Middle School counselor Amy Summers loves doing group work. “When students get together and share their experiences, they suddenly realize they’re not alone,” she said.
That’s why she created Stress Busters, the aptly named support group open to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders that met weekly leading up to February exams. Stress Busters was formed like a club; students opted in themselves by completing an interest questionnaire. One question asked what they hoped to gain from the group; the common thread of answers included learning how to better manage stress related to balancing school, homework, and sports as well as how to more effectively handle strong emotions and relationships.
Each session took its own form. Summers began by providing the group of about 10 students with basic psycho-education. “We talked about the emotional brain and the thinking brain,” she said. Summers used Dr. Dan Siegel’s hand model of the brain to give them a visual representation of what happens to our thinking brains when we become stressed. (Spoiler alert: they “flip” and then our emotional brains run the show.) “We talked about thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and how they’re all related,” she said.
In another session, Summers led an activity whose purpose is to demonstrate that uncomfortable feelings are OK and manageable. “I gave them each an ice cube to hold in their hands,” she said. Then the group talked about the experience and how knowing there was an endpoint or using a distraction technique helped to cope with the uncomfortable feelings of holding the ice.
Once they got to know one another, the lunchtime sessions became less structured. Summers would often throw out a question and the boys took it from there, taking turns to answer, sharing about their lives, and eating pizza. In the process, they built their communication skills and expanded their repertoire of positive coping strategies.
Summers said the boys seemed to enjoy the group and looked forward to the sessions. “I think they also really liked the pizza,” she noted with a smile.
Research shows that social support can enhance resilience to stress. Summers is working to develop future groups like Stress Busters that would meet weekly and also drop-in groups that would meet just once around a particular topic or activity. “I am looking for more ways for our students to connect with one another,” she said. “I so appreciate when they come together and are willing to share openly. That’s what it’s all about: making connections with their peers.”