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Knowing the Difference Between Stretch and Stress

By: Rev Bowen

If you have read my articles or used any of the courses I have developed as resources for educators, or if you have attended any of the courses I have taught in person, you will surely recognize the concept in question: "stretch and stress". I mention it often because it is so very important. I do not claim to be the originator of this concept. In many different settings I have encountered the same basic idea and I have no doubt that you have as well. I bring it up repeatedly, however, because I continue to find that it is a fundamentally important consideration in almost every aspect of teaching.

To represent to concept in its entirety, I should say that it is "comfort, stretch, and stress". I am going to focus on the latter two in this article because I think it is quite easy to recognize when a student is comfortable, when they encounter the activities or lessons we present with relative ease. This can be fine on rare occasions, if used judiciously to bolster their sense of accomplishment and confidence. However, when it comes to learning and education, to the introduction and development of skills, comfort is not where it happens. It happens when we stretch.

So, this leads us to the key question we must answer:

How can we know the difference between a student's true stress and the student being stretched into areas of learning (which are almost always uncomfortable)?

Teachers and parents must be able to recognize the difference between true stress and discomfort. In fact, learning how to work with this is our edge of learning and discomfort!

If we are truly educating, if we are bringing a student or a class to the edge of what is known and helping them discover within the unknown or the yet-to-be-known, then we will often be making the student(s) uncomfortable.

So, let us characterize this "discomfort", lest we develop the wrong imagination and see ourselves as nice people who nevertheless cause a kind of gentle misery!

By discomfort, in this educational sense, I mean that the student will have that unconscious experience of being in a new place, experiencing new things, and being called upon to try new things.

We all know that there are some children whose sanguine temperaments are so strong that they actually relish new experiences. I have learned to balance myself toward this, but I would not characterize myself as a strongly sanguine person.

I remember being about ten years old, going to a birthday party at a roller skating rink. I was there with friends I knew, and parents I recognized from friends' homes, ball teams, etc. Still, I was intimidated by the experience. This was the first party at which my parents just dropped me off. While part of me loved the idea of being an independent "big kid", I was not as ready for the reality as I thought I would be. It took what seemed like hours (but was probably only about twenty minutes), for me to get into my roller skates and actually enter the rink with my friends. I had roller skated many times before. I was watching my friends have a great deal of fun, but there was something about this new way of showing up at a party that caused me some discomfort. There was nothing "wrong" with the discomfort. Thankfully, the parents there were encouraging me, but not trying to urge me with negative judgments. Of course, I went on to have a grand time the rest of the day. In that way, the discomfort was a "great" think for me to encounter and move through.

New lessons can be a bit like this on a daily basis. Each new lesson represents a new encounter, a new step of growth, a new opportunity to try something new and learn through the experience of trying. Every student has particular strengths and challenges. Every student will have days that are more or less comfortable. These variances are natural. Regardless, there is a deep and meaningful life lesson within every day.

Can we help them learn to respond to challenges with a willingness to try and to try earnestly? In other words, can we help them learn to stretch?

If we can see the value in the development of this life habit, then we can focus on how to recognize the difference between stress and stretch.

In either case, we will usually see resistance from the student. Resistance can sometimes come from discomfort; it can sometimes come from stress. Thus seeing a student's resistance is not adequate enough information to begin lowering the level of challenge within an activity or lesson. We must only do this when we are certain that the level of challenge is causing or is about to cause true stress.

True stress is reached when a student is actually attempting to do an activity or a lesson and the level of skill required is so far beyond their abilities that they feel truly overwhelmed--but they are making the attempt(s), at least for a while.

Resistance, which can seem like stress, occurs when a student will not even make an attempt--or they make a feeble attempt and give up far too quickly.

These are the critical distinctions and the educator must be willing to trust their intuitions in determining which is which.

As we all know, there is no chance of success when we are not even willing to try. Parents and educators must do all that we can to help students overcome such inner resistance.

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step."

--Lao Tzu

We must help them see the truth in what the great Chinese teacher, Lao Tzu, said: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." Resistance is an unwillingness to take a step or an all-too-quick resignation when the step proves to be uncomfortable. Stress is trying to take the next step and finding that it is simply beyond our current abilities.

Both are natural, but they require different approaches from the parent and/or educator. When I see that a student is genuinely trying and truly cannot rise to meet a particular challenge, I intervene before the student becomes (too) stressed. I then adjust the lesson or activity to be a bit more achievable. When I see that a student is just caught in inner resistance, I continue to encourage and find ways to make smaller steps doable. I begin breaking the challenge down into smaller steps with the clear understanding that every little bit of effort they exert, and every bit of success they achieve, can be built upon with the next small step or the next days' lesson. It takes an incredible amount of patience balanced with quiet resolve on the part of the parent / educator. It tests us when we see a young person struggling so. We must always strive to help them meet enough struggle and find enough success through a willful effort, to develop determination, drive, and resolve within themselves.

And of course we adults must remember: they hardly every appreciate such things today. But gladly I can tell you--now that my children are in their twenties--they do eventually place great value on the times we helped them develop such skills and capacities.

I am very happy to announce the release of the course "Third Grade Language Arts"! My goal is to publish "Third Grade Math" by the end of September. As I said, I will offer the bundle of the Third Grade Core Curriculum at the same 25% off, for a period of time, that was offered for all the other courses in August.

Check it out here:

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