Twenty-five years ago when New Vista High School opened its doors, Rona Wilensky was the founding principal. One of her favorite things to do was to check in with students in the hallways.
“I feel that [my time as principal] is the most important work that I have probably done in my life,” Wilensky said proudly.
“I had the great privilege of being the principal who never had more than 340 students. I knew everybody’s name, I kept an eye on everybody’s grades and I watched everybody in the hallways,” Wilensky added. “It was so rewarding to be in an institution where we could watch all of the students. They would come in as gawky ninth-graders and eventually find a purpose and a passion that would they would develop into a culminating project. They would walk out of the door as a real, young adult.”
She helped to create an advisory program that is still in place at New Vista today. A multi-aged group of kids meets every week throughout their high school years with a designated teacher. The goal is to guide them through the many challenges teenagers face on the road to graduation from academic to social.
“We provided kids with this transitional adult that didn’t carry all the baggage of their parents. Their goal is to help the students be successful,” Wilensky said.
The relationship goes far beyond supporting the kids through academics. Often kids in these small groups talk about their social and emotional challenges. She said stress is an ever-present topic.
Students are under a lot of pressure to get into the most prestigious universities and colleges in the nation – something that is not surprising given highly successful and educated parents here in Boulder Valley. A recent survey found that the City of Boulder ranks in the top 15 U.S. Cities for the most doctoral degree holders.
“Kids in Boulder Valley are under tremendous stress,” Wilensky said. “We put kids in this absolute bind. Adolescents need more sleep than adults, but we then expect them to participate in a stupendous number of extra-curricular activities and they are supposed to carry the maximum load of courses. We are setting kids up for serious burnout.”
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While there is nothing wrong with students striving for lofty goals, Rona has long encouraged teens and their parents to pace themselves.
“We have to take a breath. I would encourage parents to really think about what their values really are for their kids and to live them now.” Wilensky said. “The life that kids lead now is real life. They may be four, they may be 10, they may be 17 – but this is really their life. What is the quality of life you want for them? How much busyness do you want in your kid's life? How do you balance aspirations for being successful with aspirations for being balanced?”
Now as the Director of Mindfulness Programs at PassageWorks Institute she is working to help educators incorporate these healthy habits into learning.
“[Healthy living] is about exercise, food, sleep and contemplative practices,” Wilensky said.
Two-day symposium offers education, support for students, parents and educators
Wilensky will be one of the many presenters at the 3rd Annual Stress & Anxiety Symposium on January 26 and 27, an event where students, parents and educators can learn more about all of these topics and much, much more.
“We have intentionally grown this event from a half day to a full day to two days,” explained Parent Engagement Network (PEN) Executive Director Shelly Mahon, Ph.D. “We now have 45 workshop options throughout the two days. We are providing five to six workshop options for every time block because everyone experiences stress and trauma differently. We have everything from how to eat healthy to sleeping to strategies for managing stress or anxiety, like tapping or meditation or mindfulness.”
PEN, which offers a diverse array of events to support parents over the course of the year, created the symposium after a lot of feedback from the community that students of all ages – even the youngest – were struggling with stress.
“PEN really pays attention to the things happening in the community,” Mahon said. “We were constantly hearing parents, kindergarten through high school. They said things like, 'my child is stressed about going to school' or 'the stress of managing friendships, school, and activities is too much sometimes.' Parents are struggling to manage their own stress, while also supporting their children. It takes a toll on the whole family."
The goal of the symposium is to educate students, parents and educators – so that they can navigate the inevitable stress that will happen.
“We live in a world where stress is unavoidable. Perspective is everything,” explained Mahon. “We tend to put a really negative connotation to it, but it can actually be a very healthy thing. When you have the tools to manage it, stress makes us productive and drives us. Scientific research even shows us that the body is not as impacted by stressful events when they are looked at as opportunities to learn, and we feel supported by others. Our goal is to set people up for success.”
Symposium participants to walk away with tips they can use today
The organizers of the symposium say part of their focus was ensuring that students, parents and teachers can go to the things they think will serve them right now.
In addition to a keynote address by Dianne Maroney from the Imagine Project and all the sessions, each participant will receive Back Pockets, filled with tips on everything from self-care to dealing with trauma to creating connections to nutrition to suicide prevention.
“We have asked our presenters to provide a back-pocket tip for us,” Mahon said. “It is basically a takeaway. Each tip has easy to use strategies that can be used in the moment. For example, a tip may have quick and easy instructions for different breathing techniques, strategies for going to sleep, or facts about maintaining gut health. Each Back Pocket has somewhere between 12-15 tips inside.”
Open to all
This Symposium is open to the entire community – parents, caregivers, youth, health care professionals, school administrators and staff, coaches, the media, and YOU! Everyone is impacted by stress & anxiety!
Teachers can receive continuing education units for attending.
Additionally, there will not only be interpreters for Spanish-speakers – but during each session there will be at least one workshop offered in Spanish.
“One of our goals has been to create this as a place where our whole community can come together and where our large population of Latino families can feel welcome – not just because we invited them, but because we are making an effort to really provide a space where they are with others who speak their language and the presenter speaks their language.”
LEARN MORE: 3rd Annual Stress & Anxiety Symposium