How Deep Work Supports Student Wellness

deep work
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Deep work is one of those mysterious talking points we assume should be part of our learning environment but we may not know quite why, or more importantly how to get kids there. 

We live in a loud world. A lot of "noise" surrounds us, and not the kind that blares in our ear. Rather, there are a tremendous amount of distractions all around us, from phones to social media to the latest crisis or drama unfolding, and this is the enemy of deep work. After all, deep work is defined by Cal Newport as the “activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits.”

It may seem obvious that gaining a state of deep work focus is valuable because tasks get done, but the value far exceeds simply checking off a to-do list. Consider that deep work is highly satisfying because of the tremendous sense of accomplishment associated with it. This is far more significant because the anxiety and stress brought on by being distracted away from deep work is both so tempting and so detrimental.

A profound sense of accomplishment is a major contributor to the human condition and a monumental antidote to anxiety, stress, and trauma. I have written about this (Leading Schools Through Trauma) and outlined both the cost of trauma disrupting fulfilling work, and the ways around it. 

Here are some quick, stackable in-class interventions that can help your students (and you) break through the disruptors of deep work and back on track toward highly rewarding accomplishments.

Coffee Talk 

deep work

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I have a confession: As I compose this story, I am listening to background coffeehouse sounds on my headphones. The reason? Listening to coffeehouse sounds puts me in an intensely focused state; one that sets the stage for finding that sweet spot that distracts me away just enough from the unimportant external stimuli (i.e. my phone pinging) and toward brain waves (alpha and theta) concentration that strike a perfect equilibrium for high focus and deep learning. 

Tonal sounds are a quick and effective solution to in-class options that promote the kind of motivation perfect for learning and pushing above a current level of understanding. You can find coffeehouse sounds anywhere on the internet, such as YouTube; these are ideal for having students fulfill independent or whole-class work focus.

Breathing for Optimal Learning 

deep work

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Since anxiety is the enemy of optimal learning states, reducing stress and the effects of trauma are the ideal counterpoint. Various breathing techniques are available and I recommend the 4-7-8 method. 

When we breathe deeply and systematically, we activate stretch receptors around the diaphragm linked to the parasympathetic nervous system; this is especially true with the 4-7-8 method because we pause for 7 seconds in the slightly stretched position for a stronger rest-and-digest effect. Visually following this is beneficial for learners needing a quick minutes-long fix, at sites that show the learner the expansion and shrinking happening.

Social Media is Everywhere 

Kids using mobile phone at the elementary school

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Accepting that social media is integrated actively into the lives of our students, as well as for us adults, means we should not try to avoid it or try to teach students to ignore it. The likely outcome is that you will be ignored! 

Instead, help students understand that negative feedback loops in social media are detrimental to concentration levels that induce deep work, and satisfaction. In fact, social media makes us less intelligent if we do not recognize the dangers of negative consequences. 

Teach students that social media can act as a support network in certain ways, such as an Instagram study demonstrated, helping young women properly discriminate between fantasy highlight reel images and the reality that others share with their own imperfections. This is empowering, and allows learners to step away from the powerful negative narratives that tax their minds beyond their sense of accomplishment and success.

Employing one or more of these techniques that support deep work will help students become more successful, motivated, and well adjusted. In an era where we are surrounded by distractors that tap our most primal and destructive thought processes, this matters even more. See students succeed due to technology support, not in spite of it!

Dr. Michael Gaskell is Principal at Central Elementary School in East Brunswick, NJ, has been published in more than four dozen articles, and is author of three books: Radical Principals, Leading Schools Through Trauma (September, 2021) and Microstrategy Magic (October, 2020). Mike presents at national conferences, including ISTE (June 2023) The Learning and the Brain (November, 2021), and FETC (January 2023, and 2022); and works to find refreshing solutions to the persistent problems educators and families face. Read more at LinkedIn