I wonder whether you’ve ever met a relaxed teenager. One that was stress-free, happy and optimistic, yet focused and driven at the same time. I know I haven’t. A relaxed teenager is an oxymoron, similar to a mythical animal, like the unicorn or the phoenix. Sadly, it only exists in our imagination and dreams.

Teen Stress

Teenagers worry a lot. About, well, life, the universe and everything. Even if there were no aggravating circumstances, they would still worry about belonging and fitting in, love interests, conflicts at home, body image, schoolwork, their grades, and their future. While adolescence is a time of fast-paced change physically, emotionally and socially, meaning that one would expect them to worry, what we have seen, and what got heightened even more during and after the pandemic, is that teens increasingly worry about the world’s future, and often humanity’s future too. Their reality became a hyper-connected and at the same time socially disconnected space where it is hard to envision or imagine what the future would look like. The speed of change, growth, and innovation is exponential and can seem scary. The alarm bells are ringing at all times about global warming and global conflicts are always at the forefront of news reports. Life, in general, just feels much more complicated and menacing than it was even 10 years ago.

It is no wonder that teenagers experience such high levels of stress that it often leads to anxiety and depression. Difficult living conditions, stigma, discrimination or exclusion, special learning differences or educational needs, lack of support at home, or access to services can add to the already unstable mental health conditions. Unfortunately, school is often a place that makes the already acute fears and worries they experience even worse, leading to school anxiety that can vary from fear of public speaking or making friends to school refusal.

According to the World Health Organisation’s 2012 report, “Globally, it is estimated that 1 in 7 (14%) 10–19 year-olds experience mental health conditions (Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, 2021), yet these remain largely unrecognized and untreated. Adolescents with mental health conditions are particularly vulnerable to social exclusion, discrimination, stigma (affecting readiness to seek help), educational difficulties, risk-taking behaviors, physical ill-health and human rights violations (World Health Organization, 2021).

School as a Place of Support and Stress Relief

There is extensive research (Behan, 2020, among others) that shows that practising meditation or various mindfulness practices, such as breath awareness of gratitude regularly will help reduce stress and anxiety by cultivating attention and learning how to regulate emotions more effectively. There is evidence that these practices can help bring about both structural and functional changes in the brain, and in turn reduce fears, worries and even the sensation of physical pain.

The question is, how can school be the place where teens can learn such important life skills? How can we transform what we do in schools to create an environment where adolescents can truly thrive, be themselves, gain self-confidence and most importantly, lower stress levels and reduce worries instead of adding to them?

Our answer at School of Humanity is to place human flourishing at the heart of our learners’ experience and journey. Creating an environment that focuses on the social, emotional well-being of each individual, their mental health as much as their academic progress, is deeply woven into the tapestry of the different building blocks of our program. This can mean that learners look at ways astronauts use meditation and mindfulness in space while working on the Designing Space Habitats challenge or sharing their highs and learns, i.e. worries and fears of the week so that they can relate and connect at a deeper level.

Human Flourishing at School of Humanity

What makes School of Humanity unique, however, is that human flourishing is also part of our curriculum. Learners are invited to look at three different dimensions that contribute to human flourishing and can choose from 6 broad areas to work towards their personal goals, or rather, focus on the area that feels most relevant, inspiring or necessary for their own inner development and needs. It allows them to identify their worries and challenges and enables us to provide meaningful guidance and tools that can help them combat these fears and concerns.

Each term our learners build what we call flourishing journeys. First, they identify which areas they would like to work on. This serves to make sure that the journey is deeply rooted in their personal interests, passions and often, their needs. They design a 4-6 week-long journey to explore these areas in a practical manner. The aim is to learn about techniques, instruments, tools and knowledge pieces that enable them to solve their existing problems or questions actively. At the end of each term they celebrate their growth by sharing something new they learned, understood or discovered.

An example from the last term is the journey where a learner observed how different activities and her relationships impacted her mood. Simply put, as she was often feeling low, she wanted to see what made her happy. While the reality of her emotions surprised her, she felt quite depressed and was more worried or uneasy than she first imagined, she also discovered why she was not engaging in activities that actually boosted her mood. This term, the same learner has set out on a quest for personal happiness that involves pursuing her passions, doing more exercise and also exploring which mindfulness techniques help her get into a more positive mindset.

At the same time, learners participate in weekly flourishing workshops where they learn about different guiding principles, inspired by the Inner Development Goals’s frameworks, and that largely aim at building a toolkit to improve their day-to-day personal experience. They look at soft skills that have become so important in today’s AI-driven world and are also shown different techniques to find what can help them maintain their calm or build better self-awareness.

We found that as a result of the flourishing journeys, learners report that they manage their emotions better and have become better able to manage their stress reactions. They have found a heightened sense of purpose, turned to healthier eating and exercising habits, and have become more sensitive to other people’s struggles. We’ve seen them share advice and practices to help those peers who are at the beginning of their practice.

I’m not saying that our learners don’t stress or worry, but they definitely feel empowered and more able to manage stress reactions and have much greater clarity around what makes them happy, gives joy and how they can achieve it. It is an excellent start.

Kata Csuba

Empowering learners to reach their full potential both personally and professionally.