It was hard to ignore. Last spring, most of the normally bright-eyed high school students in my library at Valencia High School in Placentia, CA, had transformed into emotional time bombs. I could almost hear the ticking.
At my school, spring is when the stressors pile up and can overwhelm students. Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams loom, and college acceptances (and rejections) are revealed. Community service projects come to a head before wrapping up, while part-time jobs continue unabated.
Combine all that with ever-present technology, and we have kids who are stressed, anxious—and sleep-deprived. According to researchers with the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 87 percent of teens sleep with their cell phones so they don’t miss text messages. Due to, I believe, constant connectivity, my students now are far more stressed than the ones I worked with 27 years ago as a new teacher.
As I watched them, I got to thinking: What could I do to help? I had noticed adult coloring books popping up in stores, and articles about the relaxing effect of coloring. Coloring, it seemed, was not just for little kids anymore. It requires single-minded focus, while its structure makes it soothing. The act of coloring “creates space for quiet reflection,” reported Rachel Pomerance Berl in a recent article for the Washington Post. Higher education had taken notice, too: the Columbia University Medical Center has craft centers with coloring books set up for medical students.
It was so simple, yet I hoped it could make a difference. I began by collecting copyright-free coloring pages from websites via Google Advanced Search. In all, I collected 25 designs and made 25 copies of each. I filed them in a box, using folders subdivided by type of design (Mandala, geometric, floral, phrases). I put out some paper tray for works in progress, which kept the area neat, along with four packages of colored pencils and crayons kept in cups. Lastly, my student helpers made a sign (and hand-colored it, of course!), and our little center was ready.
The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Students—and staff—would come in during their 10-minute morning breaks, lunch periods, and before and after school. It appeared to bring the kids’ stress down. They talked and colored with friends; some shared a sheet and worked together. They left the library with smiles and what looked like a sense of calm.
Senior Lindsay Bracken is one student who joined the fun. “Coloring during the stressful month of AP testing was a way to let go of the anxiety of testing. It allowed me to focus my energy on creating beautiful work instead of stressing over my future or assignments.”
She wasn’t the only student who left the library coloring center ready for what the rest of the day might bring. Lauren Greenbaum, a junior, is a regular. “I just wish I could color all day,” she says. Perhaps most surprising to all of us was that the kids get so caught up in coloring that they put their phones down. Yes, really.
Before long, everyone got in on it. “I have office aides who often have downtime throughout the day. I thought the coloring sheets would be a good thing for them to try,” shared Kathy Klingaman, a receptionist at Valencia High School. “I was not prepared for how much the aides would like coloring. Then, I had to make extra copies because teachers and other staff passing through the office would grab sheets, too.”
Experts agree that coloring is akin to meditation. It allows the person to take a mental break from the pressures of everyday life; for our students, that means a quiet space away from all the stressors, constant connectivity, and pressure to excel.
Join me this year in creating this kind of space for your students. You might just be giving your learners a tool they need to defuse a time bomb inside.
Joy Millam is the teacher librarian at Valencia High School in Placentia, CA.
This article was featured in our free SLJTeen enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you twice a month.