Hugging the Quebec border, the Derby Town school district (pop. 5,000) is an unlikely breeding ground for pre-pubescent nervousness. No knife fights break out in class, no drug dealers lurk in the shadows. Snowy fields, not tenements, stretch out beneath classroom windows, and some kids come to school on skis. But according to psychologist Normand Ledoux, 29, Vermont kids—like big-city ones—get upset by divorce, a death in the family, exams, even boredom. Ledoux chose the Derby Elementary for his course because, with 400 students, it is the largest school near the mental health center in Newport, where he practices. Principal David Elwood is convinced of the course's importance. "You don't have to wait until you have some off-the-wall loonies," he says, "before you do something about it."
In 12 one-hour sessions, Ledoux and two assistants, with degrees in behavioral science, separately teach about 10 students per section (all fourth-to-sixth graders opted to take the course). At first the students learn relaxation by lying on the rug with lights out, tensing and relaxing muscles. Then they role-play and discuss decision-making: What if you order pepperoni pizza and the cook puts on peppers instead? The students also learn stress-free cooperation by making a class mural. Noting that his course may be responsible for recent discipline improvements, Ledoux says, "We want kids to learn to work things out with words, not to bump or shove."
Ledoux has won over Derby Town's parents, but one student holds out little hope for the older generation. "My mom took a class and for three days she was okay," she reports. "Then she got all huffy and puffy again."
Okay, so they look all screwed up. But the kids at Derby Elementary School in Derby Line, Vt. aren't really spazzing out with classroom jitters. They're practicing a relaxation technique they learned in what is probably the first public school program of its kind, a crash course in dealing with tension. Stress country-style may sound like life in the bike lane to hardened cosmopolites, but that doesn't mean Vermonters don't feel it. "Stress is the pressure building up inside you, worrying about getting all the answers right on a test," says one student. Another adds, "Stress is when the hockey coach gets mad at me."