Understanding and Addressing Stress in the Classroom
By Tiffany Creager
Stress is a part of life and it can even be helpful! We perform better under some level of stress, it can motivate us to reach our goals and even plays a part in our development into happy, healthy adults. In fact, some of the most joyful events in our lives come with some level of stress – new jobs, new relationships, planning weddings, having babies, buying a new home, and even vacations!
We also rely on our threat appraisal system to protect us from actual threats. Stress only becomes problematic when it becomes prolonged or chronic without any protective buffers such as protective relationships or healthy coping skills. When we stay in this stressed state for too long, the brain begins to change. The amygdala becomes inflated, we may respond emotionally more often and our mind and our body pay the consequences well into adulthood.
But it’s not all bad news! Our brain can be taught to navigate inevitable stress in a more balanced way. Teaching our students to manage adversity is a crucial part of healthy childhood development. As is true with many things, the earlier we start the better; however, thanks to neuroplasticity, it’s never too late! It can even be retaught after extreme trauma.
Children and teens who learn to recognize and regulate their stress are better equipped to focus, learn, and relate to others. But how do we add these lessons into our already full school days in a way that is meaningful?? We can begin by integrating practices into our routines and procedures signaling to the brain that this is a safe and predictable environment.
Choose a strategy or two below and add it to your morning meetings or your weekly check-ins. Make it fit your needs and your schedule!
It starts with us
Emotions are contagious. We can bring our stress or we can bring our calm to any given moment. This is as true in the classroom as it is in life. In fact, studies have shown teacher burnout to affect the stress levels of the students they teach as evidenced by an increased level of cortisol, a stress hormone, in students in their classrooms.
Additionally, teacher burnout has been linked to lower levels of student effective learning and lower motivation(Oberle & Schonert-Reichl, 2016; Zhang & Sapp, 2008). This information is not at all meant to shame teachers for being exhausted or feeling burnout rather it highlights the importance of caring for our educators first.
When we create a working environment that promotes the well-being of the employees, we are creating an environment that will be better equipped to serve its students. You can learn more about educator wellness here and here.
As you read through the ideas below, consider adding a strategy or two into your own life first. When we begin with ourselves, there is a ripple effect of healing that transforms individuals and communities. That healing begins with awareness.
Self-awareness is the way in which we know or understand ourselves. It includes recognizing our emotions and their effects, understanding our strengths and limitations, and connecting to our thoughts, beliefs, biases, actions, and physiology. When practiced regularly and approached without judgment, but instead with curiosity and openness, awareness can lead us to new learning, perspectives, and growth.
Awareness has also been shown to improve emotional regulation, increase positive mood, reduce stress and anxiety, increase empathy, and promote cognitive flexibility. (Those all sound like things I’d like to see improve in my life!) As we develop and strengthen our awareness of self and the environment around us, we become better equipped to recognize and navigate changes of mood, stress, or emotions in the early stages.
These skills benefit students as well as teachers in fact, in her book, Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom (The Norton Series on the Social Neuroscience of Education), Patricia A. Jennings tells us that awareness practices may even, “help teachers overcome the tendency toward emotional reactivity in response to student behavior that contributes to emotional exhaustion and burnout.” (p.17) The bottom line is that without awareness we don’t have regulation and without regulation, we don’t have a compassionate presence for ourselves or those around us.
Beginning with the adults in the building, we can build self-awareness in a couple of ways. A fantastic tool is a simple line. After watching the quick video below you will be able to assess your brain state, without judgment, as either above or below the line.
This simple line can be a great assessment of the individual mindset or the overall brain state of the collective group. You might put a line up on the whiteboard of your next staff meeting and allow attendees to place a post-it note either above or below giving insight into the overall mood of the group. This might be used for students as well as a way to indicate to their teachers their brain state while also developing their self-awareness.
Skills to Reduce Stress
As self-awareness is developing, start talking about stress! Talk about animals’ stress responses. Explain the fight, flight, or freeze responses. Ask your students what stress feels like to them. Teaching them to understand the ways in which stress impacts them physically, cognitively, and emotionally empowers them to take control of their bodies.
It is important to note that students may vary greatly in their emotional literacy. You may have young students who can identify when they are feeling discouraged, annoyed, frustrated, embarrassed, hopeful, etc. and have an older student showing up with a mask of anger.
