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Some insight into our March 10th speaker

speaker person Dr. Michael Nakkula, Psychologist and Professor of Practice at the Graduate School of Education at The University of Pennsylvania, understands personally the level of stress that students may experience on a daily basis.  The father of a college freshman and high school junior, he's watched his own children navigate stressors that they and others have put on them.  

As a professor and researcher, Dr. Nakkula's work has been oriented toward youth development and wellbeing.  His early career as a professor was centered around developing school and mental health counseling programs.  Today, he is training graduate students to work in schools and communities around mental health issues while working on research that might offer solutions for mitigating stress in youth.

Between parenting, training, and research, he knows a little about what every parent, teacher, and administrator faces in this complex world of stressors.  Penn-Delco is pleased to host him as their third and final speaker in our speaker series addressing physical and mental wellbeing on Tuesday, March 10 at Northley Middle School beginning at 6:30pm. 


Performance and social media anxiety

Dr. Nakkula has zeroed in on many of the stressors that students are facing in the modern educational landscape and spoke of a few that have evolved with changing technology and expectations.  So what are youth worried about?  

"There are a wide range of stressors dependant on the backgrounds and nature of families.  However, even as young as middle school, students are stressed about academic performance, college competitiveness, and even the cost of college.  They feel the pressure to be really good to get scholarships," he said.

Whether the student is concerned about comparative peformance, or whether they will be good enough to get into or excel in their chosen high school, Dr. Nakkula believes there is more academic pressure than we imagine.  Interestingly, it is the higher performers that often feel this stress more accutely.  From expecatations set by parents or themselves, to the lack of time doing things they truly enjoy, achievers are feeling the pressure. 

Depending on their socio-economic or family situations, some students are dealing with stress around safety or family stressors.  Still others feel stress around peers that is most likely exasperated by technology.  Social media is not only effecting parents, but students as well.

"Kids feel, as many adults do, that they have to be tuned in all the time," he explained.   "They are worried about missing things.  If friends are exchanging messages, you run the risk of feeling left out.  So you are always checking one media platform or another."  

That can cause issues with attention spans.

"When you are always splitting your concentration, it is very hard to focus or concentrate on anything.  So attention spans have been reduced through a lot of this technology.  It makes it difficult on school work.  Having a hard time concentrating is stressful as well."

Social media also has other threats to students like bullying and sexualized messages.  

"There is a lot of peer pressure and bullying that happens through social media platforms.  That's one of the changes we see for sure."

Yet Dr. Nakkula recognizes that technology is a necessity and not all bad:

"It is complicated. Because kids also report their greatest level of supports are through social media.  So it can be supportive."

Supporting your child

With academic stress, peer pressure, and proliferating technology, how can parents help their children be more resilient against the anxiety they might be experiencing?  Dr. Nakkula reinforced the importance of communication with children in their daily lives.

"One common factor that we know is helpful is remembering to check in with your kids, to really support your personal relationship with your children." he explained.   "It is one of the most predictive factors for healthy outcomes for children and youth."

With parents also being busier than ever, that connection is more important than ever.  Even if your child pushes away, it is critical, he noted, to push back and stay in an active realtionship with your kids.  

"Keep checking in," he advises.

Setting up your child for success

Different families have different values.  If you have high achievement expectations, explained Dr. Nakkula, those need to be met with high levels of support or you may be setting your child up for failure.

"If you are just saying work harder, work harder, but there aren't supports to help that child manage that load, than that will certainly lead to higher levels of stress or anxiety.  And that often leads to depression," he said.

Having conversations about performance that are realistic and balanced can help.  Dr. Nakkula advises that parents might look at how realistic they are with their level of expectations and ask questions that encourage dialog.  Regulating and managing your feelings as a parent is important.  Am I pushing too hard or not pushing enough? 

"How is it going?  Are you getting along with your teacher?  Where do you feel you are having challenges?  How can I help you? I think modeling you are supportive of your child and not being overly demanding makes a big difference,"  he said.

The changing landscape of expectations for teachers and entire districts are also contributing to the overall stress around academic achievement as well.  Schools have come under pressure with standardized tests and comparing standardized test scores publically.  From the superintendent on down, school districts have felt more pressure to succeed than they have in the past.  And funding is often connected to district performance.  There are pressures coming from all directions.

"Family and teachers are more stressed," he observed.  "Now the entire school and school district is under pressure to perform."

The future of stress management

Researchers like Dr. Nakkula are studying ways to reduce the weight of stress on today's students.  An ongoing study with a small group of students offering peer mentoring and advisement shows promise. 

"Possibility Mentoring" helps students to begin to imagine their futures in various ways.   Mentoring helps them better understand their options and think about what they are looking forward to in life and what they are worried about," he said.

Mindfulness is also being used more often in school settings to help students.  Some research is suggesting that as little as thirty seconds of mindfulness practice, if done regularly, is helpful.  Working with youth to build mindfulness into their day is highly recommended.

"There is no teacher that doesn't believe that a calmer mind would be more beneficial in class.  I think we need to consider it seriously in schools."

While technology can exasperate ADHD and other stress responses, the future of technology may in fact, believes Dr. Nakkula, provide new ways for students to achieve and learn at their own pace and in areas where they have the most interest.  Increased use of technology in the classroom that might include gaming and artificial intelligence (AI) are being explored to promote cognitive development and fun ways to challenge students in the academic arena.  That may open the door to pathways for students' passions.

While there are many stressors that might be affecting your student, there are ways that parents can listen, encourage, and guide their students toward less anxiety.  Dr. Nakkula notes that people are more likely to succeed at high levels when they have a choice in the matter.  He notes that when we orient our activities toward a sense of purpose or passion, we work even harder.  

Being flexible, listening, and offering support to our students can help them feel encouraged to choose a path that feels right for them while committing to higher levels of success.

"When you reduce flexibility in almost any arena, you get more stress and anxiety.  Hard work doesn't seem hard when you are in your zone." 

Dr. Michael Nakkula will speak at Northley Middle School on Tuesday, March 10 from 6:30 - 8:00pm.  All Penn-Delco community members are welcome to the event.  Event is FREE.  Simply show up.