“Why are you so mad at that driver mama?” asked my daughter Alexandra on the way home from the grocery store last Saturday. I wanted to say in my most indignant voice, “Because he is driving slower than molasses and deserves to be yelled at,” but something about the way she asked the question snapped me out of my crazy road rage. Instead, I took a breath, paused, and wondered…
What was I so mad at?
It was by all accounts a gorgeous day. One of those beautiful days where you open the windows, breathe deep and smile at the luck you’re having on a September weekend in Chicago.
Except I wasn’t. Not one bit. The night before I had painstakingly mapped out every waking moment that day from my 5:30 a.m. workout all the way to Alexandra’s birthday party that night. I went to sleep that night thinking I was a genius of time management and that I was going to avoid any stress because I was so prepared. What I ended up doing was spending the day jumping from one activity without a moment for pause. The anxiety I was trying so hard to avoid had escalated to monstrous proportions.
What I realize now is that in my brilliant timetable, I had neglected to schedule a time for a pause in my day. A time to just do whatever I wanted to do. A moment of quiet or catching one of my favorite shows or reading a book or even just talking to a friend. Because of this, I was walking through the day feeling on edge.
I remember feeling this way many times throughout the years when I was a teacher. As the list of important objectives grew, the time in the school day remained the same. The only way to get everything done was to over-schedule every subject down to the minute leaving no time for pause, a teachable moment or connection to something not already planned in the day. Each day blended with the next, and although I had accomplished everything on my list I grew more and more overwhelmed.
Kids feel the anxiety as much as we do. Even when they are offered choice and voice, the purpose is still determined by the teacher. They spend 6-7 hours of their day doing essentially what someone else is asking them to do. When we do give them a moment away from the academic schedule, it’s usually a “brain break” where we dictate exactly what they will be doing to “relax.” What message does that send to them?
Google, “the effect of breaks on the brain” or “taking time for ourselves” and you’ll find a plethora of research and articles that support the idea that taking periodic breaks are actually better for learning. In a recent article from Edutopia, the authors posit that taking periodic breaks (including brain breaks) actually decreases stress and increases productivity. One of the most interesting studies they reference showed that when the brain is at rest it is actually highly active with different areas lighting up. “Breaks keep our brains healthy and play a key role in cognitive abilities such as reading comprehension and divergent thinking.”
If you’re still not convinced that learners need more downtime in school, think about the increase in mental health issues we have seen over the past few decades. According to the CDC, “1 in 6 U.S. children aged 2–8 years (17.4%) have a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.” Behavior disorders are greatest in students ages 6-11 while rates of depression and anxiety rise as children age, peaking at ages 12-17.
I have to believe that some of this is a result of the fast-paced world the students are a part of. At school, with the exception of lunch and recess, the content and schedule of their day are chosen for them. Many students continue this pace when they leave school moving from one activity to another. Even though most of these after school activities are chosen and preferred by the student, it still doesn’t leave time to just be present and reap the benefits of having time to pause.
If we want learners to be cognitively flexible and creative thinkers then we have to start giving everyone more breaks in their day. I’m not saying we need more brain breaks, or even more recess. Just some time broken up throughout the day when everyone in the room gets a moment to choose something that he or she wants to do that is not tied to a standard or a demand of another human being. The research seems to show that if we can do this, we’ll not only be better learners but happier humans overall.
So I’m starting with me. Next week I’m blocking out time in my day for myself. I’m talking to my teachers about doing this for not only the students, but themselves as well. We all work insanely hard inside and outside of school. Let’s give ourselves some grace and slow down the pace of the day. I don’t know where the quote below came from, but I’m going to end with it as a kind reminder.