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Stress management to establish a positive climate for learning

This is an excerpt from Teaching Stress Management by Nanette E. Tummers.

Stress and Protective Factors

The field of mental health has traditionally focused on the study of maladaptive behaviors known as risk factors for mental disease. Slowly, however, the field is shifting toward what is known as the “positive psychology movement,” which focuses on protective factors that help the individual to adapt (Karren et al. 2010; Rutter 1983).

One protective factor is resiliency, which is the ability to survive and thrive despite adverse circumstances. Students can build their resiliency by using the skills they develop in a comprehensive stress management program (see chapter 4 for an extensive discussion of resiliency).

Other protective factors include academic achievement, future-mindedness, critical thinking skills, and social and emotional intelligence. A statistical review (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning 2008) of more than 700 social and emotional intervention studies found significant benefits for students. Their behavior improved, as did their standardized test scores. They also felt better about themselves and experienced decreases in anxiety and depression. Many school districts now include social and emotional learning in their curriculums (Viadero 2007). The State of Illinois has adofigurepted standards for social and emotional learning (SEL) that address criteria including self- and social awareness, self-management, decision making and responsible behavior, interpersonal communication, and maintenance of positive relationships (Illinois State Board of Education 2010). Social protective factors include physical and psychological safety, connectedness to school, support from home, positive social norms, structured activities, and positive adult-student interactions (Find Youth Info 2010).

In a study of 613 children from age 8 to age 12, including 51 percent Hispanic and 49 percent non-Hispanic whites, Taxis et al. (2004) found that social connectedness and use of positive coping strategies significantly mediated the perception of stress. Similarly, a school program using a strengths-based approach with low-income African American parents found that connectedness, interpersonal communication including empathy, and rule setting decreased total behavior problems and parent-child relational stress (Sheely & Bratton 2010).

Horowitz and Garber (2006) used a meta-analytic statistical method to compare 30 studies addressing prevention of depression symptoms in children. They found multiple interacting causes of depression, which means that effective intervention must involve multiple components, including recognition of negative thinking, improvement in interpersonal relationships, and a reduction in maladaptive reactions to stress. This analysis is supported by multiple studies of the efficacy of school-based depression prevention programs by researchers at the Penn Resiliency Program (Gillham, Brunwasser, & Freres 2007), which emphasizes cognition and problem-solving skills.

Teachers need to develop strategies tailored to the age group of the students with whom they will be working. Each group—early childhood, elementary, middle school, and high school—has a unique set of stress risks and protective factors, including resiliency characteristics.

Early Childhood Students

Preschool children's response to stress can be affected by several developmental factors, including cognitive function, control issues, awareness of self and others, and attachment relationships (Barton & Zeanah 1990). A preschooler typically responds to stress by regressing into immature and disorganized behavior (e.g., having a meltdown or temper tantrum). Preschoolers' second most common reaction is attention seeking. They may also withdraw from social interaction and show changes in play patterns—for example, using play either to retreat from a difficult situation or as a reaction to it (Barton & Zeanah).

Common stressors for this age group include lack of quality child care arrangements, birth of a sibling, and parent employment obligations and limited time available to spend with the child. Stressors that go beyond the everyday include divorce, hospitalization, abuse or neglect, witnessing of violence, and the loss of a parent (Barton & Zeanah 1990).

Toxic stress can impair a child's development of certain circuits in the brain during early childhood (Middlebrooks & Audage 2008). In addition, high levels of cortisol can lead to suppression of the immune system and affect learning ability and memory function in later years.

Preschool children can benefit from various protective factors, including resiliency. It is critical to provide these young people with structure, stability, and a high quality parent-child relationship. Teachers can also serve as strong protective factors by being available as positive models for attachment. At the preschool level, learning relies heavily on the various senses; as a result, stress management activities for this age group should actively engage children in seeing, listening, touching, tasting, smelling, and moving.

Resilient preschoolers are self-confident, independent, involved in play, and able to use advanced skills in communication, locomotion, and self-help. They tolerate anxiety and frustration and are ready to take realistic risks and seek out help. They also relate well to their peers and teachers and are socially mature (Kimchi & Schaffner 1990).

Elementary Students

Stressors affecting elementary students include school demands, separation from parents and being away from home all day, acceptance of new authority figures, socializing with a larger group of peers, pressure for academic achievement, and various fears—for example, fear of success, of wetting oneself, of going unchosen for a group or team, and of failure (including test anxiety) (Middlebrooks & Audage 2008; Sears & Milburn 1990). In addition, students in the upper elementary grades vary widely in their physical and emotional maturation patterns (Humphrey 1993), and this variation can cause considerable stress, as when a student is the tallest or the shortest in class.

