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The #1 Thing My Students Want Their Parents to Know: They’re Stressed (Opinion)

In preparation for an upcoming meeting of my school’s parent/teacher/student organization, I recently asked three of my most talented teachers to help me answer an important question: What do high schoolers wish their parents knew? After roughly 130 students weighed in, I was surprised to learn that the number one issue students wanted their parents to know was that they were highly stressed.

During the parent meeting, we discussed the various reasons why students discussed stress as a main concern in their lives. Answers varied: taking multiple Advanced Placement or advanced classes; participating in clubs, sports, and music programs; dealing with cyberbullying; and mentally preparing for the college-application experience.

After the meeting, I was left with this pit in my stomach about the emotional state of my students. How could I be part of the solution instead of being a bystander? I came to the realization that handling stress isn’t something that will come naturally to students, like blinking or breathing. Someone has to teach it to them. As great educators, we have to prepare our students for how to learn, not just what to learn.

When I think about teaching conceptually, I immediately remember one of my favorite poems. In “Teach Him Gently, If You Can,” Dan Valentine lists several concepts that the world will teach his son but requests that teachers also teach the son the more positive aspects of life.

During the course of my 27 years in education, I’ve personally found four strategies that can be taught “gently” to students to help them cope with stress. I believe that implementing even one of these basic strategies can make a world of difference in relieving the stress our students experience.

Movement

Several years ago, I participated in a shadow-a-student activity, where I followed a student through school for the day. One of the main takeaways was that students do not get enough movement during the day. Why does this matter? Consider how you feel after you drive in a vehicle for six hours. You may feel exhausted and depleted of energy, and that’s without having to exert any mental or emotional energy.

Now, combine those feelings with expectations for classroom performance. It is a recipe for burnout and underachievement, which is why we need to instill more movement in our classrooms.

It can be as basic as changing an oral multiple-choice question to asking students to move to a corner that corresponds with the letter choice they think is correct (i.e., if you think A is correct, move to this corner, if you think B is correct, move to that corner, etc.).

There are several other (more elaborate) ways to incorporate movement, so principals should encourage teachers to be the experts they are and try something new with movement.

Academic conversations

During a recent training about enhancing the services we provide to students who speak English as a second language, this strategy clicked for me. I used to prioritize access, thinking that getting English learners in the class with English-speaking students was the primary goal. However, at this training, I was reminded of the other part of the formula: getting students to have academic conversations about what they were learning. Being in the class and silent was not helping them learn English as much as it would if they were having conversations about what they were learning.

This is true for all students, including those with language deficits, disabilities, or other conditions that leave them reticent about volunteering in class. In terms of stress management, how are students supposed to process emotions and decompress if they sit in class silently for 60 or 90 minutes at a time? It is important for them to communicate with their peers and teachers as a form of stress relief, making interpersonal connections, and engaging with the content being taught. These skills help build a confident learner, satisfying the needs of the whole child.

Trusted adults

My school’s leadership team works hard to make sure every student has a trusted adult at school, someone who they can go to when they have a challenging situation to handle. It is no surprise that students, especially at the high school level, often turn to others outside their home when they are dealing with complicated feelings. We must be available and sensitive to our students’ needs.

Relationships take time, so I encourage each of you to be the type of teacher and administrator that you would want for your child. For some, this skill of building relationships comes naturally. For other educators, you will have to work at it, but our students are worth it.

The art of the redo

A teacher I know allows students to redo all major assignments, regardless of the first grade earned. She shared that this practice makes them more relaxed and confident. Does it create more work for this teacher? Not necessarily.

Some new assessment programs can tell the students which answer is wrong but not tell them the correct answer. Teachers can then allow them to go back and try it again, if needed. Many students just enjoy and appreciate the option to get back up and try again and learn from mistakes if needed. After all, the goal is learning, not seeing how tough we can make it.

When students know they have a second chance to show what they’ve learned, it decreases their anxiety significantly. The focus needs to be on the fact that they learned the content, not how many times it took them to learn the material.

Students are dealing with unimaginable stressors, both in quantity and severity. Many need help with learning how to effectively manage them. Educators and parents should partner to help students identify effective and positive ways to deal with their stress. If we don’t step in, someone else may. And that individual might not have the child’s best interest at heart. Let’s be the first to teach our young people but remember to do so gently.

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