Have you had a student act out when you try to redirect her misbehavior? Ever had a kid freeze on a test and then give up in frustration as he forgets everything he studied for? Or have you had students who simply, seemingly randomly, shut down out of nowhere and refuse to participate? If so, it might be time to examine how to help students reduce stress and anxiety.
Whether you’ve taught for one year or 10, you’ve undoubtedly experienced one of these scenarios (but most likely all…and maybe even on the same day because that’s how teaching goes). In my seven years of teaching, I’ve often asked myself, “Why are these situations happening more and more frequently?”
Related: 7 resources to help educators better understand anxiety
The National Education Association (NEA) and the Pew Research Center highlighted a few answers for me, and finally, after some research, what I saw from my students made sense. According to Pew’s studies, 70 percent of teens reported anxiety and depression as a “major problem.” An additional 26 percent reported it as a “minor problem.” NEA went as far as labeling the rates of anxiety amongst adolescents as an “epidemic.”
And I bet you can name 10 students off the top of your head who would report anxiety, stress, or depression in the same way.
While we may not be able to eradicate an epidemic overnight, we can help. We can intentionally change the dynamic of our classrooms and combat the stress of our students.
5 ways to help students reduce stress and build resilience
1. Be vulnerable
Don’t expect students to be willing to tackle their stress if you aren’t willing to do the same. If you are vulnerable and acknowledge you deal with stress just like they do, then you will help destigmatize stress for your students.
2. Commit to consistency for SEL
As teachers, we’ve all had that great idea that ultimately flopped because we didn’t provide consistency for follow through. I had students track their AP US readiness via an interactive graph I created. The graph was great…my follow through was not.
In order for social and emotional learning (SEL) to be effective, opportunities to engage with SEL activities must be consistent. To do this, I started each lesson on Mondays and Fridays with an SEL activity designed to reduce student stress.
3. Help students name their stress
Some of us freeze in the face of stress, some of us flee when faced with anxiety, and others lash out irrationally at our teacher and say “F*** you Mr. Modak.” Research shows that how you respond to stress is somewhat a pre-wired response.
When I implemented an SEL curriculum in my class, I saw how powerful it was teaching students the neuroscience behind how we respond to stress. Doing this gives students an opportunity to reflect and say “This is how I may be predisposed to respond to stress, but it is not how I have to respond to stress.”
Related: 5 things to avoid saying to students suffering from anxiety
4. Teach concrete coping tools
You wouldn’t respond to a struggling reader by saying, “Why don’t you just focus on becoming a better reader?” or “Our classroom is conducive to creating a better reader, so you’ll eventually figure it out.” You would teach her concrete tools designed to help with literacy acquisition. This is exactly how we need to approach our students’ struggles if we want to help students reduce stress and anxiety. We have to teach them concrete tools designed to help them learn how to positively respond to their stress.
So maybe you’re now thinking, “That sounds great, but I don’t know any concrete tools that help students reduce their stress.” This is where ASSET Education comes in. ASSET provides teachers with 30+ concrete lesson plans and all the materials necessary for implementation in your classroom, giving you a deep repertoire of SEL tools to share with your students.
5. Set realistic expectations
When I was new to teaching, I thought for an activity to be successful, everyone had to love it (I was 22). As we all know, that was unrealistic. If your expectations and the expectations you set for students are “Everyone is going to love this,” you’re setting the class up for failure. So, be honest with your class. For me, this meant explicitly saying, “The following SEL tool might not work for everyone. That’s okay. Just give it a legitimate try.” I had one student who absolutely refused to engage in any SEL activities–she “didn’t need them.” Three years later, I got an email from her in college. She wrote how she now realized that self-care wasn’t selfish care.
If I had judged whether SEL impacted this student right away, I would’ve had to accept that it failed. A long-term approach alters that judgement, as now she realizes the importance of SEL. She even goes back to those activities as ways to care for herself.