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Only the tip of the iceberg

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I have been asked more than once over the past few days how the school supports students who are feeling stress in the IB programme.

We do support them of course.

Especially in the run up to the end of year exams we focused on stress-management techniques and affective self-management. (Managing moods, emotions and state of mind).

One piece of work we’ve been doing with students over the course of the year is based around the Iceberg Model:

The model has been used in various ways from Sigmund Freud to uses in describing behaviour, culture and systemic thinking for change.

For our purposes, we used it as a personal reflection tool to try to understand why we behave in certain ways. What are our mental models? What do we believe about ourselves as people? Does this influence the systems we put in place? Do we like systems which help us challenge or reaffirm our beliefs? Can confirmation bias be at play here? We do like to prove ourselves right! It was interesting to explore the beliefs students have about themselves as students, about their study habits and about their beliefs towards things like deadlines and being on time.




What we learned was that mental models, both positive and negative are at the root of our actions, and that we tend to be self-reaffirming. So, take the student who believes in the importance of meeting deadlines, who doesn’t want to be seen as unreliable. He puts systems in place to ensure that he doesn’t miss deadlines – he uses a calendar or a scheduling app, he sets himself earlier deadlines and creates the ‘buffer zone’ I described last week. Because of these systems, he doesn’t miss deadlines, reinforcing the belief in himself that he is the kind of student who meets deadlines. He feels good – he is right.

On the other hand, the student who believes she is easily distracted puts systems in place to reinforce that belief. She studies with music on, or her phone next to her, or social media open and on. Throughout her study she checks her phone, she procrastinates and ultimately reinforces her belief that she is easily distracted, and so, in fact, she feels good to be right.

Where things become difficult is when we want to challenge those beliefs – that is a lot harder than reinforcing them because it means recognising that we may not be right. Change theory using the iceberg model says that you have increased leverage when you change things at the lowest levels of the iceberg. So, how do you change mental models? Well, you can start by changing the systems. If the student who studies with distraction puts away those distractions and uses the Pomodoro technique or an extension like StayFocusd, and then is able to be less distracted, does she, over time change the mental model that she is easily distracted? And in turn does she begin to reinforce a positive mental model?

Of course, you may be wondering what this has to do with stress management – don’t you do work on mindfulness (a hot topic in education)? Or on the importance of balance?

And yes we do.

Before the end of year exams Sian our school counsellor ran a session with Year 12 on mindfulness and in Core we explored a number of stress-management techniques. Here are our slides:

But despite doing this important work with students, the thing I’ve been reflecting on over the past week is the sense of inevitability behind the question: ‘What do you do to support students with stress-management?’

The assumption is that students will be stressed and we will need to teach them techniques to cope with it. And this does seem to be the case. But, given that generally prevention is better than cure, the bigger question for me is, ‘how can we reduce the amount of stress students are under so that they don’t need to manage it as much?’

When IB students are stressed, it’s usually blamed on IB workload. And, it’s very true that there is a lot of work. However, IB workload is out of our sphere of influence or control. There are assessments, there are IAs, there is an EE, there is CAS and TOK, there are exams, and to attain an IB diploma you have to do those things. I manage the calendar as best as I can and try to keep things manageable but that’s about the best I can do about workload.

So what is under our control? As teachers, parents and students?

Firstly, good study habits and organisation. Work piling up, lack of organisation, in trouble for missing deadlines, spending hours studying with inefficient, ineffective study habits all add to student stress. So, as Core teachers, we teach them to be organised. We teach them strategies, techniques and tools. Here are our slides:

An important note however. We can only teach and provide these strategies – we cannot make students use them. If the mental model is ‘I don’t believe that will work – I have my own methods’ as it so often is, then it is hard for us to change student habits. But we do try.

Another source of stress for our students is expectation. This is usually connected to grades and is a huge weight on the shoulders of many of our students who feel they have to attain a certain level all of the time. In fact, the happiest students are usually those who aim for balance and enjoyment and decent grades, not those who have to get 38 points to go to (insert prestigious university) and become (insert prestigious career). As teachers, and parents, I think we are often guilty of adding this burden of expectation to students, perhaps based on an erroneous mental model that high grades are the only route to success.

So, while we can, and do, teach stress-management techniques, maybe as students, teachers and parents we can all ask ourselves, what are our mental models? How do they affect our behaviours? Do we reaffirm negative, unhelpful mental models just as much as positive, healthy ones? And can we change the systems to change beliefs? Even the belief that stress in an IB programme is inevitable?

Parents – many of you work in highly stressful careers. I’d be interested to know what strategies you use to reduce and manage stress. What strategies do you encourage your children to use? Please do comment.


Author: Ann Lautrette

Head of Sixth Form and IB Coordinator at BSJ.

One Comment

  1. Hello,
    That was a very interesting article and excellently written. It even helps me to help myself with my study workload as a matured Uni student . Coming back to academics is a huge challenge and I can relate to the children’s stress issues. What I would like to say to the students is that if they are hoping to continue in tertiary education , then the methods you have suggested is going to be most helpful because Uni workload is as demanding. Time management is essential for stress relief as is prioritizing. Following a schedule for creating good learning habits which are efficient is also necessary. Furthermore, procrastination comes because we do not feel what we are doing is serious as opposed to merely knowing it is important. Learning is fun when we have an aim we are working towards and that feeling of determination to succeed comes from oneself. Having said that, experience with maturity will prove that the technics discussed are helpful; so rather than take a chance and learning the “hard way”, students would be better off learning from now how to discipline themselves to cope with the workload of study. Balance is essential so we can produce effective learning but be careful about the constant distractions all around. Therefore, creating a condusive learning environment and sticking to a schedule will be helpful in maintaining a good experience in IB , skills that will be of great tools in tertiary life in the future.

    Lorraine Branson-Wachjo

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