Protective factors for this age group include support from family, clear expectations, and an external support systems such as teachers and extended family members and other care takers. Teachers can encourage and reinforce coping efforts and positive strengths, and provide the teaching of appropriate coping skills. At about the age of 6 or 7 years, students begin the important developmental steps of learning to reason and establishing the foundation for communication skills such as listening actively, speaking mindfully, and attending to nonverbal communication (e.g., body language, eye contact).

Resilient elementary-age children are good students, enjoy their classmates and teachers, and pursue hobbies. They exhibit a wide range of constructive and creative coping skills, and they enjoy humor and get along well with others while developing meaningful friendships (Kimchi & Schaffner 1990).

Middle School and High School Students

Adolescence is a period of unique stress, and a wide variety of stressors compound this life stage—for example, pubertal growth, hormonal changes, changes in relationships with parents and peers, and cultural and societal expectations. All of these stressors involve movement toward independence as the adolescent moves away from the structured environments of home and school and into a broader social environment (Hendren 1990) that may include substantial exposure to crime and violence. This shift may be occurring earlier these days due in part to children's access to digital resources (e.g., social networking sites) and the potential for cyberbullying.

The adolescent's move toward autonomy can result in parents feeling conflicting emotions about the adolescent's development as well as more conflicts between parents and adolescents during this stage. If the parent is also experiencing stress (e.g., divorce, employment troubles, or the responsibility of caring for aging parents), this too will affect the stress of the adolescent. For example, the parent may model ineffective coping strategies such as excessive outbursts of anger or drinking too much alcohol, or disclose too much information on topics that adolescents are not able to deal with, such as marital problems. According to neurologist Frances Jensen, the prevailing adolescent tendency toward moodiness, self-centeredness, and constantly changing plans—which can be quite frustrating for parents and teachers—may be linked to differences in brain anatomy and physiology (Knox 2010).

Students at this age often make poor choices and then face the resulting consequences. This pattern may be due to the fact that the frontal lobe of the brain, where reasoning and critical thinking occur, is not fully developed in an adolescent. These connections within the brain are formed by myelin sheaths or fatty coatings of insulation that allow information to move quickly around the brain. Because the myelin sheath is not fully formed in adolescents, the information moves more slowly; this processing is also slowed by alcohol consumption and by stress.

The adolescent brain is also very excitable and able to learn quickly, but this excitability needs to be harnessed constructively. The negative potential of excitability involves the fact that not just desirable behaviors but also undesirable ones—such as addiction—can be learned faster. We can help students learn optimally and live healthy and happy lives by providing them with opportunities to practice their ability to focus and relax.

Specific adolescent stressors include peer pressure, stress due to pressure from parents, changes at school, divorce, relocation, legal stress, gender role expectations, physical illness, worry about one's changing body, and sexual mistreatment (Hendren 1990). Adolescents may also experience a great deal of stress due to the Western cultural uncertainty about when a person becomes an adult. This uncertainty is registered in the varying (and often confusing) legal ages for driving, purchasing alcohol or cigarettes, signing a contract, dropping out of school, being tried as an adult in court, consenting to sex, obtaining access to birth control or abortion, and enlisting in the armed services. Whatever its source, adolescents may display stress in the form of depression, substance abuse, disordered eating, or even suicide.

The most significant protective factor for adolescents is the development of effective coping skills, which are referred to in this book as positive skills. These skills include cognitive behavioral strategies, maintenance of friendships, problem solving, concentration, focus, social intelligence, self-efficacy, and internal locus of control. In addition, connectedness is an important protective factor. Connectedness is the positive interaction between students and their school when they feel cared for and an important member of the learning community (Barnes, Bauza, & Treiber 2003; Gillham, Reivich, & Shatté 2002).

Resilient adolescents are high functioning, active, future minded, achievement focused, responsible, and caring. They enjoy positive self-concept and self-efficacy and an internal locus of control. They have well-defined internalized values and are empathetic, socially intuitive, and mature (Kimchi & Schaffner 1990).

The Wellness Model

In the face of this grim reality of student stress, Stephen Covey (1989) provides a wonderful model for shaping and empowering students (see figure 1.1). Those who work with school-age children may find it hard not to be overwhelmed by concern about the ways in which stress affects our students' quality of life. Covey terms this the “circle of concern” and advocates that we focus on what we can do, which he calls the “circle of influence.” This approach enables us to work proactively to help students build their positive skills, and thus the book you are now reading focuses on the circle of influence by presenting positive skills that we can help our students cultivate. We can use this approach both to foster positive environments for learning communities and to advocate for effective stress management.

