A conversation about stress with PA grant recipient and Middle School counselor Matt Landa

Each year, the Lab Parents’ Association (PA) solicits short grant proposals from teachers throughout the four divisions (Earl Shapiro Hall, Lower School, Middle School and High School) and selects recipients who receive PA funding to execute their ideas. In supporting these grants, the PA asks teachers to focus on innovation, experiences, community building, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (especially among groups of students that might not engage regularly with each other). Preference is given to proposals that connect students across grades, divisions, or campuses, or that open doors for students to communities or topics they might not otherwise encounter at Lab. Below is a profile of one of the 2016-2017 projects, written by parent Zachery Carter.  The PA also lists all of last year’s grants here. Each year, the PA features highlights of the grant program in its annual report.

By Zachery Carter

When I sat down with Matt Landa, one of the three middle school counselors at Lab, to talk about stress, I should not have been surprised that the same ease and engagement he shows as an assistant cross country coach carries over effortlessly into our conversation. I know within minutes that our students are being well served, and I understand why he was selected to receive one of last year’s Parents’ Association grants.

One of the first things people notice upon walking into Lab, besides the amazing facilities, is the overall level of happiness of the student body. I, for one, do not ever recall going into a school that exhibits such joy and enthusiasm. But Landa is careful to point out that all the opportunities at Lab and its state-of-the-art facilities can lend itself “to a kind of skewed perspective.” Such was the case for Landa, who spent the first eleven years of his career working as a clinical social worker at a high school in Cicero for students who had been expelled from other high schools. “When I came here,” he says, “this was like Disney World in terms of happiness.”

His next steps in reflection, though, are rather surprising. He looks at the issues of stress in the context from which they arise and the consequent pressures his students are feeling. So, while there is nothing wrong with taking pride in comparisons with the Magic Kingdom, we all know that students are not cartoon characters. They are real individuals with feelings, facing real challenges. And it is this sense of reality and attention that Landa gives to his students.

Listening to the Students  

Now in his third year at Lab, Landa spent his first year just listening. By the second year, he heard the message loudly and clearly: “What I kept hearing was stress. ‘I’m stressed about tests.’ ‘I’m stressed about the workload.’ ‘I’m stressed about college and jobs, and things down the road, and things immediate.’”

Landa quickly noticed that student after student would enter his office oblivious to the others and speak as if he or she were the only one:

Everyone was talking about stress in terms of ‘I’m dealing with all of this stress here.’ But it was very individual and never connected to the larger picture, to the school and to the community. Everyone felt like they were alone in their stress. Everyone else is doing great. But, I’m really stressed out. Maybe I don’t belong here.

To which his reply is:

No, actually, the message is everyone here is stressed out. You are in good company, and we should do something about that or at least start a conversation about it.

A Five-Day Interactive Installation

In looking for something to do to address stress, Landa, as he puts, “tried to think of fun ways we could have a conversation about it,” and was fortunate enough to apply for and receive PA support for his idea to set up a five-day interactive installation in the cafeteria to promote awareness and engagement about stress. As anyone with children knows, merely suggesting breathing to a stressed out sixth grader may elicit a defiant comeback like, “I am breathing.” The interactive nature of his project is fascinating for precisely that reason. He got the students involved; he got them to share their feelings; and, in so doing, he showed them that they were not alone in their stress.

So, one Wednesday a month for five months, he took over a little corner of the cafeteria, each time showcasing a new theme.

Day One: What Causes You Stress?

At the first session, Landa posted one simple question on the wall, “What Causes You Stress?” He then gave the students two giants sheets on which to post their answers: one for home and one for school. When I talked to him, he got out the two sheets, covered with sticky notes. A multitude of sticky notes revealed sources of stress: “homework,” “tests,” “quizzes,” “essays,” “projects,” “a big workload,” “high standards,” “my math grade,” “swim practice,” “cello,” “divorce,” and, perhaps no surprise, “politics.”

