The press to have students catch up in their learning is a current source of stress for many students. They also feel our stress to have them progress at a rate that puts them back on track. The pressure can feel even greater if major exams and graduation are coming into view.
Meanwhile, life at school is still not what students were accustomed to prior to the pandemic. This has been a year of unpredictability, disruption, and distractions. At the same time, many students are facing stress in other areas of their lives. Uncertainty about the future can add to the “weight” they feel.
Of course, we know that some level of stress can help students focus their energy and do their best work. However, when stress becomes intense and extended, it can have a negative effect on learning and mental and physical health. For many students, the latter state has been their experience for too long.
For some students, the intensity and longevity of the stress they are experiencing means they need more intensive assistance to understand and manage the stress they are experiencing. When we suspect this is the case, we need to connect these students with a school counselor or other professional who can help them. For students who are feeling stressed but just need strategies and reminders to keep them moving forward, there are several ideas we can offer. Here are eight suggestions you can share.
First, students can transform a long list of obligations and expectations into a more manageable form by creating a “to do” list. This time-tested strategy works as well today as it did generations ago. Students can start by listing the tasks they need to complete, assigning priorities and timelines, and focusing on those tasks that may be most urgent and important to their progress.
Second, students can make the best use of their time and energy by creating a schedule for each day and week. Deciding how to use time rather than allowing time to pass uncaptured can make a big difference. Seeing what can be accomplished with the time available can provide a sense of control and confidence that can be lost in the face of anxiety and worry.
Third, students can avoid falling farther behind and adding to their stress by focusing on the moment. Physical presence is important, but mental presence – listening, focusing, and reflecting – helps to process current content and move learning forward. Spending learning time contemplating other obligations and stressors will likely add to the stress students already feel.
Fourth, students can consider breaking projects and tasks into manageable segments and creating incentives for reaching key milestones, such as finishing the reading of a chapter or completing a written assignment. Celebrating even small accomplishments can provide a sense of control and release endorphins that can generate additional momentum.
Fifth, students who habitually over commit can lessen their stress by setting realistic expectations. Not everything will be perfect. Some mistakes and setbacks may occur. Taking a realistic view of what is possible and doable can help students let go of what may be adding stress but is beyond reach under current circumstances.
Sixth, students can counter stress by engaging in regular exercise. As little as 30 minutes of exercise can contribute to a sense of well-being, improve the quality of sleep, and reduce feelings of anxiety.
Seventh, students can balance their academic focus by enjoying some “down time.” Mental breaks can be reenergizing and lead to more effectiveness and efficiency when students return their attention to schoolwork. Rest and socialization can be powerful counterbalances to exhaustion and burnout.
Eighth, students can push back feelings of stress by practicing good sleeping habits. Getting plenty of sleep time is important, but the quality of sleep also matters. Students should avoid doing schoolwork in bed, if possible. The quality of sleep can be enhanced by avoiding activities that involve screen time just before going to sleep. If falling asleep is a challenge, students can practice relaxation techniques such as tensing and then relaxing muscles throughout their body.
Ninth, when students feel especially anxious or stressed when performing academic tasks, they can often find relief by practicing deep breathing. Just expelling air can help to calm panic and relieve momentary stress. Similarly, brief meditation and mindfulness activities can help to clear the mind and refocus attention.
Obviously, we want our students to be able manage the stress they encounter. Stress will likely be with them in some form throughout their lives. The better able they are to manage their stress, the more success they can achieve.
Of course, we, too, are facing significant stress in our work and lives. The same strategies we share with our students can also be a part of our stress management routine.