Self-Regulation: Helping Students Cope with School Stress and Anxiety

Stress and emotional management skills are some of the most important, yet least discussed elements of the teacher toolkit. Today’s students are faced with increasing pressure to perform better and achieve more. This, coupled with the unrealistic comparisons fed by social media, can make students feel stressed, anxious and like they’re never enough. Understanding anxiety can help teachers play a primary role in helping manage school stress. Here’s what educators should know about the impact of stress, emotional management and how to create a safe, stress-free classroom.

Stress in the Classroom

Teachers have to manage their own stress levels before they can help students manage theirs. An anxious teacher trying to calm students may only make the situation worse. As Pat Donachie at Education Dive points out, teachers with higher stress levels showed less effective teaching strategies in studies starting from the beginning of the year.

Another study showed how few elementary teachers are low stress and high coping with low burnout rates. “It’s troubling that only 7 percent of teachers experience low stress and feel they are getting the support they need to adequately cope with the stressors of their job,” says Keith Herman, a professor in the College of Education at the University of Missouri.

Teachers with the highest levels of stress and lowest levels of coping and burnout led to worse learning outcomes for students.

This suggests that teacher stress levels have a direct impact on student success. Teachers need to create a self-care plan for managing their own stress in healthy ways. This is essential for creating a low-stress classroom environment where student stress is both understood and alleviated.

How Stress Affects Students

Stress affects everyone, including students, emotionally and physically. Levels of the stress hormone cortisol indicate how students deal with stress. Cortisol can be helpful in small, infrequent doses, causing a temporary increase in metabolism, memory function and cognitive ability, says Youki Terada at Edutopia. Students whose cortisol levels remain high, however, show a stress response that inhibit both problem solving and learning.

These students are experiencing chronic stress — and its negative effects. According to the staff at TeachThought, being chronically stressed affects a person’s ability to retain and recall new information, regardless of age. “A perpetual state of elevated cortisol levels, or even regular spikes in levels are damaging to the body in numerous ways, including impaired cognitive abilities,” they explain.

When the body is working hard to regulate cortisol spikes in the body, it also takes away from essential energy reserves. This means that students who are more stressed have less energy available to dedicate to learning. 

Researchers at Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child explain that early exposure to toxic stress can impact brain development. 

“The regions of the brain involved in fear, anxiety, and impulsive responses may overproduce neural connections while those regions dedicated to reasoning, planning, and behavioral control may produce fewer neural connections.”

This suggests that a child exposed to chronic and extremely stressful situations earlier in life may lack self-regulation and reasoning skills that are important for healthy participation in a classroom setting. Moreover, chronic stress causes the stress response system to kick into high gear throughout the day, “like revving a car engine for hours every day,” the researchers write.

This leads to long-term cortisol exposure, which can cause anxiety, depression, headaches, sleep problems and memory and concentration impairment, according to Mayo Clinic. It also changes the person’s stress system so that it is more reactive to everyday events, making them more prone to outbursts and temper tantrums.

school stress

School Stress, Anxiety and Self Regulation 

Many students who are disruptive in school struggle with undiagnosed anxiety. Not all teachers and staff members are trained to recognize the link between anxiety and behavioral issues, so these students are often punished rather than helped. 

“When a teacher understands the anxiety underlying the opposition, rather than making the assumption that the child is actively trying to make her miserable, it changes her approach,” says child psychiatrist Nancy Rappaport.

Understanding the critical link between stress and behavior can make a teacher better equipped to support students with self-regulation. An essential aspect of social and emotional learning, self-regulation is the ability to monitor thoughts, attention and emotion to better engage in activities and interact with other students, writes Portia Newman at Kickboard. Students who can learn to identify their emotions — and how those emotions influence their behavior — can choose more thoughtful actions.

Educating on Emotions

Teachers can incorporate emotional understanding and self-regulation into their lesson plans, says former primary teacher Elyse Rycroft. She adds that it’s critical for teachers to model examples of healthy stress management in the classroom. Instead of responding angrily to disappointment, for example, try taking a deep breath to show how to get centered.

You might also model emotional regulation by sharing your thought processes out loud, says special education authority James Stanfield, Ed.D. He suggests that teachers share what emotions they felt (such as anger), and how they felt like responding (yelling). Then they can explain that instead of reacting that way, they took a deep breath and took a more mindful action instead.

It’s positive, healthy and important to teach students the connections between emotions and feelings, says Lori Jackson, cofounder of The Connections Model, a social emotional learning edtech company. She suggests using real-world examples to make these connections stick. “For example, you might use an event like a thunderstorm to talk about how events can trigger certain behaviors (such as hiding under a blanket), which in turn can elicit an emotion (fear).” These examples can be fun and approachable, yet no less informative or meaningful.

Another helpful tool is The Alert Program, a self-regulation awareness program. This is designed to help young students change their alertness levels to make it easier to perform essential functions like learning, relaxing and socializing. It teaches that there is a difference in how alert and engaged someone should be in different situations, like at a football game versus going to bed. 

Teachers can use this program to help students learn how to self-regulate to get into an optimal state for learning. 

school stress

Mindfulness and Calm

Students who learn mindfulness early on in life may be better equipped to work through stressful experiences. According to fourth grade teacher Tori Dahlberg, an app called  Calm has been instrumental in helping her kids focus, control their emotions and adapt to different circumstances.

“Our school implemented mindfulness as part of our social and emotional curriculum about four years ago and since then, we’ve noticed that kids are much better able to regulate themselves.”

Younger students may also benefit from mindfulness tools being incorporated into the classroom. For example, kindergarten teacher Jennifer Evans uses mindfulness tools like bean bag chairs, squishy balls and books in her classroom. 

“We have found that more and more elementary students are coming to school with some form of anxiety, and this seemed like a way we could help them control that worrying,” she explains.

Working with the mindfulness tools helps students take ownership of their emotional regulation. Evans points out that she sees students go to the bean bag chair to de-stress during the day, even when they haven’t been asked to. 

These lessons don’t have to be limited to the classroom. In fact, school-wide mindfulness and meditation programs have seen great success, especially when teachers and parents are involved. Certified positive psychology life coach Caren Osten Gerszberg points out that mindfulness can change the culture of an entire school. Involving parents is important for ensuring that there isn’t confusion around religious teaching, as some people feel unsure about the link between meditation, yoga and Buddhism. 

Keeping the program strictly secular and can help all families, teachers and students feel comfortable adopting mindfulness practices. In turn, in-class emotional regulation teachings can have far-reaching effects on students, both at school and at home.

Images by: Jean-Paul Chassenet/©, Anna Grigorjeva/©, Cathy Yeulet/©

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