By Professor Dianne Vella-Brodrick, University of Melbourne
Young people’s stress and anxiety is often tied up in their school life. Sometimes this stress is beneficial – when it provides the drive to get through a sporting competition or exam; but sometimes it turns into distress that’s detrimental to health and performance.
So, learning to de-stress and maintain focus is a valuable life skill that can help alleviate anxiety and promote performance.
As young people are often reticent to seek professional help for anxiety, it makes sense that schools can be another important avenue for support.
Schools can go beyond counselling and pastoral care services – equipping students with life-long skills and techniques to manage stress and promote wellbeing.
Destressing with Positive Education
Providing young people with tools to manage their daily stress and anxiety is an important goal that complements any of their academic achievements.
Schools are increasingly turning to positive education to help combat the increasing anxiety students face around perceived or real pressure to perform well. Positive education dovetails a strengths-based framework with best practice standards in education.
Positive education is delivered explicitly through curriculum, as well as implicitly as part of a school’s educational philosophy. Topics include identifying and using personal strengths, savouring (which involves noticing and appreciating the positive aspects of life), gratitude, growth mindset, kindness, mindfulness and community engagement.
An Australian Research Council-funded project I am leading from the Centre for Positive Psychology, that is evaluating positive education at Geelong Grammar School, has found significant improvements to student wellbeing after positive education. The benefits were most pronounced with a whole of school and holistic approach to student learning and development.
Public school students involved in the ARC study showed wellbeing improvements after a few classes of positive education and teacher training. These findings support growing evidence that positive education can be beneficial to students.
Central to the long-term success of any wellbeing program is student buy-in. A key challenge is getting young people, especially young men, to practice and use the wellbeing strategies in their everyday life.
The Bio-Dash Program
With this in mind, my research team developed the Bio-Dash – a youth-friendly, unique, wellbeing and optimal performance program.
The Bio-Dash program teaches young people evidence-based strategies (based on sport, health and wellbeing science) that enable them to optimise performance, manage stress and build resilience.
Importantly, it incorporates the use of dynamic technology to help keep students engaged. Two key processes that add to the allure of the Bio-Dash program are biofeedback and gamification.
Biofeedback is a process for gaining awareness into physiological functioning like skin conductance, heart rate and respiration. It provides immediate feedback about how well an activity is working to improve levels of a student’s relaxation and focus.
Gamification incorporates game mechanics like competition, game rules and point scoring into a task to motivate participation and maintain interest in the activity.
By using an iPad or smartphone to engage in the biofeedback and gamification tasks, students get real-time information about their brain activity, respiration and skin conductance in response to strategies like deep breathing, mental imagery, mindfulness and emotion regulation through music, visual images, self-talk and savouring.
Both during and after each task, students can get information about whether they are in the relaxed, neutral or stressed zones with traffic light signals appearing on the screen or through auditory nature cues like waves or birds singing, that become quieter as we become calm, and louder with stress.
Having tangible data about how specific evidence-based, wellbeing strategies impact physiology can motivate students to improve these internal processes using different challenges, structured as a game, based on progressive levels, powers and rewards.
The Bio-Dash program is carefully designed to include experiential tasks and challenges that are youth friendly.
One example of a performance task that the students participated in was transforming an icy, winter forest scene into one that is green and bright with summer features.
The greater the levels of relaxation, the faster the scene transforms, with the aim of altering the visual scene as quickly as possible.
Students receive information about time taken to change from winter to summer and time spent in the red, amber and green zones. Green is the most relaxed.
Other tasks in the Bio-Dash program mimic real world stressors experienced by students, like high-pressure academic activities and public speaking.
To ensure the Bio-Dash program is something students would actually use, in 2018 it was co-designed and trialled with a group of Year 10 Brighton Grammar School boys.
These students reported improvements in relaxation, focus and anxiety after their Bio-Dash sessions and enjoyed the biofeedback and gamification features. For example, students said:
• ‘It was good because we were able to try new methods and equipment.’
• ‘I figured out what calms me down best, so I can use these skills in everyday life.’
• ‘I liked being able to look at three different ways to relax and learn which works best for me.’
• ‘It was great trying the games and seeing the results.’
• ‘I believe this program will be great for helping to manage my own stress and it will also be a fun experience to pass on the stress relieving techniques to younger people.’
Helping Young People When They Need it Most
The experience of the students is critical.
For the students taking part, actually seeing and experiencing the positive effects of relaxation strategies on their physiology was described as novel, practical and highly motivational.
They liked having the opportunity to learn a broad range of techniques which allowed each student to identify those strategies that worked best for them.
Committed to the vision of developing well-rounded, resilient young men, Brighton Grammar School has funded the Centre for Positive Psychology to deliver and assess the Bio-Dash program in 2019.
The aim is to implement the Bio-Dash program with Year 9 boys at the school, to help them learn strategies to focus, get motivated, relax and reduce anxiety so that they can better manage school pressures.
As part of the program, a group of Year 11 boys who have received Bio-Dash training will coach the Year Nine students to apply these wellbeing learnings in their school and everyday life.
The use of technology in schools to promote wellbeing and performance will improve the student learning experience and shape a new generation of young people who know how to be resilient, motivated, focused and calm.
Professor Dianne Vella-Brodrick is from the Centre for Positive Psychology, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, Faculty of Education, University of Melbourne
Main image supplied by Brighton Grammar School.
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