Educators like me will not be surprised at the results of a survey conducted by the Association of School and College Leaders, in which 55% of schools reported an increase in stress and anxiety among their pupils.
The pupils I work with to help prepare for exams frequently display signs of stress, despite often not realising this is what they’re suffering from.
Aside from a whole host of emotions that young people would rather not be experiencing, stress and anxiety have a significant impact on the brain’s ability to process, learn and retain information. Stressed students don’t make the most effective learners and this creates a negative cycle that we must work to prevent.
We may not be able to solve every problem, but we can help support students to be resilient, face challenges head on, and harness stress rather than let it overwhelm them.
1. Improve understanding
Stress is a big part of normal daily life. It is a challenge we all face, and the body’s natural response to a threat or danger.
Learning about its cognitive, emotional, physical and behavioural symptoms – such as the inability to concentrate, rapid heartbeat, nausea, a sense of loneliness, short-temper, eating too much or not enough – will make it easier for students to recognise the signs in themselves. This, in turn, can help empower them to seek support or advice and remain in control.
Show students that a little bit of stress can be a stimulus and motivator for action by encouraging them to drive this energy into something positive and productive. Help them set realistic, timely, and step–by–step targets for their work or revision. In my class, when pupils saw they could master small challenges it helped build their confidence, allowing them to tackle bigger issues with more gusto.
2. Teach the science
Knowing the science can help normalise what students are experiencing and help diminish the stigma around mental health.
During childhood and adolescence, the brain goes through lots of change because it is highly malleable. Adolescence is triggered by the release of the protein kisspeptin into the brain. This affects the amygdala, which is the control centre for our emotions, making feelings more intense. This is why there is an increase in impulsive, emotional and emotive reactions during the teenage years.
Looking at the science is not to diminish any stress, worry or anguish a child is going through; it should help teenagers get past initial negative emotional reactions so they can start using their prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making, when making choices.
3. Encourage mistakes
Our brain develops when we make and think about a mistake. It is an integral part of the learning process, but many students are terrified of slipping up. So it’s important we show them that failing isn’t necessary a bad thing.
Explain why mistakes are important, encourage mistakes when giving work, and show students how they can improve by prompting them to ask reflective questions such as: What could I have done better? What could I do differently? What worked well?
4. Don’t pass the pressure on
Headteacher John Tomsett writes on his blog This Much I Know, “With a high-stakes terminal examination system, headteachers can sometimes pass on the pressure to subject leaders, who pass it on to their colleagues, who pass it on to their students, who then can worry their poor parents silly. We need to prevent that.”
It’s important that we refrain from passing on any of our own stress, and that we encourage a positive mindset in our students.
5. Practise mindfulness
Mindfulness is thought to have many benefits for adults and children alike. At a school in the US, detention has been replaced with mindful meditation – the results have been significant with improved attendance and behaviour.
The value of mindfulness is backed up by a study on US Marines preparing for deployment. This found that those who attended mindfulness training and practised mindfulness exercises such as focused breathing had improved moods and working memory.
Hours of meditation isn’t possible in the average school, but when I was teaching I would start the lesson with a one-minute breathing exercise or task students to close their eyes and listen to every sound they could possibly hear for 30 seconds. I found it helped to calm students and bring their focus into the moment, to me and to the lesson.
6. Look after yourself
The 2015 Education Sector Health Survey showed that 84% of participants who worked in education had suffered from some form of mental health problem in the last two years. Of those, 77% experienced stress, 60% anxiety and 38% depression.
We always, rightly, put our students first but this makes it easy to forget our own wellbeing. The best way we can show students how to manage stress and anxiety is to show them by role-modelling positive behaviour.
Put down the phone, take a break from work, spend time with family, be in the moment, reflect on mistakes and strive to improve. Celebrate being the imperfect human being you are and don’t be afraid to reveal this to students. They can’t be what they can’t see.