Dalhousie University has just introduced a puppy room to help its students deal with the stress from Christmas exams. I’ve watched a few of the videos on-line. These stressed-out university students look like little kids. As soon as they reach out to the dogs, their smiles and giggles become completely genuine. You can just see the tension slipping away from their backpack laden shoulders.
I know I would have been a frequent flyer at the puppy room if they had had one when I was at university. Just before I started my second year, my parents packed up our house, gave away our dog and moved 4,000 miles away. It felt surreal as I moved into an apartment downtown with my best friend. I went from being a very sheltered teenager to being a scared little college girl overnight. I was going on the world’s longest sleepover and my parents were never coming to pick me up.
We didn’t have a puppy room at my university. We did have a pub, though. And that’s how most of us dealt with stress. Trust me. There were many mornings I wished I had spent the evening at the puppy room instead of the pub. Sadly, I was not unique. University students are well known to be heavy, binge drinkers. Some of that, no doubt, is due to the excitement of having the freedom to do whatever you want without your parents looking over your shoulder. But a big part of it is because alcohol is a stress releaser. After a few drinks, you stop worrying about your assignments and your exams. You forget about your money problems and your relationship issues. Life’s a party when you’re loaded! Unfortunately, the next day, those good (albeit: fuzzy) feelings are gone, often replaced by feelings of embarrassment over last night’s actions. Once the booze wears off, the stress returns, often with a vengeance.
A dog never makes you regret patting it the night before. You could pat a dog all night long and never wake up feeling guilty or stupid or regretful. Unfortunately, we don’t all have 24-hour access to a soft, calming animal. That’s why it’s important for our children and our students to know how to deal with stress so that it motivates, rather than paralyzes them.
As an elementary teacher, I’ve tried to help my students see school as something they can enjoy, not dread. Part of my job is to help them feel comfortable with writing tests. I emphasize that tests are just one way to show what we know. We talk about how to read the directions. We practice examples. We write practice tests that look exactly like the real test, except with different questions. We have discussions about how stressing over something doesn’t make you do any better. In fact, it often makes you do worse. I also tell them that in the big story of their lives, one math test is not going to make or break them. If you bomb the test, it doesn’t mean that you will end up living like a hobo in a ditch somewhere, while all of your friends go off to be doctors and lawyers. All it means is that for some reason you didn’t get what we learned this week in this particular area. No worries. We’ll work on it. Just breathe.
To paraphrase the great philosopher, Steven Tyler, I want my students and my children to know that “life’s a journey, not a destination.” Live in the moment. Learn from the bad times and move on. And if you have the choice between cuddling a puppy and chugging a six pack, you’re better off with the puppy every time.