5 Strategies to Help Students Deal with Stress

Five strategies for helping secondary students deal with stress.

Student stress is at an all time high. A recent report from the Pew Institute found that 70% of surveyed teens felt that anxiety and stress are a major problem for themselves and their peers. This is no surprise to those of us in the classroom, as it's clear that the pressure on today's teens is greater than ever before. So is the stress level.

In my school, we are also noticing that many students are increasingly unable to deal with the everyday stress that life will inevitably throw their way. I'm not talking about those who are diagnosed with anxiety and depression, but rather those kids who feel that any discomfort is something to avoid. Tests and presentations are met with a lot of fear and resistance, and it seems as though our kids have fewer coping skills than they used to. Many want to avoid situations that make them nervous rather than learning to face the feeling and use it to perform well.

In an effort to help kids deal with the stress, my colleagues and I have created time in our classes to teach our kids some stress-beating strategies. Here are five that are making a difference for my students:

1. Talk about it: 
There's nothing like dealing with a problem head on. If my students are finding the stresses of everyday life hard to manage, I give them a platform to discuss it. First we begin with some facts. Students need to know that stress is a part of the human condition, there for a very good evolutionary reason. The fight or flight response is a survival mechanism that kept cave people from being devoured by predators. Luckily, most of us aren't dodging tigers these days, but this same stress response helps us rise to the occasion and take challenges head on.
Five strategies for helping secondary students deal with stress.
I tell my kids that there are different forms of stress and some of them are actually good for you rather than harmful. Eustress is a positive form of stress that makes your heart race and your breath come faster. We all experience it when we are doing something that makes us a little scared or nervous - for example, taking a test, giving a presentation, asking someone out on a date, or watching a scary movie. These are not events that put us in any type of physical danger and the stress is there for the short term only; it can motivate us to do well, because it puts us on high alert.

Because students need to know that this type of stress is very normal, I share times that make me feel stressed and anxious. For example, the first days with a new class is a time when I experience a lot of eustress. It's scary to meet a new group of students, but this nervous feeling causes me to be on my game, making sure my lessons are well-planned and engaging. Once we get to know each other, it's no longer stressful for me to walk into the classroom each day - but until that happens, I have a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach at the beginning of every class. After that, I ask the kids to reflect on and  talk about the times that they experience eustress.

Five strategies for helping secondary students deal with stress.

If you'd like to have a similar discussion with your students, you can access an introductory slideshow here. It's part of a more in-depth lesson that focuses on student stress and strategies to deal with it. You can find it here.

2. Discuss and use relaxation strategies with your students
After our initial discussion, we always look at strategies for dealing with eustress. First, I make it very clear that if their stress moves from "eustress" to "distress," - if they ever feel like there's a problem - they need to reach out for help. Then, we brainstorm resources in our school and community, and I leave the list in a place where students can reference it when they need it. Finally, we move on to strategies for dealing with positive stress.

Five strategies for helping secondary students deal with stress.

When we have this discussion, students are usually able to suggest strategies such as deep breathing, meditating, exercise, and journaling. However, if I want my students to use these, I need to make them part of our classroom routine. So, before a big assessment, I'll play relaxing music and spend a few minutes getting the kids to do some deep breathing. If I'm feeling that the stress level is particularly high, we will do a quick meditation (you can access some great apps for this here and a youtube one here). You don't have to save these activities for assessments, either, as I have a colleague that begins every class with a short meditation - his kids are a little reluctant at first, but most of them start to love it!

Five strategies for helping secondary students deal with stress.On a daily basis, if I ever notice that a student is a little agitated, for whatever reason, I'll suggest that s/he go for a walk to calm down. I find that this works really well for students who get stressed when they can't think of an idea for a writing assignment: I tell them to go for a walk to see if that helps them clarify their thoughts. They need to take a pen and paper, so they can record any ideas that pop up on their stroll. Often, they'll come back with a much better idea of what they want to do. 

This year, before my students gave their first speech, we watched this video that encourages them to approach a stressful experience by shifting their mindset from "I'm stressed" to "I'm excited." It's worth a watch and a discussion with your students, and you can access it through the slideshow I'm providing.

