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Helping Students Manage Stress

This is an excerpt from Physical and Health Education in Canada With Web Resource by Joe Barrett & Carol Scaini.

Stress is a normal response to environmental demands or pressures that threaten our well-being or overwhelm our coping strategies. It is experienced physically (e.g., increased heart rate and respiration), cognitively (e.g., worry), and emotionally (e.g., anxiety and trepidation). These responses are linked to survival in the most basic sense - if we perceive danger, our built-in alarm system activates to protect us. This system often creates particular behaviours referred to in the common phrase "fight, flight, or freeze."

The stress response (which we often refer to simply as stress) occurs whenever we are faced with a challenge or change in our environment that demands our adaptation. The challenge, or stressor, may be a school or social situation, a sport competition, a touch, a threat, or anything that pressures us to adapt. The specifics of how we interpret danger - and feel stress - vary from person to person; overall, however, the stress response is simply the brain's signal to the body, and to itself, that adaptation is needed. Everyone experiences the stress response every single day. In the vast majority of situations, it is low in intensity, transient, and helpful.

Children are observant, and they learn how to interpret their own stress response by watching others. If they are told that what they are feeling is helpful - that the body signals they are experiencing are helping them prepare to perform well - then they tend to do well. In such cases, they focus on learning or on applying the skills necessary to succeed in the given situation. When they are successful, the stress response dissipates. Moreover, they remember what they did to adapt, and now they have embedded a skill and thus become more resilient. Because they remember what they did to solve the problem, they can apply that strategy in the future.

Instead of saying to a student, "You look depressed," you might say, "I'm noticing that your energy is really low today. What's going on?"

If, on the other hand, children are told that what they are feeling is harmful and negative, then they may spend much of their time trying to shut down the stress response or avoid the situation eliciting it. Both of these outcomes lead to poor adaptation and decreased resilience. Thus we must realize that we have a key role to play in helping students learn to handle stress constructively.

In order to do so, we must avoid confusing the daily stress that helps us grow, develop, and adapt with the type of stress that can lead to problems and be difficult to overcome independently. Not all stress is the same, yet people often forget the huge differences between various kinds of stress. As a result, they often confuse normal and helpful everyday stress with toxic stress - that is, the acute stress that protects us from danger. This confusion may help explain why many educators view stress as bad, when in fact most stress is healthy and even necessary for human growth and development. The following descriptions summarize three types of stress response: positive, tolerable, and toxic (Harvard Center for the Developing Child, n.d.).

  • Positive stress response is a normal and essential part of healthy development. It is characterized by brief increases in heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels. A positive stress response might be triggered, for example, by the following situations.
    • In childhood: receiving an immunization shot, meeting a new caregiver
    • In adolescence: writing examinations, going to a new school, failing a grade, not making the team, giving a public lecture, performing on stage, asking someone for a date, going to a party with unfamiliar people
    • For new teachers: meeting students' parents, writing report cards, getting to know colleagues
  • Tolerable stress response activates the body's alert systems to a greater degree than positive stress response as a result of more severe, longer-lasting difficulties - for example, a natural disaster, a frightening injury, or the loss of a loved one. If the activation is time limited and buffered by relationships with adults who help the child adapt, then the brain and other organs recover from what might otherwise be damaging effects. Here are some examples.
    • For students: moving to a new home and school, being diagnosed with a chronic disease (e.g., diabetes, asthma), losing a grandparent or parent
    • For teachers: ending an intimate relationship, moving to an unfamiliar place to begin a career, being reassigned at the last minute and needing to rebuild lesson plans and resources
  • Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, or prolonged adversity - such as unsafe housing, hunger, physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, substance abuse or mental illness in a caregiver, exposure to violence, or economic hardship - without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems. It can also increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment well into the adult years.

You may have heard the saying, "Be kind; everyone is fighting a hard battle." Being kind means really looking at our students, seeing what might underlie their behaviour, considering how their personal wellness or context might influence how they react in a particular situation, and - as the caring adult - creating a safe space in which they can develop their sense of self.

This perspective is particularly important when reflecting on how we think children and youth (and we and our peers) "should" handle stress. Do you have a student who is very anxious about "getting into trouble"? Perhaps the student has experienced maltreatment at the hands of caregivers in response to transgressions. Depending on the child's age and coping style, this anxiety may manifest in the form of noncompliance ("defiance"), being anxious to please ("goody-two-shoes"), or being withdrawn ("bored" or "not motivated"). Do you have a student who is focused on getting high marks and other positive evaluations? Again, depending on age and history, such students may present as being overly focused on meeting your criteria ("needy" or "demanding"), helpless ("lacking confidence"), or distracted ("needing to focus" or "apply themselves").

How does this overview of stress fit with what you have been taught? How does it challenge common beliefs suggesting that normal and everyday stress is bad, that we should protect children from it, or that there may be things over which we have no control that influence how a person copes with stress?

Instead of being silent when a student says, "That guy is crazy" or "She is nuts," respond to what you are hearing: "I am hearing some language that worries me. Let's take a minute and talk about this."

Here are some strategies to keep in mind when helping students develop the necessary skills to cope with stress:

  • When possible, give students choices regarding assessments. A student who experiences performance-related anxiety is likely to be negatively influenced by the anxiety (which does not mean that he or she doesn't know or can't do it).
  • Consider different ways in which students can contribute to others' learning. Are they too nervous to demonstrate the skill in front of the class? Then have them record others doing so. Are they overwhelmed by the expectation? Then talk with them about it and guide them to reasonable alternatives for demonstrating their learning. This is not about giving students a way out; it is about giving them a way in.
  • Start small and focus on building their capacity. We all benefit from opportunities to learn, practice, and receive constructive feedback.
  • Explore simple ways to build a sense of mastery in your classroom - for example, using jigsaw or cooperative learning.

And here are some individual factors to consider:

  • Does the student possess the necessary skills to complete the task? Some students may need coaching or extra practice.
  • Is the person naturally more open or more resistant to new experiences? Some students may need encouragement and time to explore new experiences.
  • Is the person generally more anxious or less anxious? For students who tend to be more anxious about life in general, being reminded of times when they coped effectively with anxiety can help them generalize the relevant skills to new situations.
  • Is the task simple, clearly explained, and well resourced (e.g., in terms of time, materials, and support)? It can be helpful to break a large task into smaller steps, provide tools (e.g., an outline) and reminders (e.g., posters or instruction sheets), and check in frequently.

Remember also that children often mirror an important adult's response to an unexpected or unpleasant situation. If, upon seeing a child fall down and bang a knee, we swoop in to help, then we transmit the message that the fall was a catastrophe and the child or youth is incapable of handling it. Instead, we can make eye contact and check in: "Hey [Name], you took quite a tumble. Are you ready to go back in [to the game or class activity], or do you need to sit out for a few minutes?" In this way, we send the message that we noticed the event and are letting the student choose the next step because he or she can.

More Excerpts From Physical and Health Education in Canada With Web Resource