What Does Enrichment Mean? (page 3)

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jan 12, 2011

Managed Stress Levels

Many students experience daily stress that is over and above the healthy limits. It comes from bullying, rude teachers, overdemanding parents, and life's events. When there are unpredictable stressors, the brain's capacity to learn and remember is severely impaired.21 Animal studies show that behavior stress modifies and impairs a key learning structure called the hippocampus and reduces learning capacity. In fact, the actual brain cells in the prefrontal cortex become disfigured with chronic stress.22 In general, students learn best in a classroom climate of moderate stress (I prefer the expression, "healthy concern"). But that's just a generalization; there are plenty of exceptions. For example, many students with disabilities need lower stress or their learning shuts down. Examples include those with autistic spectrum disorders, reactive attachment disorders, attention deficit, oppositional disorder, dyslexia, stress disorders, or learning delays. So for a portion of the students, low stress does work better. Healthier students can thrive under much more demanding conditions. Figure 7.1 shows how stress affects various parts of the body.

Recommendations: Schools should adopt a three-part strategy. First, all staff should be taught and should participate in stress reduction strategies to help better manage responses to adverse events. This may include skill building, reframing, treadmill, or power-walking activities. Second, students should be taught life skills, which include time management, study skills, and emotional intelligence. They need to be taught about how their body experiences stressors and what to do about them.

Establish an environment that would typically inspire and challenge the learner. Make it less chaotic, uncomfortable, or overwhelming, and more predictable. Ensure that the physical environment has the best possible acoustics and lighting. Offer the possibility of movement, rich wall decorations, choice, open windows (if appropriate), and going outside. Give students the life skills to deal with stressors. Teach self-regulation strategies such as meditation, exercise, yoga, better nutrition, and reframing outcomes more positively. Students need the skills and mind-set to believe they can influence their environment.

Managed Stress Levels

Social Support

Student brains never mature in a vacuum. They become human-friendly in the context of a social environment. School stress that is associated with bullying and violence hurts achievement. The stress also impairs test scores and attention span and increases absenteeism and tardiness.23 Community violence exposure—an unsafe home neighborhood or a dangerous path to school—also contributes to lower academic performance.24 It is discouraging, but many high school students either stay home or skip classes due to fear of violence. Students who have to worry too much, especially over safety concerns, will underperform academically.25 And plenty of recent evidence shows that stereotype threat reduces working memory capacity in students.26

Recommendation: Schools that provide enhancement use the following: mentorships, peer counseling programs, cooperative learning, clubs, and team sports. They use whole-school assemblies and class meeting models, and ensure that every single student in the school is assigned an adult or older student as support.

The key is a sense of belonging, invitation, and connectedness. School leaders and staff that make schools a place for a positive social climate do things differently. They typically make sure the staff is prosocial and respects relationships. They use daily rituals and traditions, they hold assemblies and community functions on a schedule. They respect diversity and openly discuss diversity issues. They'll have morning homeroom meetings with familiar agendas. Students have room for expression in voice, art, and sports. The schools embrace the culture of the students with familiar themes that students, staff, and community can align with.

People also need social connectedness—the store of social capital that gives them access to a network of caring human services. Connectedness is an important enrichment factor because it can regulate stress levels up or down. If our relationships are positive, they tend to have buffering effects against stress. If they are negative, it increases our stress response.

Schools ought to foster positive social connectedness for many reasons. But the main reason is that it may keep students in school. Of those in school, it increases their likelihood of having better friends, fewer illnesses, less absenteeism, and a more positive attitude. For many kids, the main reason they're in school is because it's the law and their friends are there. Social contact can influence gene expression; improve student health; and reduce discipline, bullying, and violence. How many more reasons do school policymakers need to mandate positive social structures?

Good Nutrition

Why support this factor? The more we know about the value of both basic and enhanced nutritional support, the more important nutrition becomes for enrichment. Multiple studies show that good nutrition improves mood and behavior.27 One public school in Arizona ran a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, giving supplements to half the children and placebos (pills with no nutritional value) to the other half. Pre- and post-testing showed a statistically significant increase in nonverbal intelligence, with some increased as much as 10 to 15 IQ points.28

The average student, from kindergarten through high school, will have the opportunity for 2,340 lunches, which, at five hundred calories each, would contain over one million calories. Those meals will either support or hinder student cognition and behavior. Since positive nutrition is also a factor for enrichment, schools have to take the big step and make food healthier. In the initial animal studies in the 1960s, food was considered an automated, fixed element, and researchers simply ignored it in the studies.

Recommendation: Positive student nutrition needs a three-part approach. First, educate parents about the true cognitive and behavioral impact of nutrition. Give parents low-cost options and be specific. Second, educate students about how their brain works and how nutrition influences it. Teach them which foods have the effects of uppers and which foods can induce calm. Teach them about vital cognition-boosting nutrients, too. Third and finally, be sure to implement the modifications in the school food services. Empty calories and fatty, saturated foods do no good for the growing brain. Exhibit 7.2 shows some nutritional suggestions.

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