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

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