The exercise, he points out, “was really just a way to get it out there, to say, ‘Hey, this is an issue.’” This year he was able to take those same sheets into an eighth grade advisory group, put them up on the wall and ask the students, ‘What do you see? Where are the themes? What is missing? What is there? What are some general categories?’ In an instant, he was able to draw the students into the conversation, get them to talk about their stress, and help them realize that they are not alone.

Day Two: Goals and Time Management

The second session focused on having students think about how their goals connect to their time. Again, Landa had two large sheets: one for short-term goals and one for long-term goals. He also asked the students to color in a pie chart to break down how they spend their time in the course of an average day, and he charged them to think about: “Is that time connected to the goals that they want to achieve or is it just things they have to do?” The emphasis is not just on budgeting time wisely (although that is important), but also on pushing the students to ask themselves whether their goals are truly their own. “Maybe,” he says, “our goals are coming more from external sources… but really they are not the personal goals we have.” How do these pressures, whether perceived or very real, affect stress levels? Where does stress enter? Is it greater “when we are not spending our time on the things that are of value to us?”

Day Three: What Does Stress Feel Like? Arts and Expression

For the third session, Landa put up individual outlines of bodies and asked the students to draw what stress feels like to them. Here we see the sheer power of pictures depicting what the students are feeling: a burning fuse, a ticking time bomb, children drowning in tears, a kid in a boat during a wicked storm, a kid underwater, headaches, arm and neck pain, heartburn, fire shooting from one’s head, sheer darkness taking over, and a series of hashtags: #pressure, #hw, #lonely, #feels bad.

After giving the students an opportunity to share what stressed them and then show how it made them feel, Landa next turned to ways to reduce their anxiety and stress by giving students the resources to make worry bead bracelets, color exquisite designs on Mandala folders turned ‘durable reminders,’ or trying their hand at origami with the help of fellow students from the Origami Club.

Day Four: Books and Breathing

For the fourth session, Landa went straight to the holy grail of refuge for so many Lab students—either books or technology. Librarians generously put together a cart of fun and relaxing books that could be checked out in the cafeteria. Working with Jeremy Schwartz in computer science, Landa secured ten iPads with headphones so students could try out different breathing apps to see how technology might help them relax.

Day Five: Nutrition, Exercise, Sleep, and the Modern Paradox of Stress

For the final session, students learned how to use three essential pillars of life—nutrition, exercise, and sleep—to reduce stress. Home economics teacher Ruthie Williams helped put together a list of healthy foods and snacks. The physical education department put exercise equipment out in the courtyard. Facilities help set things up. And the art department helped print posters that offered positive messages such as:

  • Instead of foods that mess with your blood sugar and are high-caffeine try: green leafy vegetables, turkey breast, oatmeal, yogurt, salmon, blueberries, oranges, raspberries, pistachios, cashews, walnuts, almond, dark chocolate, milk, seeds, chamomile tea, or green tea.
  • Exercise reduces stress hormones and stimulates endorphins. Why are endorphins beneficial? As the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators, they are responsible for the ‘runner’s high’ and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany many hard workouts.
  • Getting proper rests matters! Sleep …
    • allows for muscle repair and memory consolidation
    • is so crucial that even slight sleep deprivation or poor sleep can affect memory, judgment, and mood
    • should total at least 7-8 hours per night, though research shows that most people will benefit from 60-90 more minutes per night than they are getting

I think it is fitting that the last poster from the last day of Landa’s project bears a statement—“Set small daily exercise goals and aim for consistency rather than perfect workouts”—that suggests a motto for the entire project. In navigating life, this last point is crucial. It is not about perfection, but about authenticity. For being authentic is perfection. (And it is only by seeing this point that we can begin to find our way through the modern paradox of stress.)

Understanding the Issues

Landa is again quick to add that his project was a collaborative effort across departments, and that he could not have done this project without everyone’s help. Both in its design and execution, his five-day interactive installation illustrates how coming to an issue not just as an individual but as part of community and listening in a collaborative atmosphere translates to both a greater understanding and a more informed path forward. “I think it was really helpful,” Landa says, “for the parents and teachers to see […] what our students are dealing with and [that] this is how they feel.” He calls out the fact that sometimes it can be hard for students or even parents “to admit any weakness in this environment.” Students, he says, wonder: “‘If I ask for help, what does that mean? What does that say about me?’ ‘If I say I am stressed, what does that say about me?’ ‘What if they think less of me?’ ‘If I need help on sixth grade math, does it mean I’m not going to get into that college I want?’”

