March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

High School Library Coloring Center De-Stresses Students

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.

coloring_1jpg-2Combine 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.

8f22ea07-0764-4113-8d9d-70e2dfb2b5fbThe 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.”

img_4087-jpgShe 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.


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  1. Terry Longenecker says:

    I run an evening computer lab for students at our off reservation boarding school (High School). About six years ago I introduced coloring pages and crayons as an added something to do. Students use the lab for homework, hangout, games, etc. The response was staggering, almost everyone participated. I began making the walls our pseudo-refrigerator. Students would put their names and date on them and wait for me to hang them on the wall. It was great. Students would come back each year and point out their work to others. This year I was told to take them down because “….it didn’t look high school enough”. The students have voiced their disappointment countless times and ask me regularly if I will put their work on the wall. I hope this article will change things and allow me to go back to posting them. Thanks a lot.

    • That is so short-sighted by admin to order you to remove them. The kids so clearly enjoy it. Perhaps you can suggest just putting up on one wall or just this school year’s pages. Surely, they can’t dictate what you have in your office– perhaps that the place for them if the other options don’t work.
      The downtime is such a big release for the kids. I hope they are still coloring…
      Good luck!

  2. Joan Abraham says:

    I recently set up a coloring station in my library. I have had a few students sit down and color. I hope that it catches on and more come in as the year gets more stressful. I love the idea of a box where unfinished pages can be put and students can pick up where they left off the next time. Maybe a smaller table with the supplies might work better as I only have a limited number of tables for students to work at. Love the confirmation that my idea was a good one. Thanks

    • Yes, I recently had to move mine to a smaller table due to other displays and classes. It did not change the usage – the kids sometimes leave their sheet and others pick it up and work on it. It’s really cute.

      Have fun!

  3. Linda J Johnson says:

    I had a computer reading lab and i displayed deplomas of students when they became Advance Readers, they love it. My school was very diverse and the first year i made male and female with long lashes and head cover for Muslim students and short lashes on male. The love seeing their name on the bullentin board.

    • Everyone likes recognition, don’t you think? Kids may be in high school, but that doesn’t mean that they are above having their work displayed. It shows that you support them.

      :) Joy

  4. I love this idea and think I will set up a coloring center when we return to school next week. We are at a small school of less than 100 from preschool to 8th grade, where many of the middle school students are in combined classes. Those students seem to be super stressed and this may help. Thank you for sharing!

    • I hope it helps the kids relax and release the stress. I find it really clears my mind and helps me focus.

      Have fun with it.


  5. Ruth McKeague says:

    Thank you! My school library now has a colouring club : )

    • Yay! I hope it goes well and the kids really enjoy all it offers. Be sure to offer it up to teachers.
      They need to reduce their stress too!

      :) Joy