Embracing Uncertainty & Preparing our Students: A Case Study | Colleen O’Boyle | 5 Min Read

By Colleen O’Boyle, Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs, La Jolla Country Day School (CA)

In March, it will be one year since the pandemic has impacted our lives. Over the arc of this time, we have been given a healthy dose of uncertainty. For some, this spoonful of uncertainty has taken the shape of fears about the pandemic, loss, isolation, concerns about job security, political divisions, and social unrest. Uncertainty can be paralyzing if we let it, and it can also be freeing. It can be revolutionary if we know how to respond to it. Day-to-day uncertainty can be sustained, while perhaps the chronic sense of unpredictability can feel downright crippling. 

Stress researcher Robert Sapolsky has extensive work on the power of a sense of control in his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, summarizing essential guidance to controlling our stress responses. In chapter 13, Sapolsky speaks to psychological distress, particularly how a bioengineer views the body’s response to stress and uncertainty, unlike their peers in the field, a biologist or physiologist. They “view the body a bit like the circuitry diagram that you get with a radio: input-output ratios, impedance, feedback loops, servomechanisms. I shudder even to write such words, as I barely understand them; but the bioengineers did wonders for the field, adding a tremendous vigor.” In particular, they uncovered how the brain measures levels of glucocorticoids in the bloodstream and the rate at which it changes, asking whether the stress-response is linear or an all-or-nothing response. The distinction between the two is quite significant. 

When an organism is subjected to a painful experience, a stress response is triggered, but it’s different in different people. Some show little to no response and carry on, while others perhaps feel a sense of paralysis. In some cases, the distinction is the support system and/or psychological strength of the individual. Sapolsky says, “Two identical stressors with the same extent of allostatic disruption can be perceived, can be appraised differently, and the whole show changes from there.” Rest assured, this claim has come with quite a bit of debate. So, for our school communities and the students who face the greatest moment of uncertainty in their lives, let’s dig in. Pre-COVID. 

Pre-COVID provided our learning communities with various, wonderful, and curated options to manage our stress and uncertainty: connecting with others, playing on a sports team, performing onstage, pitching an entrepreneurial idea, and maybe even kicking a punching bag with a coach. We now find ourselves stressed without these same outlets to manage our stress, which inevitably leads to frustration. 

My 4 ½-year-old son reminds my husband and me, his ever so zen parents, to think of Daniel Tiger’s song to regulate our response system. Just count to four. Well, it turns out, Daniel knows a thing or two about outlets to help our bodies respond best. When we get stressed, build a set of blocks that one has to climb before you really embrace that stress. Count to four. Walk away. Imagine a different response.

We also know that adolescents face and handle stress differently. We know that it begins at a young age, and can slowly build over time if not addressed. Social-support networks are very impactful, even for the introverts out there. Studies show that when primates face stress, they are more likely to persevere when supported by friends and family. The more social support we receive from trusted peers, adults, and/or loved ones is paramount to how we handle uncertainty. 

So given all of this, what should schools be doing? As a society, we do a fairly good job at reminding adolescents to eat healthy, brush our teeth, and exercise, but we don’t explicitly teach students skills to identify stress, anxiety, and frustration. In November of 2018, La Jolla Country Day School received a grant from the E.E. Ford Foundation; seed money to both position and place emphasis on developing the capacity for social-emotional learning for students in grades PreK through 12. We believe in addition to academics, these skills, competencies, and mindsets will positively impact their ability to learn and thrive in the world. 

For the past 26 months, the Wellness Team at La Jolla Country Day School has been collecting data on the importance of mental and physical wellness in adolescents. With the goal to create a wellness framework for local schools which incorporates a whole school, whole family, and whole community approach to health. The vision is to create a model and curriculum that has the potential to be nationally disseminated to benefit the health and well-being of students across the country. There is an unfortunate void in discussing and promoting wellness in our youth. Promotion, prevention, and early intervention are central tenets of this project. From an ecological framework, schools are a crucial primary system to positively influence a child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. The novel coronavirus has done us no favors when it comes to providing support, intervention, and perhaps most importantly, human connection. 

Building from Sapolsky and Daniel Tiger, we know that as a nation we are stretched, stressed, and being challenged. The time is now for schools to build wellness into the multidimensional ecosystem that we call school. This includes the student, the faculty/staff who interact with the students, and the family support system. With this in mind, our team is building a PreK-12 framework that is anchored in CASEL and ASCA. All students will engage in our wellness curriculum, but perhaps just as importantly all members of leadership and faculty will, as well. The final tenet, our parent/guardian community, will be offered a series of ongoing workshops that speak to the SEL topics being discussed in a respective classroom or community. The idea is to make our wellness framework visible and accessible to all members of the community. 

In partnership with Rady Children’s Hospital, our goal is to share our final product with fellow independent, public, and charter schools around the world. As noted, the world we are living in is unpredictable, but one thing we can predict for sure is that our youth will need to develop the skills necessary to thrive in an ever-complex world, with or without a pandemic at bay. We hope your school community joins us in this effort as we learn how to live, temporarily, in a new flawed, awakened, and beautiful world.

To join our wellness effort, please email [email protected]

Colleen O’Boyle

Colleen A. O’Boyle believes it is not enough to prepare students for their time in the classroom, but for life. O’Boyle has a deep responsibility to prepare students for a life of leadership and innovation. This process begins early when we position young minds to become active in their own decision-making with the help and guidance of trusted adults. Serving as the assistant head of school for academic affairs at La Jolla Country Day School, she leads a group of remarkable faculty, staff, students, and parents/guardians. O’Boyle grew up with a balance between the arts and sciences. Her mother, a crafter and oil painter, placed a great emphasis on music and the arts, while her father, a former leader in the telecommunication industry, ensured his children were exposed to cutting-edge science, innovation and technology. O’Boyle’s husband, Isaac, a scientist and fellow leader in education, has a great passion for schools of the future and how we can position students to make a difference in this world. Formerly a faculty member of High Tech High in San Diego and a founding member and principal of the Da Vinci School in Los Angeles.

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