We can’t give them normal, but we can give them resilience. By Jen Bremser, PhD

I’m writing an overdue blog post for a book project that I am behind on. I’m not sure if there will be another post to follow after this. Or a book. This was supposed to be the summer that I gleefully dropped my children off at the Q-Club, the raved about but still affordable, ½ day recreation camp in our town.  Both kids were finally old enough to participate! I envisioned sitting in my new office (with a window!), typing away for 3 uninterrupted hours a day. This is something I have never had in my academic career. I wrote my dissertation as a brand new mom, sleep deprived and on a strict pumping schedule every 3-4 hours for the first 10 months of her life. I worked between her broken sleep on weekends and evenings. I even pulled an all nighter in a hotel room as the deadline approached. Just me, piles of articles, data and my pump. IMG_3671

In the first few years of my career, my time was spent getting excellent reviews from students, department chairs and peer-review committees so I could get promoted. I published bits of my dissertation and began new projects, but only in the minutes I stole from other activities. The year my son was born, I perfected my job materials to apply for a job that would bring me closer to home. 

I hit the academic jackpot and landed that job in my hometown. My teaching and service load was more manageable and the research expectations were higher. This would certainly free-up the time I needed to spend more time on research and writing. Or so I thought. 

A month into this job I found a lump in my breast. I was 34, had breastfed both children and was otherwise healthy. The lump was most certainly nothing, but I got it checked out just in case. The lump was cancer and I needed a year of treatment. Well, maybe during all the downtime and travel time (I drove 4 hours for infusions), I could write. It turned out that those trips were riddled with too much anxiety on the way there and feelings of nausea on the way home. And the downtime? That never came with a 1 and a 4 year old at home. I worked and parented full-time through that year of treatment.

I picked up side research projects with collaborators in my field, and earned tenure within the expedited clock I had negotiated for. I let myself breathe for a summer. Then I turned to community service projects and a side gig as an adjunct professor.

Now we are in the beginning of a pandemic. My kids came home in March as did thousands of others. Camps were cancelled. Sports were cancelled. I was resentful, tired, filled with guilt and anxious for the future. My kids were lonely, sad, and didn’t find me to be a particularly good or patient teacher. 

My previous feelings with cancer returned. The uncertainty was familiar. But more potent was the longing for things to go back to normal. When I was first diagnosed, we took my kids out to breakfast. I remember peaking into other people’s lives at the restaurant. They all looked incredibly normal. That normalcy was a stark contrast to the fear and desperation I was experiencing. “Things aren’t going back to normal for me,” I thought. And they don’t. It is sad. It is unfair. It is frustrating, but it is true. I couldn’t give my kids normal, but I could give them resilience. 

That is the parallel I see with our current situation. We have kids feeling anxious and uncertain and more than anything we want to take away those unbearable feelings and provide them some normalcy–maybe it’s some ice cream, some time with friends, some baseball. We are all well-intentioned parents doing our best for our kids. 

However, there is no going back to “normal.” You can grieve, you can feel angry, but we are not going back. 

This is what we can do–we can teach our kids resilience. We can be examples of what to do when things go wrong. We can teach them how to create solutions to their problems. We can sit with them while they learn to tolerate uncomfortable feelings. We can help them express these feelings, teach them gratitude and the importance of helping others. We don’t have to do this perfectly. Just because we didn’t get it right today, or all of last week, doesn’t mean we can’t teach our kids how to be resilient. Part of this is being honest with them as we struggle together to navigate this new terrain. The good thing about this resilience is that it is built into our species. We are wired to respond to environmental challenges. Without these challenges we fail to develop to our fullest potential.

Arguably, the desire to bring back “normal’ for our kids resembles a type of coddling that researchers suggest has already backfired. We can’t usher them away from conflict, difficult feelings, people that disagree with their opinion, or plans that can’t come to fruition for one reason or another. When we do, we send them into the world ill-prepared to deal with the challenges they are bound to encounter as they grow. We are seeing increasing rates of anxiety and depression in teenagers and young adults. A pandemic could only make things worse, right?

Maybe not. Maybe through some forced solitude and the cracks in our routines, we can learn to navigate this uncharted territory with them. Just like my experience with cancer–it was traumatic, life altering and difficult. But it taught me how to keep moving forward even when we couldn’t go back to normal. And frankly, I no longer want to.


About the Author: Dr. Jen Bremser is An Associate Professor of Psychology for SUNY Plattsburgh.


Academically Optimistic? If Not, Why Not?

Optimism matters, particularly in schools.


As it pertains to schools, what exactly does it mean to be “academically optimistic,” and do we have a choice whether a school is academically optimistic or pessimistic? How do student socioeconomics enter into the equation, and is it true when it comes to student achievement the proverbial apple doesn’t fall far from the tree? What about the rigors of school reform, Race to the Top, Common Core Learning Standards, and fragile school budgets? Why is there such variation in how teachers, administrators and school staff respond to these trying and unsettled times? Well, much can be attributed to the school environment–an environment greatly shaped by the building principal and a small cadre of teacher leaders.

