The role of recovery
Stress communicates an awareness of what’s at stake. Stress normalizes and signifies normalcy; deep bonds form around stress-filled events and assignments. Stress soothes boredom, underpins performance. The ability to manage the stress of school is precisely why asking for help can sometimes feel like a sign of weakness. The ability to thrive in school depends less on eliminating stress, and more on an ability to recover between stressful events.
Perhaps you’ve noticed the importance of recovery if you’ve been hiking with a group. When the people up front pause for the others to catch up, they have extra time to recover. Over the course of a few kilometres, the recovery time can really add up. School is similar: advanced kids work hard, then rest, and stressed students get little relief. Doctors Tom Brown and Russel Barkley, renowned for their work with disorders of executive functioning (e.g. ADD), equally recommend strategies specific to mental recovery take priority in their treatment plans.
Recovery in practice
After three months of working with, Channing, age 15, we have seen how practicing recovery is as important as his school work between. Our initial work related to ADHD: improve his performance in school. At the intake, he said that school was stressful, but he could handle it. He bragged of erratic sleep: “I get a few hours here and there.” After school lessons with a private teacher lasted until dinner, then he practiced keyboard, basketball, or online college-level math courses until midnight.
Channing’s parents know other students endure more. His schedule is not up for debate. They feel that this is the minimum investment required for a fair shot at university. At home, like school, stress is a metric; the higher it is, the more likely things are going as well as they could. Considering all the tutors and lessons, they felt that his performance was poorer than it should have been. What they failed to realize is that how many tasks he did each day was far less important than how he handled recovery between.
Mastering the art of recovery
Channing started improving soon after meticulously building recovery into his schedule. We sent him to school with a basketball to encourage him to be active and social at recess. We scheduled 30 minutes of activity after school daily. Before he began working at home, a visible kitchen timer was set in front of him (visibility matters) to work in 25 minute blocks. When the timer went off, Channing had to set it for 5- 10 minutes and take a break. It was tempting to keep pushing him when he was working so well, but nobody wants to work for a tyrant that can’t keep a promise.
When I first started teaching Channing recovery strategies, we used a three-step drill. It was key that he could practice this in class, at his desk, without making it too obvious. The drill began with: 1) inhaling and counting to seven, and exhaling, counting to eleven, 2) spotting five new things in the room, and finally 3) some form of movement ( e.g. an inconspicuous back stretch at his desk). I explained to him that a screen will exhaust his higher-order abilities, like focusing. I gave him extra encouragement for screen-free time. Some kids don’t know what to do with themselves without a phone. I suggest: drawing, exercise, talking; you get the idea. Channing now schedules his breaks in advance and keeps time on his own. His motivation to work is way up because a finish line is always in his sights. He knows that recovery is an essential part of growth and learning. His favourite way to recover is terrible music and dribbling his basketball around the flat. The neighbours might not appreciate those reasons, but I’ll stand behind them.