How to Improve Student Mental Health by Keeping Stress Positive
Over 10% of U.S. children ages 3 to 17 are diagnosed with anxiety or depression.
As a fifth-year teacher, the longer I teach, the more I realize how impactful stress is on students. Teachers and parents need to learn how to teach their kids how to recognize and reduce stress.
Students feel stress at home and at school. If stress is not managed correctly, it can result in anxiety, depression, or behavior problems. I firmly believe teachers and schools should do what they can to minimize negative stressors on students.
Types of Stress
Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child has done extensive research on the types of stress students face. The three types of stress they talk about are positive, tolerable, and toxic stress.
Positive stress can motivate students to push themselves and grow. For example, good stress could happen for a student who has a homework assignment due tomorrow. The student knows they have all the tools and support they need to complete the task, and their positive stress motivates them to sit down and get the homework done.
Tolerable stress is more severe than positive stress but regularly occurs in life. This stress can have to do with a difficult event but will go away in a short time. For example, the first day of a new school year often brings students tolerable stress. Before the first day, their sleeping or eating patterns may be impacted, and they might feel on edge in anticipation of a new school year. But, this type of stress goes away once the student starts going to school.
Toxic stress occurs when a child experiences prolonged adversity. Toxic stress is the worst kind of stress and can have adverse mental and physical health outcomes. Examples of this are physical or emotional abuse and other traumatic events in life. At school, it could result from bullying or even academic pressures.
Mental Health of Students
It is common in schools for students to feel overwhelmed. Some students shut down and refuse to do work. Others avoid their work by skipping class.
According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and their series titled “Children’s Mental Health.” As of 2016, the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in U.S. children ages 3–17 are attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), behavior problems, anxiety, and depression.
- ADHD 9.4% (approximately 6.1 million).
- Behavior Problem 7.4% (approximately 4.5 million).
- Anxiety 7.1% (approximately 4.4 million).
- Depression 3.2% (approximately 1.9 million).
Some of the above conditions commonly occur together. For example, a student diagnosed with ADHD is more likely to be diagnosed with a behavior problem, anxiety, or depression.
2016 data shows that over 10% of U.S. children ages 3 to 17 are diagnosed with anxiety or depression. What is worse is that both anxiety and depression have become more common in students over time.
Millions of students are diagnosed with mental health disorders, but I can’t help but wonder how many students suffering go undiagnosed.
Keeping Stress Positive
In life, stress is unavoidable. As students learn and grow, they encounter more stressors. It is important to teach them how to deal with new stressors so they can reach their potential.
Jerome Shultz, Ph.D., a Clinical Neuropsychologist, has done extensive work on good stress vs. bad stress in kids. He says about kids:
“You don’t want them to be stressless. You want them to be experiencing the amount of stress that allows them to be productive.”
He believes that monitoring the stress in kids is an important practice, and he recommends a few ways to do this.
- Have kids rate their stress on a task and talk about their stress with them.
- Work on their competence and confidence in stressful tasks.
- Ask kids how they reduce their stress and encourage them to do so.
In practice, the process is simple, but it takes knowing your student well. If they look like or express that they are struggling, do not ignore it. Ask them to rate the task on a scale of 1–10. If, for example, they say the task is an 8, start by asking what they think could make the task a 7. If that does not work, ask them how they can make the task a similar difficulty to a task you know they are comfortable with. After that, work on their skills related to the task. Break the task down into smaller steps to make it easier on them.
Kids usually have an idea of how to reduce their stress, but adults rarely think of asking them. Sometimes giving a student a break to have a snack or exercise is all they need. Some students benefit from music while they work or proper lighting.
Teaching kids to reduce stress in their own life is a vital life skill that they will use throughout their life.
Minimizing Stress in Schools
As a society, we need to do everything in our power not to add negative stressors to our kids in school. Students feel varying levels of stress at home, so any stress added at school should be purposeful.
A school should be able to foster a consistent environment and should eliminate undue stressors wherever possible. Every teacher and school should consider the following.
- Talking with students about their stress daily.
- Teaching students strategies to recognize and manage stress.
- Assigning homework only when essential.
- Using alternative assessments to traditional tests.
- Allowing multiple ways for students to participate in class.
- Allowing students unstructured time to go outside or take a break.
Stress is something we all feel, but too much stress on students can be toxic. Students experience stress at home and school and need to be taught strategies to deal with those stressors.
If we do not educate ourselves about the causes of stress and its dire impact on our children’s abilities to learn and succeed, we will not recognize it when it inevitably comes. And if we do not recognize student stress, we might end up adding to it as opposed to helping students overcome it.
Through education, strategies, and reducing undue stressors in schools, we can reverse the trend of increasing depression, anxiety, and behavior problems amongst students.