3. Scaffold Presentation Skills: 

I'm sure you've heard that many humans fear public speaking more than death. Well, the way that some of my students react to having to do a presentation definitely confirms that. And I get it. It's scary.

Five strategies for helping secondary students deal with stress.

I changed my approach to speaking assignments a few years ago after an aha moment.  I realized that I had spent years teaching kids the importance of process when it comes to reading and writing, but I'd spent very little time doing the same with speaking. I'd just assign a Socratic seminara debate, or a speech and let them go at it. Now, I scaffold that process just as much as I do the other ones. You can read more detail about how I do that on these blog posts: 

Speaking and Listening Workshop

Since I've started doing this, I've had far fewer concerns from kids about speaking in front of the class. Speaking of which, if you're OK with opening up the discussion around whether or not students should have to do presentations, The Atlantic has an excellent article that presents various viewpoints. You could assign it as a reading and have your students respond to and/or debate the issue.

4. Encourage a growth mindset 
There is no doubt that fear of failure creates a great deal of stress for our students. Again, I get it. It's real. However, if we create a climate that encourages a growth mindset, students may feel less pressure and stress. One of the best ways to do this is to use as much formative assessment as you can. When you give students short bits of feedback that are not tied to a mark, students are more likely to take risks. My favorite way to do this is with conferences. A face-to-face discussion with a student is a quick and effective way to help them build skills - and confidence. It can be an intimidating concept at first, if you've never tried them, but I've got lots of strategies for making time for them here.

Another way to encourage growth mindset - and ultimately reduce student stress - is by allowing redos. I ran from that idea for many years, but after finding ways to do it without adding more to my already heavy load, I would never go back. Why? Because the kids can immediately use my feedback to learn and grow. This results in more confident and happy kids.

5. Give students clear targets and provide activities that help them get there.
If you dropped me in the middle of an unfamiliar city without my phone or a map and told me that I need to go to a certain location without clear directions, I would feel stress. This is what students feel sometimes when they aren't exactly sure how to achieve success in a class. 

Providing clear targets for kids to hit is essential for their learning - and it goes hand in hand with what I said about growth mindset and feedback above. Before starting anything new, tell your students the learning outcome, so they know exactly what they are working toward, and then create activities that will allow them to build the skills they need to attain it. 

Five strategies for helping secondary students deal with stress.
For the first part of any semester, my students work on short, focused assignments, so they can try to master a skill (or a small bundle of skills). That way they don't get overwhelmed while they're still learning, and we scaffold the steps that they will need to follow when doing longer assignments.

Five strategies for helping secondary students deal with stress: scaffold skills and provide learning targets for students.

For example, when I teach expository writing to my kids, we spend a lot of time breaking down the steps necessary to write an effective essay, before I actually assign one. We look at mentor texts that model different types of exposition, as well as idea development, word choice, transitions, etc., and then do activities that allow the kids to practice each target skill before they write their own essay. Because I spend time targeting each skill, my kids are more confident and less stressed about having to do the assignment.  You can check out these activities here.

Another sure fire way to help students navigate the skills they need to learn is to focus on the process, not the end product. Start by modelling your own process when you're thinking, close reading, or writing, so students can see that it actually is a process - and can see how it works. Then, provide time in class for them to work on it.

Five strategies for helping secondary students deal with stress: scaffold skills and provide learning targets for students.

Stations are a great way to do this, as they allow kids to focus on one skill at a time. For example, every time we revise an essay, I send my kids through a series of stations that require them to take the process slowly. Each one focuses them on one target on the rubric, like word choice, idea development, etc. Their path is clear, and they can avoid overwhelm because they can work on each target that they have to hit.

Stacey Lloyd wrote a very detailed post about how to provide learning targets for our students by co-constructing criteria. It's a very effective process that I've used before, especially with major assessments.

My friends here at the coffee shop have some activities that can help with creating a climate for growth mindset in your classroom. Be sure to check them out:

The Daring English Teacher: Growth Mindset Activities and Resources for Secondary

Presto Plans: Growth Mindset Activities & Bulletin Board Display

8 Tips for Teaching Texts through Stations

I was starting to worry about student engagement while annotating or discussing a text. My seventh and eighth graders were following along with modeled close reading, but I wanted to take the next step of gradual release from teacher-led to student independence.

