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Effective stress management is a crucial SEL competency for students and gives them lifelong coping skills that extend beyond school.

10 SEL activities to help students with stress management

Effective stress management is a crucial SEL competency for students and gives them lifelong coping skills

As an educator, you are in a unique position to provide stability and care to your students and their families. One of the best ways you can support students during these uncertain times is by teaching them effective stress management strategies.

Just like adults, unmanaged stress in students can lead to anxiety, depression, irritability, poor concentration, aggression, physical illness, fatigue, and sleep disturbance. It can also increase tobacco, drug, and/or alcohol use.

Here are 10 activities to help your students learn effective stress management.

1. Be a listening ear.

Encourage students to talk to you about their feelings and problems so you can work through any concerns they may have. Keep in mind that some students don’t have an adult at home whom they feel comfortable turning to in times of need. Also, many students were isolated from their normal environments, peer groups, relatives, etc., last year. It is going to take some time for them to adjust to our “new normal.”

Why it works: We’ve all been through a lot during the pandemic, and an important way to help students process and work through their emotions, experiences, and problems is by listening. This is an important first step in helping students work through and manage stress.

2. Host morning meetings.

Start the school day with a morning meeting to check in with students. This can be a time to address any issues they may be facing, talk through their feelings and emotions, and practice social and emotional skills.

Why it works: Morning meetings are an important way to stay connected with your students and address any issues they may be having. They also can strengthen student-teacher relationships, increase social awareness and self-efficacy, and reduce stress.

3. Promote a growth mindset.

Help students develop a growth mindset by teaching them to focus on the positive and view challenges as opportunities for growth, rather than threats.

Why it works: Research shows that a growth mindset can help students maintain a sense of control over their lives, and it addresses the cognitive causes of stress within the brain. Growth mindsets allow us to see the world through a lens of growth, which means we have the power to turn our thoughts from a negative focus induced by stress to a positive focus striving toward improvement.

4. Help students practice deep breathing.

Teach students deep breathing techniques to calm down and reduce stress.

Why it works: Deep breathing works just as well for students as it does for adults. It can have a powerful and immediate physical effect in reducing tension, relaxing the body, and limiting the production of harmful stress hormones. Clinical research also shows that regular deep breathing exercises benefit the heart, brain, digestion, and the immune system.

5. Teach mindfulness.

Teach students mindfulness — the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we are doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what is going on around us.

Why it works: Mindfulness can reduce the negative effects of stress by increasing our awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations and how they can impact our actions. This framework has been proven to help students recognize triggers and changes within their bodies, which can help them calm and regulate their emotions before they act on a trigger in a negative way.

6. Encourage students to get enough sleep.

Help students understand why getting enough sleep is important for their physical and mental health and encourage them to prioritize it. 

Why it works: According to the CDC, younger children need 10-12 hours of sleep each night and high school students need around eight to nine hours. Getting enough sleep helps students stay focused, improves concentration, and increases academic achievement. At the same time, children who do not get enough sleep have a higher risk for health problems like obesity and poor mental health, and are more likely to have attention and behavior problems which can contribute to poor academic performance.

7. Promote a healthy diet.

Teach students the benefits of eating a healthy diet and drinking enough water. Help students get access to free or reduced-lunch programs, and spread the word that free meal programs made available during the pandemic have been extended through the 2021-22 school year.

Why it works: Just like with adults, a balanced diet helps students in many ways. Focus and concentration increases, they are less moody, they have more energy, and their sleep improves. A healthy diet also can reduce anxiety and stress and regulate blood sugar.

8. Teach through games.

Games are a fun and interactive way to teach students social and emotional skills like self-management. Here are a couple of my favorites:

  • Coping Skills Bingo: This free game teaches students how to manage anger and cope with stress in a fun, interactive way.
  • Candy Crush: Believe it or not, games likes Candy Crush, Tetris, and Flow Free can help the mind relax. Note that the basic levels of these games are simple and relaxing. Students should not rush to progress too quickly, as this can increase stress as the games become more challenging.
  • Stress Management Escape Room: Students engage in hands-on, interactive puzzles that explain the biological stress response and how to manage stress by getting organized, doing exercises or yoga, relying on social supports, etc.
  • Color: Some experts believe that 10 minutes of coloring can provide the same benefits as meditation. Coloring can take place nearly everywhere, and it can even be done on a smart device with a coloring app.

9. Encourage students to be smart about social media.

We are realistic — we know that no matter what adults tell students, there is little chance they will stay off social media. But we can teach them to be smart about using it. Help students understand that too much media exposure (especially on social media) can increase stress and anxiety. Teach them how to access reputable news sources like the CDC and World Health Organization to get accurate information, and teach students how to be safe online. 

Why it works: Being smart about using social media can keep students safe and grounded and can reduce negative effects like stress and low self-esteem.

10. Foster a positive school culture.

Take a look at your school culture. Are teachers and students overly stressed about catching up on learning loss caused by the pandemic? Is there too much focus on state exams and college acceptances? Do students and educators feel high levels of pressure to perform academically or succeed in extracurricular activities like sports? Ask students and staff about their experiences and make a whole-school effort to create a more supportive school culture.

Why it works: A supportive school culture can reduce stress for students and educators alike. Additionally, when students feel safe, connected, welcome, supported, and engaged in their learning, attendance increases, bullying decreases, and academic achievement improves.  

Effective stress management is a crucial SEL competency for students. It will help students improve academically and they will be able to lead healthier, happier lives. Teach these de-stressing activities to your students and help them learn how to effectively manage stress and anxiety before they become overwhelmed.

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