Again, this really is the most supportive school in which I have ever been involved,” he goes on to say, “and yet something’s not right if students are still feeling this way … that’s a charge for us.”

Sources of Pressure and Responding with a New Message

The message I have heard so far as a new parent at Lab is that students should find their passion, and the school will help them go after it. Indeed, what it seems like the school has done so well the past few years is to bring attention to the arts, to the humanities, to a gamut of clubs and activities so that everyone has a home at Lab.

Landa agrees and then goes on to shed further light on how success is conceived: “I sure hope so. That’s the message I want to give to the students, and I think that’s the message that, like you said, we are trying to cultivate more of here. And I think that the definition of success, we need to be more explicit about how we convey that. Success is not, you go to Stanford and then Harvard Law, and you write for the Law Review, and you become a corporate lawyer. Yes, absolutely, that is someone’s success, but your success can look very different, and that’s no less valuable. Your path could look very different, and that’s no less valuable.”

He then returns the discussion to being a middle schooler and how it is a time to make mistakes, try new things, find your passions, and let yourself continue to dream whatever dreams you want to dream. As he says, “Nothing you do in middle school is going to ruin or make the rest of your life. It really is a time to learn. And you should be screwing up, and you should be making mistakes, and you should be trying new things and finding those passions. But nothing you do in seventh grade is going to keep you from whatever dream you have, whatever dream you would like to pursue for your life. … This is the time to learn about yourself as a learner, as a student, and also just as a person.”

How and When That Message Gets Lost

While Landa thinks that these points “fit with the message of the school as a whole,” he warns that sometimes “it gets lost somewhere when stress ramps up. They lose that message when they feel stressed. I guess that is what it comes down to [for most students].” “Again, that aloneness,” he says, “it really is what started this project off. ‘I’m the only one that has three hours of homework a night [in this one class].’ ‘I’m the only one who doesn’t understand this math.’ ‘I’m the only one who is so stressed that I lie in bed and stare at the ceiling thinking about the next day of school.’” Until a student talks about a stressor, then the other students are likely going to be quiet about it too. In short, he says, “It takes the power away when you start to share.” While he admits that “it is tough with homework because it is so individual,” students need to be given “the tools to express themselves,” and the reassurance from counselors and faculty “to know that they are not the only ones.”

Thus, returning to the question of happiness at Lab, Mr. Landa makes two important clarifications. First, he says, “I think that we have so many students who are driven and validated by their academic success that it does translate to a lot of happiness. For the students that are less driven by their academic success, there are lots of outlets for them to be successful and to try new things, but maybe we are not hitting all the bases with them. We are not serving them as fully as we could [both] in terms of validation and opportunity.”

Second, he fully agrees that the students at Lab are on the whole “a really happy upbeat, healthy group of students” with the added observation: “I think the times when they are least happy are when they feel like they are letting themselves or letting their families down, or their teachers, quite honestly. I think that is where we see a lot of self-doubt and a lot of sadness. ‘Gosh, I only got this grade on it. I let myself down.’ Or, ‘I am not going to get what I want out of that. My parents are going to be disappointed. Or, I really like this teacher. I don’t want them to think anything.’” “That,” Mr. Landa says, “is where we see happiness take some hits.”

I, for one, want to thank Matt Landa and the entire Lab administration for all the work they are doing together and in combination with the Parents’ Association to address stress. It doesn’t go unnoticed.

About the Author
Zachery Carter enjoys walks to campus, checking out philosophy books from Regenstein Library, and swims off Promontory Point. The rest of the time he can be found writing at home, shopping at Seminary Co-op Bookstores, eating at Medici, or spending time with his wife, Leah, and two children Gabriel and Marcella (classes of ’21 and ’24). He also has a most wonderful Galgo Español (Spanish greyhound) named Castaluna.