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Coloring books, comfort dogs and more help students shed stress

First-year-college students’ sense of emotional well-being has dropped, a study shows
University Business, January 2016
  • Students at Macalester College can relax during “Dog Days” at semester’s end by simply hugging a pup.
  • Stress from college life and finals tends to boost use of the stress-busting station inside Niagara University's library, which features coloring books, a putting green and other activities.
  • Therapy dogs offer a quick stress relief for students at Macalester College.

Students can color, practice golf shots on a putting green, build with Legos and play video games at the Niagara University library’s “stress-busting station.”

It gets heavy use during finals week, but is set up year round to encourage students to gather with classmates for activities other than cramming for exams, says Debra Colley, the New York university’s executive vice president.

Stress over high-stakes testing and increasingly competitive high school environments grows during the transition to college life and then as new rounds of final exams approach, Colley adds.

“Students are coming here feeling really competitively pressured to do better and better and to do more and more, and it’s never enough,” Colley says. “It’s become this pipeline of anxiety.”

But, coloring? Well, don’t think Mickey Mouse or SpongeBob SquarePants. These students are coloring intricate geometric designs that have become a trendy adult relaxation technique.

Studious students

  • 80% of students surveyed study with friends. Collaborative online studying is gaining traction, but...
  • 53% prefer to study together in person—at someone’s house, at school or at the library
  • 67% say studying together makes learning more fun
  • 60% say it offers a chance to exchange ideas

SOURCE: “Getting to Know Gen Z — Exploring Middle and High Schoolers’ Expectations for Higher Education,” Barnes & Noble College, 2015

Students also got to play with therapy dogs that visited campus during finals week in December. “You can’t hunker down and study and do papers all night,” Colley says. “You want people to do something that takes their minds off that bio-chem exam or that paper.”

A UCLA Higher Education Research Institute study found that first-year-college students’ sense of emotional well-being has dropped to its lowest level since 1985. And anxiety has eclipsed depression as the top reason students seek counseling, says Denise Ward, associate dean for student services at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

As with other institutions, Macalester has made use of a therapy dog to comfort stressed students. Its four-year-old golden retriever, Kevin, visits about 130 students each week. Kevin has his own Facebook page (with 348 likes) and Instagram account (with 387 followers). He even helped one young woman get over her fear of dogs, says Stephanie Walters, Kevin’s owner and Macalester’s medical director.

Need a stress test?

SUNY Geneseo’s website offers a quiz students can take to determine if they are overstressed.

“We’ve worked with facilities, security, student affairs, building managers and any other stakeholder we could think of to make sure people felt safe when they saw Kevin,” Walters says, referring to students who may be uncomfortable around or allergic to dogs.

The campus also hosts “Dog Days” at the end of each semester, where more therapy dogs arrive to help students relax. A stressed student may not have time to attend a workshop about stress, says Ward, “but they can swing by the library and hug a dog for a few minutes. A dog also has a novelty effect which draws students to engage.”

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