ, this type of email is not uncommon. At Bosque, Kate’s wisdom and care keep us aware of the unpredictable social dynamics of adolescents. While this type of caring e-mail may be particular to Bosque, the account of social stress is not. Because of the primacy of the friendship group during this developmental period, tensions and changes within groups tend to produce high levels of insecurity and stress— at Bosque, in schools across the country, and in galaxies where 11-15 year olds live.
My morning brightened when an article on social stress from The New York TImes scrolled across my newsfeed. “Teaching Teenagers to Cope with Social Stress” details early research on coping mechanisms that can reduce levels of stress in teenagers. The researchers are using an interesting method to communicate a very simple idea—people can change.
Let’s go back to Carol Dweck’s revolutionary research on fixed and growth mindsets popularized in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Check this out if you want a quick refresher. At the root of her research is this scientific concept: the brain changes. Dweck’s early research found that if students better understood the science of how learning occurs—in particular, if they understood the brain’s magnificent “plasticity”—they were more open to engaging in and persisting through an intellectually demanding task. Dweck’s simple message that the brain changes opened up the world to many who previously thought the capacity of their brain was fixed in a deterministic way.
So, fast forward to David S. Yeager’s (Assistant Professor at University of Texas with expertise in secondary education and adolescent development) latest work. In his study, students read an article on brain science about how the personality can change. Next, they read accounts of conflict written by high school seniors that reflected the ways “they were eventually able to shrug things off and move on.” The final part of the study asked participants to write “encouraging” advice to younger students. Though the research samples are small, the early results are promising. The student participants had lower levels of stress, measured through hormone and cardiovascular tests; they “reported more confidence in coping, and achieved slightly higher grades at year’s end, compared to the control group.”
The idea behind the message, “People can change,” seems to elicit hope in students and builds some level of distress tolerance. It activates an expansive view of time where the short term is contextualized within the long view (i.e., how my peer group is acting right now will not be how my peer group acts with me forever).
Change as Problem and Solution
The message of the possibility for change may be one of the most hopeful insights for one’s life. It is the message at the core of Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project, designed to help LGBT youth see a future outside of cultures of intolerance and to inspire community change. In Yeager’s research, change is both the cause of some teenage stress as well as the solution. In a hopeful twist, the research suggests that the stress resulting from the changes within the social sphere can be alleviated by the larger message of change. Bill Burnett and Dan Evans, the two Stanford professors whose popular course, “Designing Your Life,” is receiving national attention, capture the vital nature of change in their description of a well-designed (a.k.a., good) life, as one that is “generative—it is constantly creative, productive, changing, evolving, and there is always the possibility of surprise.”
As we think of ways to support students in developing resilience and distress tolerance, and in decreasing their levels of stress, one of the hopeful ideas of Yeager’s research is that the mechanism for reducing stress in teenagers is not dependent upon adults. The essential process he used in his research positioned the students as agents of this discovery; the students themselves researched the readings on change and wrote the “encouraging” communication for younger students.
As change anchors our experience—seasonally, socially, and personally—it serves as a beacon of hope while we support our students as they cope with changes in their social worlds.