So I started designing station-based rotation activities to break down the task of reading. The benefit of examining a text through stations is that students can look at a text piece-by-piece, such as one paragraph or section at a time OR adding in layers of annotation by just examining one element at a time.

So far, the tasks I’ve left at each station have had a pattern. Each station is designed to EITHER guide students through focused annotation (such as, for example, finding JUST all the similes and metaphors in the poem), OR the station taught a vocabulary word/concept that students had to apply to the text in a focused way (such as deciding if “The Raven” has an unreliable narrator).

Here’s what I learned from doing text stations in class:

Tip 1: Read the text before the stations start. 

There’s usually not enough time to read the text AND do its stations in one class period. When we did stations for “The Raven”, I played a YouTube audio recording (by James Earl Jones) so we could listen to the poem; when we did stations for the “I Have a Dream” Speech, I assigned the speech to be read as homework the night before. (Luckily, when we do stations for “Nothing Gold Can Stay” in a few weeks, we will have already read the poem in the novel The Outsiders.)

Tip 2. Careful setup is key. 

During the previous summer, I bought $1 photo holders from IKEA and turned them into numbered station signs. I put the numbers in a clockwise pattern throughout the room, on rows or tables.

Also, this may go without saying, but make sure you have sufficient supplies at each station, such as leaving a basket of highlighters or having MULTIPLE copies of whatever answer keys or example annotations that you want students to copy from. (Only so many students can huddle around one paper to examine it!)

Tip 3. Plan your timing wisely. 

The first time I tried text stations, I was too ambitious, and students couldn’t get through every station in 45 minutes. Keep in mind that the more stations you have, the fewer minutes students can spend at each place, so you’ll want to make sure the task you leave at each station is doable in a certain amount of minutes.

For example, I often find success with 6 or 7 stations in 45-50 minutes. BUT, that brings me to tip #4...

Tip 4. It went better when I DIDN’T use a timer. 

At first, I divided students into groups, set a rigid timer of 6 minutes per station, and told students when they could rotate. Guess what? That only caused problems. Some stations could be finished faster than others, which left some students frazzled and others off-task.

Instead, now I just set the timer for the end of the period, make students all START at different stations, and then trust them to get to every table before the end of the period. Some of them spend too long at one station and then have to hurry a little through the rest, but they figured out the pacing very well, and there were far fewer engagement issues. Every student was focused and learning for 90% of the class period.

Tip 5. Students fill in guided notes (that they can keep and study).

All of my stations activities have had one key element in common: as students rotate, they’re copying answers from each station tent onto their provided guided notes, and then they can keep their notes to study for tomorrow’s follow-up quiz. Giving students that accountability to acquire information helped tremendously to keep them on-task.

Download this FREE template as a starting point for station guided notes!

Tip 6. Follow up with a quiz. 

If students know an assessment is coming, they’ll take each station and its information or task more seriously. (That’s not intended as a threat or to create an ominous atmosphere. It simply sends the message that what we’re doing is important and needs to be taken seriously.)

Tip 7. Make the station tasks as self-evident as possible. 

The stations I make include table tents for each station, and whenever possible, I leave an answer key on the table tent itself or on a piece of paper at the station. This is partially for teacher sanity (less grading!) but also because as a teacher, I’d rather be…

Tip 8: Decide where you want to be in the room. 

Do you want (or need) to be circulating the room the whole time to manage behavior? That’s fine. But if you think your students can handle it, one option is to make one station an “Ask the Teacher” table. This is a great way for students to get more face time with you AND get a safer place to admit that they don’t understand something.

Want to do stations with topics other than reading?
Many of these principles applied when I tried stations with other topics, like Greek & Latin roots. You can also try my FREE, editable Grammar Stations here.

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Reasons to Regularly Teach Punctuation in Your Classroom

Ah, punctuation! Whether you love or hate teaching it, there's no denying its importance in the English curriculum. Oscar Wilde once wrote, "I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out." Wilde was an individual who clearly understood the significance of punctuation; however, if your classes are anything like mine, they're often a little more wild than Wilde when it comes to using punctuation consistently and correctly.

