Whiplash, the Academy Award-winning movie about a young jazz student at Juilliard, had it all wrong. The premise was that the teacher could get more out of his students by bullying, intimidating, inciting fear and mistrust and generally keeping his students stressed and emotionally destabilized. And he succeeded. Only in Hollywood. The premise made for a riveting movie but terrible psychology.

Turns out stress is exactly the opposite of what students need if they are going to learn, perform optimally and be creative. Neuroscience has well-documented our learning process. That part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) responsible for rational thinking, creativity and learning shuts down whenever we feel stressed or threatened. The amygdala senses that we have more important things to attend to (survival) and reacts instinctively by flooding our bloodstream with adrenaline and other hormones needed for a fight or flight response. In other words, we learn best when we feel safe and supported. Neuroscience teaches us that optimum learning happens only in a stress-free environment that is stimulating but not intimidating, challenging but not threatening, where success is recognized but failure is not censored or shamed, where the child feels self-contained, in control and socially engaged.

Easier said than done. How does the school system which straddles the pressures of academic performance and reduced funding on one hand and family systems, learning styles, challenging behaviours and social dynamics on the other, create a stress-free environment supportive to optimal learning?

It can happen. Recently, right here in Edmonton, a classroom-based credit course to address this need was researched and implemented at Archbishop MacDonald School. It ran from 1999 to 2007. Julia Kopala, the developer and director of the program, was a high school guidance counsellor with a deep interest in holistic health practices. The course, called Complementary Health, included introducing holistic health practices of breath work, yoga, brain gym, aromatherapy, acupuncture, positive self-talk, dancing, chair massage, therapeutic touch, Qigong, native spirituality, and reiki.

The results were striking. Through these practices, students learned mental and physical habits that supported positive self-talk, healthy self-esteem, mindfulness, and a heightened trust in their ability to access peace, contentment and happiness in all areas of life. Stress went down. Academic performance and a general sense of well-being went up. Kopala has written a book about the program, When Heaven Comes … Into the Classroom, with suggestions for teachers, educators and anyone interested in optimizing their quality of life.

But still, we have oversized classes, underfunded programs, constant texting and behavioural challenges. What can a teacher do in such a pressure-cooker environment?

“If you can only implement one practice into the classroom—and your life—to reduce stress, it is breath work. It only takes three minutes and it will instantly change the energy in the classroom—as well as provide long-term benefits for yourself and the students,” said Kopala. “Breath work is simple but profoundly transformative. Everyone should be doing it throughout the day.”

Of course, saying breath work is simple doesn’t mean it is easy. It is work, after all. It involves creating time and space so that you can be attentive to your breathing: slowing it down, feeling it move in and out, noticing how this feels in the rest of your body.

Which brings us to the most important point. Everyone can and should be doing these practices, especially parents. Modelling mindfulness will not only prepare the child for school but also make for a more relaxed home environment. Add to this other supportive practices like greeting your child at the door with a hug and then creating time and space for attentive, non-judgemental listening—with eye contact. (Yes, this involves shutting down electronic interference for five to 10 minutes. Yikes!)

All of these practices might be lumped into some old-fashioned, pre-Wi-Fi concepts like affection or acceptance, but it seems we can never focus enough on the basics. The desired outcome is not simply that a child score well at school, but that they perform well at life. It is worth the effort.

Buy When Heaven Comes … Into the Classroom at http://www.walkingspiritink.com.

Featured Image: Including holistic practices like yoga creates a positive learning space. | PIxabay