SF Chronicle Article on Living Wisdom School

San Francisco Chronicle

Julie N. Lynem, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2000

Education for the Soul

More parents look for schools
to help kids cope with stress

Palo Alto, Friday mornings are a time to energize the spirit. Each week, the entire K-8 school assembles for the “circle,” in which students sing, recite affirmations and stretch their bodies in yoga poses before heading out for a walk in the neighborhood.

Then they hit the books.

With its holistic approach to education, Living Wisdom may seem too unconventional for many Bay Area parents. But turned off by the hypercompetitive dot-com world, where success is often measured in stock options for parents and high test scores for kids, some Bay Area families are opting for schools that nourish the heart and the mind.

“We chose not to go with the production-line version of education around here,” said Robert Freeman , an Internet company senior vice president, whose daughters Rachel, 6, and Robyn, 8, attend Living Wisdom. The school is on the property of the Ananda Church of Self-Realization, but is a separate entity with most students unaffiliated with the church.

“My wife and I believe that children should not be groomed to be consumers in society,” Freeman said. “They have a soul, and we want that to be nurtured, too.”

Young boy at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California
Freedom from stress is not incompatible with academic excellence. The students at LWS find freedom from the fear of failure by learning to enjoy their studies even as they succeed, through constant support, step-by-step learning, and individual adaptation of the curriculum. (Click to enlarge.)

Increasingly, educators in both public and private schools are trying to help students cope with stress inside and outside of the classroom.

At some schools, students relieve anxiety by performing simple mental and physical exercises. Other schools emphasize self-expression and teach students how to resolve conflicts on their own.

  • At Odyssey School in San Mateo, a private middle school for gifted and talented children, students ring a gong and meditate each morning. Students also can talk about and resolve their problems in a class called “self-science.”
  • Open Alternative School, a K-2 public school in Sebastopol, incorporates exercise and deep breathing into the school day. Students also begin and end the day with a class meeting, where they share their experiences while sitting on soft furniture.
  • Roquel Shields-Colbert, a counselor at Lowell Middle School, a public school in West Oakland, counsels separate groups of boys and girls. She teaches students to deal with peer pressure and manage their anger.
  • Students at Ohlone Elementary School, an alternative public school in Palo Alto, learn how to practice kindness when interacting with fellow classmates. They can work in the school’s garden or participate in a counseling program.
  • Teachers there recently attended a workshop sponsored by Six Seconds, a nonprofit San Mateo group that promotes emotional intelligence — the ability to recognize one’s own emotions, develop strategies to manage them and have empathy for others.
  • In Joanie Alper’s kindergarten class at Fiesta Gardens Elementary School, a public school in San Mateo, students listen to the soothing sounds of Mozart and move into a yoga pose when they’re overwhelmed.

Faced with mounds of homework, high expectations from parents and peer pressure, students are in need of more than an occasional timeout, educators and psychologists say.

Peter Mangione, a developmental and educational psychologist, said parents today often push their children into activities before they’re ready. With both parents working longer hours, children are squeezed into adult schedules, he said.

“Children become a part of this hurry syndrome,” said Mangione, whose own children attend a private elementary school in Menlo Park that he said emphasizes play, art and music.

Children who learn basic coping strategies at an early age lead healthier adult lives, said Suzanne Flint, a child-life specialist.

Flint, who is trained to guide children through painful medical procedures, has received a grant from the Imagination Foundation in Marin to offer an eight-week workshop — “Surfing through Stress” — for 7- to 10-year-olds at Stanford Hospital’s Complementary Medicine Clinic.

Through guided imagery, meditation, yoga and play, Flint hopes to provide stress relief for children who may be anxious about school or problems at home. Eventually, she wants to bring these ideas into Bay Area classrooms.

“I think sometimes, we’re so focused on a child’s academic achievements that we don’t look at personal development,” she said. “There’s so much more to learning than reading, writing and arithmetic.”

School s should offer opportunities for students to vent, said Thomas Tutko, a retired San Jose State University professor of clinical psychology.

“They have their own body of anxiety that emerges, plus their parents’ model, but they don’t have an opportunity to talk about it,” he said. “Students are subject to observing all of this stress, but how do we expect them to maintain normalcy?”

But while educators and psychologists generally agree that students should put stress in its proper perspective, some say parents should not simply look to schools for strategies to handle difficult situations in their children’s lives.

“I think if parents want to make their children’s lives less stressful, they need to do it themselves,” said Janine Bempechat, an associate professor of education at Harvard University ‘s Graduate School of Education. “I think parents need to tally up what they do in a given day and week and sort out what is a necessary activity and what is a discretionary activity. ”

“It’s really overstressed parents looking to the schools for help when they should be looking inward.”

All students handle stress differently, said Thomas Spencer, a developmental psychology professor at San Francisco State University . But the extremes of having too much stress or not enough are not good for children.

“The standards have been reduced, in many cases, so much that stress results when you have too much structure,” Spencer said. “You also get stress when you have unclear expectations. Children function best when they’re in a situation where they know what’s going on.”

Menlo Park parent Leslie Levy said Living Wisdom is the right choice for her 8-year-old son, Niko. Levy considered public schools, but she found them to be too rigid. Living Wisdom, she said, offers a strong academic program without the intense competitive attitudes.

“The best way to learn is to feel confident and supported and secure — that’s what opens the doors of children’s minds,” she said. “If they’re constantly worried that they’re not going to get it right, then it shuts kids down. Maybe it will be an adjustment when he leaves Living Wisdom, but I’m willing to take that risk.”

© 2001 San Francisco Chronicle