Stress and the Classroom

May 10th, 2017

It’s finals week. As you walk down the halls or sit in the library, the sense of fear, worry, and doom that hangs over campus is almost tangible. Even professors can be heard expressing their displeasure at the amount of grading they need to complete before a given deadline. A quick scroll through social media helps articulate what everyone on campus seems to be experiencing: Stress.

Stress is a part of life. Many of us are exposed to some level of stress on a daily basis. However, even though stress is a very common part of life, we are rarely taught healthy ways to manage and cope with the stress in our lives. At the beginning of the semester, we discussed homework and the fact that many students say homework is stressful or that outside stress factors prohibit them from completing homework. Therefore, as teachers, we often find ourselves competing with internal and external stress factors in a student’s life as we try to teach them in our classrooms. In this post, I would like to discuss some of the stress and anxiety students face inside and outside of the classroom and ways students can cope with this stress and anxiety.

In the textbook, anxiety is described as “a general uneasiness, or feelings of tension” (Woolfolk, 2014, p. 503). Anxiety can also be a trait or a state. For example, you may experience a level of anxiety in a traffic jam, doing homework, or completing your daily chores. This describes trait anxiety, or anxiety in many situations. On the other hand, you may experience a heightened level of anxiety when taking a test. This is state anxiety, because the situation is especially anxiety provoking (Woolfolk, 2014, p. 503).

As it relates to motivation and instruction, students who are experiencing stress or anxiety in the classroom often struggle to focus their attention in order to learn. For example, if a student’s parents are arguing at home or if a student has a test in the next class, the student may find their mind constantly drawn to worry and dwell on the topic that is causing them stress instead of retaining the information being conveyed in the classroom.

In the study, “Stress, stressors ad coping among high school students”, conducted on tenth and eleventh grade students in the Los Angeles area, researchers found the that following were the most prevalent stressors in a students’ life. Students rated these as things that cause them stress often or very often.

Stressor Percentage
Future life plans 64.6
Own expectations about career 64.5
Own expectations about school 59.8
Tests 59.1
Grades 58.5
Homework 53.7
Not having enough time 51.7
Not letting feelings out 50.2
Pressure from parents about responsibility 50.0
Violence 48.6
(de Anda, et al., 2000)

 

A quick glance at this table shows that the top seven stressors are either directly or indirectly related to school. As a teacher, the number of students who rated violence as a significant stressor in their life is something I also find disconcerting. When thinking back on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, if students don’t have their basic needs for safety met, it can be hard for students to move to satisfy higher level of needs. In the learning environment, if students don’t feel safe, then they might also find themselves in a constant “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. This state of anxiety regarding their safety could pose a real problem in the classroom. As teachers, how do we combat very real anxiety in the classroom?

In the textbook, it discusses three coping strategies: problem-focused self-regulating strategies, emotion-focused strategies, and avoidance strategies (Woolfolk, 2014, p. 504). These strategies can be beneficial or maladaptive, depending on the situation. For example, when it comes to completing homework, it would be harmful or maladaptive when the stressor is homework, but it might be beneficial when the stressor is drug or alcohol use. Students need to be able to identify coping strategies that will be beneficial for them depending on the situation. Unfortunately, in the previous study, “students who experienced the highest levels of stress tended to employ maladaptive coping strategies with higher frequency than their cohorts and, more important, to view them as effective when employed” (de Anda, et al., 2000, p. 457).

In two more recent studies, researchers have tried to implement programs to help train students to relax and manage stress. The first study, “Integrating a relaxation response-based curriculum into a public high school in Massachusetts” involved having students participate in workshops during school hours, and go online to participate in guided meditations to promote relaxation. The study reported that “Although students reported being engaged in the classroom trainings, the assigned online home practice of the RR was not well utilized… 82% of students only logged in 0–1 times”. They were asked to log in once a day, every day, for 4 weeks (Foret, et al., 2012). However, this study also found that students did use other informal relaxation response practices, such as taking deep breaths before an exam, outside of the classroom trainings (Foret, et al., 2012). One of the limits acknowledged by this study was that only a percentage of students participated and may have felt peer pressure to do other things instead of the relaxation response techniques.

The study I found most interesting was “The DeStress for Success Program: Effects of a stress education program on cortisol levels and depressive symptomatology in adolescents making the transition to high school”. This study was conducted on almost an entire school and was compared against a nearby control school with similar demographics. This program involves not only stress management techniques, but also teaches students how to proactively identify possible stressors using the acronym NUTS (Novelty, Unpredictability, Threat to the ego, and Sense of control). It measured the success of the stress management techniques by taking saliva samples and measuring the cortisol (stress hormone) levels of the students before, during, and after the program. The study concluded that “transferring scientific knowledge from the laboratory to the classroom can have significant positive effects on both cortisol levels and depressive symptoms in those adolescents who suffer the most during the transition to high school” (Lupien, et al., 2013). The DeStress for success program utilizes the coping strategies discussed earlier, but includes more in depth breakdowns and examples.

As a future teacher, I think it will be important for me to recognize that my students are experiencing a lot of stress inside and outside of my classroom. The Centre for Studies on Human Stress website (the center that developed the DeStress for Success program) includes helpful resources and ideas for helping teach students how to cope with success. In order to promote learning in my classroom and help students become motivated to learn.

For more information on stress and stress management, visit the following website for the Centre for Studies on Human Stress. http://www.humanstress.ca/

 References

de Anda, D., Baroni, S., Boskin, L., Buchwald, L., Morgan, J., Ow, J., . . . Weiss, R. (2000). Stress, stressors and coping among high school                students. Children and Youth Services Review, 441-463.

Foret, M. M., Scult, M., Wilcher, M., Chudnofsky, R., Malloy, L., Hasheminejad, N., & Park, E. R. (2012). Integrating a relaxation response-               based curriculum into a public high school in Massachusetts. Journal of Adolescence, 325-332.

Lupien, S. J., Oueleet-Morin, I., Trepanier, L., Juster, R., Marin, M., Francois, N., . . . Plusquellec, P. (2013). The DeStress for Success                        Program: Effects of a stress education program on cortisol levels and depressive symptomatology in adolescents making the                                 transition to high school. Neuroscience, 74-87.

Woolfolk, A. (2014). Educational Psychology. Upper Saddle River: Pearson.

 

 

 


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