We all know those students in our classroom who will hand in a piece of work that could be brilliant, if only it were punctuated correctly. In an era of social media and fast communication, punctuation is often viewed as a lost art. Perplexingly, there are even movements (*ahem* http://killtheapostrope.com) who advocate the abolition of certain types of punctuation entirely. With punctuation undervalued and underused outside of school, it's no wonder many of our students struggle when it comes to getting their ideas down on paper.

Whatever your personal stance on the use of the Oxford comma or the necessity of the possessive apostrophe, punctuation remains one of the most important aspects of written English language and a skill that desperately needs to be developed in the classroom.

Accurate punctuation is essential for expressing meaning. Let's face it, there's a big difference between 'I love cooking my family and my dog' and 'I love cooking, my family and my dog' (fingers crossed they meant the latter!)

As well as changing the meaning of a sentence, punctuation also helps to express ideas more clearly to the reader. When speaking aloud, we convey meaning not only through words, but volume, expression, and body language - contextual cues, which are replaced by punctuation in writing.

Want to sound more excitable? Add an exclamation mark. Want to engage your readers? Include question marks. Want to add emphasis? Use an ellipsis.

Understanding that punctuation can change the voice of a piece of writing is the key to students becoming better writers. Teach your students to play around with different types of punctuation in their work and students will hear the effect when it's read aloud.

Differentiate. Differentiate. Differentiate. It's no fun learning about the same topic if you keep doing the same types of activities. Get your students up and moving and remind them why good punctuation is so important. We all know that repetition helps memory, but teaching punctuation does not have to be a monotonous task. Ditch the worksheets and use fun, engaging tasks to reinforce punctuation rules.

Whether you choose to use art, drama, music or interactive group tasks, teaching the same topic in different ways will help to appeal to students' different learning styles and keep learning fun.

As an English teacher, I try to review punctuation on its own at least four times over the course. I do this through the use of interactive notebooks, worksheets, and mini-lessons.

For example, I give each student a copy of my Punctuation Flip Book (pictured below). This resource not only serves as a lesson in itself, as students write down the notes in their book, but also as a point of reference during any time of the year. If students are unsure about what type of punctuation mark to use, they can reference their flip book and look for suggestions. This resource also helps to save you, the teacher, from answering the same questions over and over again!

It's often said that you only get one chance to make a great first impression. Good punctuation is essential not only to students' success in daily writing practice, exams, etc., but also later in life. Whether applying for jobs, scholarships, work experience placements, or simply writing letters of introduction or resumes, students will be judged on their written English throughout their lives. Employers are likely to ignore applications or resumes that contain spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors, so don't let a misplaced comma stop your students from achieving future success!

I don't know about you, but when a student uses a punctuation mark correctly (particularly a not-so-common mark), I am immediately impressed! In order to help challenge my students and help them make those great first impressions, we also review advanced punctuation marks (in addition to the basic ones).

What types of punctuation do I consider advanced?
  • Asterisk
  • Ampersand 
  • Colon
  • Curly brackets
  • Ellipsis
  • Round brackets
  • Square brackets
  • Hyphen
  • Semi-colon
  • Virgule
I created an Advanced Punctuation Interactive Notebook Lesson around this topic. You can test your students' knowledge on these punctuation marks and sample it for free HERE with this Advanced Punctuation Quiz.

Perhaps one of the most necessary reasons to review punctuation regularly is due in part to the fact that communication in today's society is fast and simple. Abbreviations and a total lack of punctuation are considered the norm; put a semi-colon in a Whatsapp or Facebook message and people are more likely to think you're winking at them than connecting two ideas!

Punctuation is actively discouraged in instant messages (apparently it's too scripted) and yet it is an important life skill. With the average teenager now spending nearly 5+ hours a day online, it has never been so important to teach basic writing skills in the classroom. Unless of course, U want UR students 2 write like this? Yeah, I think not!

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you have a great idea for teaching punctuation that's worked well in your classroom? Or a punctuation fail that you would like to share? Comment below!

Check out these ENGAGING punctuation resources:
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