We can address our circle of influence by providing students with activities and opportunities that help them grow in areas such as the following:

  • Physical and environmental needs—Time for rest and sleep; movement; nourishing food; feeling safe; ability to relax
  • Social and spiritual needs—Meaningful relationships with and support from family, peers, trusted adults, community; the ability to be empathetic; effective communication; enjoyment of nature
  • Emotional and intellectual needs—Positive self-concept; sense of control; gratitude; ability to focus and concentrate; mindfulness; honest self-evaluation; leadership

Many other possibilities supported by research are presented in later chapters of this book.

Stress Management for Our Students

Stress evokes an image of physical symptoms, such as headaches, which are often treated without looking at root causes. A holistic approach to stress management allows for a different perspective. A holistic or wellness approach integrates all aspects of health into a unified “whole student” approach. Health involves not just treating symptoms but healing—bringing to wholeness and balance. The wellness interconnectivity model (see figure 1.2 on page 14) includes all the dimensions of human health: physical, emotional, intellectual, social, spiritual, and global or environmental. Each of these dimensions influences the others, and an interconnection between the dimensions is crucial to overall health. Stress influences each of the dimensions of health, as when we feel physically exhausted, emotionally out of control, unable to work intellectually through a problem, socially disconnected from others or from ourselves, apathetic about war or urban decay, or lacking in inner peace or meaningful purpose.

The spiritual dimension may be misconstrued as a religious or theological one. Within the wellness context, the spiritual dimension involves the student's self-image and self-worth, meaningful connections with others, and a sense of something that gives his or her life meaning. The source of this meaningfulness depends on how the student defines and determines it—be it called God or a higher power or a connection to nature, art, or community. The biggest gift we can give our students is to teach them to maintain a healthy balance and integrate all of these important dimensions of their lives.

The medical community is slowly beginning to understand the integration between the various dimensions of health. Stress is a significant reason for visits to the doctor, and there is a slowly emerging paradigm shift away from a mechanistic medical model. The mechanistic model focuses on disease by means of a specialist who treats symptoms, but it neglects to look at the reason behind the symptoms or to see the individual as a diverse and complex whole. Treatment in this model emphasizes fixing risk or disease through medicine or surgery. An integrative model supports the importance of the connection between the mind and body. The mind has a profound effect on health, illness, and disease as well as healing and optimal well-being. This shift currently taking place involves a move toward a holistic protective factor or integrative strengths-based model that encourages positive behaviors. A strengths-based model empowers individuals to exert control and to plan the most beneficial choices and actions for their own health and healing.

In a meta-analysis of 19 studies of school-based stress management programs, Kraag, Zeegers, Kok, Hosman, and Abu-Saad (2006) found significant positive effects in the form of decreased stress symptoms and increased coping skills and positive behaviors. Although it is difficult to identify exactly which stress management components produced the desirable results, the overall evidence supports an integrative strengths-based model.

Helping Our Students Comprehend Stress Concepts

Eric Jensen's book Teaching With the Brain in Mind(2005) discusses the promising field of educational neuroscience. Jensen draws out important implications for parents, educators, and other caring individuals concerned with the growth and development of our students. Jensen and other educational neuroscientists believe that it is crucial for us to help students learn healthy strategies for communicating about and managing their emotions so that they can maintain their focus on learning and interpersonal relationships.

Learning is truly complex, and emotions can rule our ability to learn. We often think instinctually or reflexively in the moment, which makes sense in cases of immediate danger, but it is difficult to engage in higher ordered thinking when we are feeling distressed, fearful, threatened, or disappointed. When students can realize the connection between getting upset and performing in a subpar manner as a learner, teammate, friend, or family member, they can learn to engage appropriate positive behaviors (Jensen 2005).


Considerable evidence indicates the far-reaching effects of stress in our students' lives. Stress management offers us a chance to develop skill in dealing with stress and establishing a positive climate for learning. In an optimal learning environment characterized by effective stress management, students are motivated to ask questions and become curious learners, apply information in meaningful ways, provide social support to others, engage in physical activity, use critical thinking, celebrate their learning, and commit to becoming lifelong learners and productive citizens.

Learn more about Teaching Stress Management.

More Excerpts From Teaching Stress Management