Hoy, Tarter, and Hoy (2006) coined the term “Academic Optimism” to describe those schools that exude academic emphasis, efficacy, and trust within the halls, classrooms, and very fabric of their being. Such schools are…

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Cultivating Gratitude in the Classroom

Gratitude turns what we have into enough.”-Anonymous.

I’ve made a few lifestyle changes over the past year, including daily meditation using an app I found on the Internet. Frequently, a meditation will encourage the listener to focus on his or her blessings, rather than misfortunes. I must admit feeling better and more optimistic following such meditations, which made me wonder: Does teaching gratitude have a place in today’s schools? Could daily gratitude exercises change students’ brains, making them more resilient and positive? Might grateful students be less anxious than others?  I did the research, and the answers are “Yes!, Yes!, and Yes!!”.IMG_1125.jpeg

Teaching gratitude has a place in the classroom. In fact, daily gratitude exercises should be part and parcel of the P-12 curriculum. Research shows gratitude changes the brain in positive ways, and makes people happier. In a 2017 Berkeley study by Joel Wong and Joshua Brown, individuals directed to write weekly gratitude letters, whether sent or not, had improved mental well-being versus those not directed to write letters. Gratitude activates the medial prefrontal cortex, increases dopamine levels, and yes, decreases stress and anxiety levels.

The human experience is such that we will forever deal with negativity bias, with discomforting experiences being more sticky than positive ones. However, educators can change students’ mindsets. We can help students feel more happy, more satisfied with themselves and others, and more willing to see challenges as opportunities rather than unfair burdens. So, yes, practice gratitude in the classroom. Write letters of thanks to others. Do daily gratitude dumps, solo, or in pairs, to start or end the day.  And see the glow that develops as gratitude takes root in your classroom.

ps. If there are ways you practice gratitude in the classroom, please share.



De-Stressing the Classroom

Stress is a fear of the unknown, and whether we like it or not, part of the human experience. Stress is our response to a perceived threat, and can be either good and bad, depending on how prepared we feel to tackle the threat.  Good stress readies students for performing at a high level, be it taking a test, giving an oral presentation, or working with others on a complex problem. Good stress is temporary, and alleviated through resolution of the perceived threat. Bad stress is another story, and unlike good stress, is chronic and contagious.  Bad stress lingers, eliciting anxiety and other undesirable outcomes. 

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Photo by Pedro Figueras on Pexels.com

Rational or not, a fear of the unknown can debilitate students, rendering some as learner helpless.  So what can we as educators do to reduce the “unknowns” in our classes, and lower stress levels for our students? It’s really quite simple.  Make the “unknowns” known through rubrics, essential questions, daily agendas, formative assessments, prompt feedback, affirmations, demonstrations, sharing of exemplars, etc… Clearly communicate one’s expectations, and give students ample opportunities to rethink and revise their understandings.  Offer retakes on exams, extra credit for extra work, one on one time….  

People often do their best work when deadlines loom, and we can thank stress for that. However, people can also do their worst work when deadlines loom and they have no clue for what is expected of them.  How did we manage our first years of teaching?  Our first classroom observation?  Our certification exams? We managed by preparing ourselves for the unexpected, and so it goes for students.  It’s our role as educators to remove the uncertainties in our instruction and de-stress our classrooms. To clearly communicate our expectations to students and allow them to see failure as part of the growth process. To add levity and lightness to our classrooms through humor and play. We won’t eradicate stress in the world, but we can certainly make it manageable for our students in our classrooms.

Anxiety and The Classroom Environment

Anxiety is a pervasive problem in today’s society, crossing all demographic lines.  It is as ubiquitous as the technologies that drive it, making for a complicated and worrisome world, particularly for children with their developing brains. According to a 2018 Pew Survey, 70% of teens say anxiety and depression are major problem for peers, more so than bullying, drugs, poverty,….  What’s an educator to do? How does one balance students’ social-emotional needs with the content and state assessments within their disciplines? There are no easy answers, but one tried and true approach is through the classroom environment.

Maya Angelou’s oft-cited quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” is worth heeding when attempting to reduce student anxiety. Most state teaching standards identify the classroom environment as key to effective instruction; Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, recognizes The Classroom Environment as one of four key teaching domains; and “Environment” is found across the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Setting the appropriate classroom environment is a logical, highly effective way to reduce student anxiety.

Building a culture of trust in the classroom is key to creating a positive learning environment.  Other ways include promoting respect and rapport between and amongst students and teachers; getting to know one’s students and their parents; making time for play and laughter in the classroom; organizing physical space so students work together at tables or centers; honoring the brain’s working memory limits through smart planning and preparation; and showing love, forgiveness, and compassion. There are so many ways to create a positive classroom environment, each of which helps lower student anxiety and promote social-emotional well being. Anxiety is something society may be stuck with, but teachers can do their part to reduce students’ troubled minds when in school.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.