Educational Innovation: From Comfort to Stretch Fostering a Culture of Learning and Resilience

Learning is not only about acquiring knowledge but also about developing the skills and attitudes that enable us to grow as individuals and as members of society.  Learning is a lifelong process that requires us to constantly challenge ourselves, step out of our comfort zones, and embrace new experiences. The “Comfort, Stretch, and Panic Zone” model was developed by Karl Rohnke, an experiential educator and author, in the 1980s, based on the research by psychologists Robert M Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908. It is also an integral part of the Oxford International Curriculum (OIC) wellbeing curriculum written by Adrian Bethune.

The Comfort Zone

The zone in which we feel comfortable, familiar, and secure. It is where we perform our routine tasks and activities with ease and confidence. The comfort zone is important for our mental health and well-being, as it provides us with a sense of stability and safety. However, staying in our comfort zone for too long can also limit our growth and potential, as we may miss out on opportunities to learn new things, explore new perspectives, and discover new aspects of ourselves.

The Stretch Zone

The zone in which we feel challenged, stimulated, and excited. It is where we encounter new situations, tasks, and activities that require us to apply our existing skills and knowledge in different ways or to acquire new skills and knowledge. The stretch zone is where learning happens, as we expand our horizons, test our limits, and overcome our fears. The stretch zone is also where we develop our resilience, creativity, and self-confidence, as we learn from our mistakes and celebrate our achievements.

The Panic Zone
The zone in which we feel overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious. It is where we face situations,  tasks,  and activities that are too difficult,  complex, or unfamiliar for us to handle. Learning stops in The panic zone, where we lose focus, motivation, and interest. The panic zone is also where we may experience negative emotions, such as frustration, anger, or sadness, that can affect our well-being and performance.

ARKS started implementing elements of this curriculum in October 2022 through Adrian Bethunes’s Seeds of Happiness Program. In August 2023, ARKS fully adopted the OIC wellbeing curriculum as a part of its educational vision.

We aim to help our students find their optimal level of challenge, where they can move from the comfort zone to the stretch zone, without entering the panic zone. To achieve this, we provide them with a supportive and nurturing environment, where they feel safe, valued, and respected. We also offer them a variety of learning opportunities, where they can choose their own goals, pace, and methods, according to their interests, abilities, and preferences. This method has influenced our teaching methods, as we encourage our teachers to design learning activities that are appropriate for the student’s level of challenge, where they can move from their comfort zone to the stretch zone. We also emphasise the importance of reflecting on lessons, as it plays a key role in developing a  teaching style that fosters learning and resilience. We encourage our students to take risks, try new things, and learn from their peers and teachers, as well as from their own experiences.

Our students have adapted to the model by becoming more aware of their own learning zones, and how they can use them to enhance their learning and wellbeing. They also learn to respect and appreciate the diversity of learning zones among their peers, and how they can collaborate and learn from each other. However, we acknowledge that it has been challenging for the older age group to adapt to the model, as they may have their own fixed mindset about their learning. Therefore, we provide them with repetition, encouragement, and feedback, and we keep wellbeing at our core. We believe that soon we will be able to immerse them in this model completely and help them discover their full potential.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, our students may find themselves in the panic zone, where they feel overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious. This can happen when they face situations, tasks, or activities that are too difficult, complex, or unfamiliar for them to handle. When this happens, we do not want our students to give up, shut down, or avoid the challenge. Instead, we use effective strategies to help them cope with the panic zone and return to the stretch zone, where they can resume their learning.

We teach our students to recognize the signs and symptoms of anxiety, such as rapid breathing, racing heart, sweating, trembling, or feeling dizzy. We also teach them to identify the thoughts and feelings that trigger their anxiety, such as fear of failure, embarrassment, or rejection. We help them understand that anxiety is a normal and common reaction to stress and that it does not mean that they are weak, stupid, or incapable.

We teach our students to use relaxation techniques. We also teach them to use positive self-talk, such as “I can do this”, “I have done this before”, or “I am not alone”, to boost their confidence and motivation. We encourage them to practice these techniques regularly, especially before,  during,  and after stressful situations.

We teach our students to break down the challenge into smaller and more manageable steps and to focus on one step at a time. We also teach them to set realistic and achievable goals and to reward themselves for their efforts and progress. We help them see that every challenge is an opportunity to learn and grow and that every mistake is a chance to improve and try again.

We provide our students with a supportive and nurturing environment, where they can feel safe, valued, and respected. We also provide them with a cue system, where they can signal us when they need help. We do not judge, criticise, or pressure them, but rather listen, empathise, and encourage them. We also connect them with other resources on campus, such as counsellors, mentors, or peers, who can offer them additional guidance and support.

We believe that this approach to learning fosters the well-being of our students, as they develop not only their academic skills, but also their social, emotional, and physical skills. By stepping out of their comfort zones, our students can discover their passions, talents, and potential, and become more confident, curious, and creative learners. Whether you walk into our Nursery or Year 6 classes, you will see the evidence of this approach in action. You will see our students being enthusiastic, engaged, and eager to answer questions, even when they are still determining the correct answer. You will see them working on projects that are linked to real-world issues and problems, and that require them to collaborate, communicate, and think critically. You will see them enjoying the learning process, and not being afraid of making mistakes, as they know that mistakes are just part of the learning curve.

Our approach to learning prepares our students for the future, as they develop the skills and attitudes that enable them to face any challenge, pursue any goal, and make a positive difference in the world. In line with our late Founder’s dream, we believe that the world needs leaders who are confident, curious, and creative, and that is what we do best at ARKS: preparing future leaders.

About the Author: Sara Mehkari is the Deputy Head of Primary School at the Abdul Rahman Kanoo School – Diyar


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