From our Dean of Students: How Positive Reinforcement Helps to Lower Stress

Cannon May 2016-56by Tom Booker, Dean of Students

The following is excerpted from a recent edition of Upper School News. 

I had an enlightening conversation with a stressed-out senior a few weeks ago. His major concern was the college application process. Meeting deadlines, writing essay prompts, making sure that all of his grades were the best they could be before our school pushed “submit” to his array of college choices.

I think it’s important to diagnose the vector of the pressure as well as the source of the stress. So I inquired. “Is the pressure coming from your folks?” Nope. “How many teachers have asked you about college?” A pause. None. “Your friends?” Yes. “It’s all we talk about…it seems.” Frankly, that response really frustrated me. I have been in this business long enough to know that parents are often the source of stress, intentionally or not. Our community has done much to try to educate and help us be better parents by not stressing our children out, not over-parenting, not overly emphasizing the grades and college selection process. It seems that process was working in this case. I was super proud of our faculty as well, to see that this senior, upon reflection, could claim that not a single teacher had asked him about college. However, stress was still a major part of this young man’s life.

The Deans of Students met with a group of students over the summer. Let’s call them the Deans’ Dozen. We examined our Student Life Program specifically and the life of students at Cannon in general. We asked about relationships, communication, “busywork,” class trips, stress, etc. We received highly valuable information. Buried within the conversation about grading and stress was a gem of a quote that I’ll share:

“Positive reinforcement is the antidote to stress.”

– Peyton Kelly ‘18.

2017418_Cannon-57 (1)I believe it is part of our hard-wired DNA to want to offer feedback on how someone can do better. Too frequently the well-greased path is one of finding the mistakes and pointing those out. While I’m not a sports guy, I’ve suffered through enough TV-based athletic competitions on a friend’s TV to witness the regular fault-finding that is part of that tradition. Sure we celebrate the great throw and touchdown too, but the incessant criticizing seems to lead to the greatest volume of conversation occasionally interrupted with a positive note.

One of my favorite parts about new mission statement, “Cannon School nurtures the relationships at the heart of learning and engages the learner in a journey of growth” is the word nurture. What I would offer is that pressure, anxiety, yelling, stress, criticism, and fault-finding are not nurturing. What Peyton’s wise words recognized was that while stress is a part of our journey of growth, there are positive behaviors we can bring to relationships that will help to diminish that stress.

In the dean world, I know our title, offices, questions, and even appearance can add to the stress of a student’s day. One of the reasons we are also the chief celebrators of daily core values is to demonstrate that we see BOTH the good and the not-so-good. Our team regularly initiates positive calls home when students have accrued a handful of core value awards. I encourage families to take their all-star out to the mall or to dinner or to have a conversation about the value of being a good person, not just a good student.

Understanding our new mission statement and partnering it with the wisdom of a young and powerful mind, I would ask that all of us re-engage in the business of nurturing, celebrating, and finding the positive in the lives of our students.