Wendell Morgan clinched his fists and took a deep breath.
The sophomore at Glenn Hills High School was learning to relax, to chill out.
The relaxation exercise he was doing in science class Monday was part of a study on high school stress.
Dr. Vernon Barnes, of the Medical College of Georgia, and Dr. Virginia Parrott Williams, of Williams Life Skills Inc. in Durham, N.C., are using a $100,000 federal grant to develop a program to reduce hostility, anger and school-related conduct problems. Their outline could eventually become available for health-education curricula across the country.
For the past month, the pair have been working with students in Bernard Bowman's second-period science class. About 20 students have been revealing intimate details of their lives and how they handle stressful situations.
The group of freshmen and sophomores also have tested several relaxation techniques and new ways to confront their problems.
"It's helping with my little brother, and girls. That's my main stress," Wendell said, smiling.
School health classes usually address anger and stress management without teaching skills to manage it, Dr. Barnes said.
"Most health education has been shown to be ineffective in reducing cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure," he said. "We feel like there is so much more that can be added to it."
The researchers' goal in the beginning stages is to listen. Through classroom discussions and work sheets, students have talked about peer pressure, part-time jobs and family troubles.
They are then taught how to react better to certain situations.
"At this age, they have a lot of peer pressure to go along with the crowd," Dr. Williams said. "Their first impulse is not always the best impulse, and I think they've made a lot of progress in realizing they need to stop to think before they act."
Dr. Williams has developed an adult program involving life skills. She said it has always been a dream of hers to work with high school students.
She quickly found out how stressful a teenager's life can be.
"A lot of them have to baby-sit their sisters and brothers and nephews and nieces. So time is of the premium," she said. "There is also a lot of pressure to be popular. There's a lot of pressure to be perceived as cool."
The program teaches students to reduce stress, not overcome it.
"Progress, not perfection," Dr. Williams said.
Drs. Williams and Barnes plan to continue working with the Glenn Hills High School group throughout the year. In the coming months, they will measure blood pressure among a new group of students and compare the numbers after the students participate in workshops.
"If we show it to be successful, it could go through schools across the country and the world," Dr. Barnes said.
Several students agree that the program is helping, saying they have avoided fights with parents, said no to smoking and stopped hanging around bad influences.
"The Life Skills techniques helped me to say no to people in a nice way. The way I used to respond to people was by saying yes all the time," student Kouvaris Lewis said. "Ever since I got in the Life Skills techniques program, I now stand up for myself and say no."
Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.