Sensations are the language of the body so start there! This fabulous sensations and feelings wheel is a great visual for beginning this process. For students who are able to name basic emotions but struggle to dive deeper, keep this visual handy as well!
Meet the child where they are without shame and help them to approach their sensations and emotions with openness and curiosity. With awareness comes the understanding that emotions are neither good nor bad. They are indicators of our lived experience and when we listen to them we are able to move through them. You may notice that some of your students struggle with being “stuck” in a feeling and unable to move through. Read on to help them work through that stuckness!
Drawing may be especially beneficial to those students who are feeling stuck in an emotion or are unable to name or identify what is happening in their bodies. Drawing is a safe and playful approach to regulating the nervous system.
We have seen mindful coloring books, marketed to kids and adults alike, as tools to calm stressed brains for years now. I, personally, find those to be more stressful than restful but that is the beauty of trying, teaching, and practicing a variety of approaches.
I have seen beautiful transformations in teenagers with depression or anxiety who utilize a sketchbook as their outlet. The creative process allows them to safely bypass their logical brain and access their intuitive selves.
Beyond independent drawing, activities such as drawing your feelings, drawing your breath, or even drawing your sensations can be quick morning work activities that promote awareness and regulation.
The Center for Mind Body Medicine utilizes an incredibly powerful drawing activity that can help with awareness, problem identification, and even instilling hope! It involves a series of three drawings.
Start by taking a few deep breaths before each one. Then, draw whatever comes to you as you consider the following:
- Draw yourself as you are now, in this moment.
- Draw yourself with your biggest problem. Whatever comes to you – just go with it. First thought, best thought.
- Draw yourself with your biggest problem solved.
Try it a few times on your own and see what your intuitive wisdom reveals to you. These surprisingly simple strategies can be quite eye-opening!
Journaling, like drawing, might help students get “unstuck.” There are many options when considering this approach. Stream of consciousness, the use of prompts, or even two-word brain state check-ins are simple, quick ways to bring the students’ attention to the present moment.
Shared journaling gives students the opportunity to safely share with you things that may be weighing heavily on them that they may not be ready to say aloud. In fact, Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, expressed in a recent podcast with Brene Brown that it was a shared journal with a teacher that was instrumental in shaping her and allowing her to safely share a truth she hadn’t been able to share before. I found that story encouraging as I considered the power of the simple act of allowing my students and clients to express themselves vulnerably through this seemingly simple act of journaling.
Another way to encourage awareness and regulation is to ask students to personify an emotion, symptom, or sensation and engage in a dialogue. For example, name your anxiety “Annie” and spend five minutes talking with her. This type of exercise separates the symptom from the individual and returns the power to change to the author. After practicing a few times it becomes easier and you or your students may find they’ve had the answers within all along.
Finally, I can’t talk about self-regulation without mentioning breathing exercises! Breath is the gentlest way to engage the parasympathetic nervous system or calming system. When asked what small change to make in a classroom or individual practice, I always recommend starting with three deep cleansing breaths.
This can be done school-wide over the announcements each morning and each afternoon. It can be done in times of transition or just when you notice early signs of a dysregulated group! Trace your breath in circles, squares, or stars. Breathe in confidence, breathe out fear. There are countless quick ways to bring breathwork into your daily life!
Stress is inevitable and, at times, even helpful. Developing skills to understand stress, and address adversity creates healthier educators, learners, and plays a big part in creating safe, enjoyable conditions for learning. I can’t stress enough (pun intended) that it begins with us. We can’t give to our students or our children what we can’t give to ourselves.
Choose a new skill to practice each week. Commit to five or ten minutes and notice how you feel. Introduce these ideas into your classroom in the same way – think small steps for big changes. Tie new activities to existing habits. Start by taking three deep breaths every time students move to a new seat or pull out a new book.
For some, you may notice improvement quickly; but, for most, the shift may happen slowly – as most lasting change does. Be patient, trust the process, celebrate wins big and small! “I noticed you named your emotions!” “I saw you take a big deep breath when you were frustrated!” Praising the process will encourage continued practice.
Finally, ask for help – these skills are beautiful in that they can be preventative as well as intervening; however, for a student who is carrying such a significant amount of stress that they are unable to engage in group awareness or regulatory practices, reach out to your school counselors, social workers, parents, or community mental health partners to find a more targeted or individualized approach for them.
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