Good Stress, Bad Stress

Joel HammonUncategorized

A girl reacting with surprise and angst

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Our members often describe PLC as a low-stress environment compared to their previous schools. Many of the common stressors in school are simply not present at PLC: competition for grades, mounds of homework, inflexible rules and regulations. We consciously try to reduce that kind of stress as much as possible.

But one of the common concerns people have about self-directed education communities like PLC is a nagging feeling that by having children in low stress environments, parents are somehow “letting them off the hook”, that they will not be prepared for life which is, of course, often stressful. How will children be ready to deal with the stresses of life and work, if they don’t have experience dealing with stress when they are young?

For us, all stress is not created equal. There are good and bad varieties and what often makes the difference between the two is the meaning and context in which the stress occurs.

When we say that we try to reduce stress for kids, we mean to say we try to get rid of arbitrary and unnecessary stress that negatively impacts young people’s lives. When I was a public school teacher, I created a lot of this bad stress in the lives of my students late nights dealing with projects, papers, tests, books to read (and of course the tension in the family about grades and getting all of this done.) Students had no say in this and many had no particular interest in the things I assigned. It is highly questionable whether any of it actually contributed to their learning or future success. No context, no meaning, just arbitrary requirements that probably produced a lot of unhelpful stress.

At PLC we’re all for learning how to deal with the helpful stress that comes from pursuing something you find important, for stepping out of your comfort zone in order to grow, for overcoming obstacles that you find on your path. Our goal is to help young people create a life full of meaning where what they do on a daily basis fits into a bigger picture that they have for their life.

I worked with a PLC member for three years who was interested in hospitality and hotel/restaurant management. When she was in school, the stress she experienced was overwhelming, to the point that she stopped going and joined PLC. In order to learn more about the industry she wanted to join, she got a substantial part-time job at a local restaurant. We would talk about her job in our weekly mentoring meetings and there was plenty of stress involved navigating a fairly unreasonable boss, unreliable coworkers, scheduling problems, angry customers, thinking about if this is really the job that she wanted or should she look for a new one. Objectively, it might have been more stress than what was happening in school, but she was able to handle it and ultimately have a useful and positive experience. Why? What was the difference? She chose to be there, it was connected to something she thought was important and ultimately it had meaning for her.

For whatever reason, math seems to be a major source of stress for kids in school. Not everyone, but we have plenty of young people who join in various states of math phobia, from disinterest, to active avoidance, to tears just from sitting down to look at a math problem. Our members are not required to “take math” while they are with us, but we provide a number of opportunities for young people to work with a staff member or make progress on math in other ways. Nearly universally, kids who have shut down on math will eventually decide to overcome that obstacle even though it often involves lots of discomfort, false starts and stress. Why? Because it’s necessary for the next step in the life they want. For example, if a teen is interested to go to a college that requires a certain amount of math study for admission. All the same potential sources of stress are there, but because the young person has chosen this path for themselves they are going to experience and process the stress in a much different way.

There are plenty of opportunities in life  for young people to learn how to handle stress simply by living and pursuing the things that seem important to them it’s unavoidable, guaranteed. Our role as an organization and as mentors is to help teens navigate the stress that comes from living the life they want, not to add unnecessary, and ultimately unproductive, stress.

For more on the power of self-directed education to reduce stress for young people, see Blake Boles’ recent article on giving kids more control over their time.