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Sep 14, 2021

10 Strategies to Combat Stress in the Classroom

We could all use some go-to strategies for managing the stress in our lives right now. Here are 10 ideas for how to handle the stress responses in your classroom.

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Would you say you’ve been stressed over the last year and a half? Can you name a time in the last 18 months when you weren’t stressed? How long did that last?

In August 2020, the American Psychological Association (APA) surveyed 3,409 adults and 1,026 teenagers (ages 13-17) about their stress during the year up until that point. [1] Health care, mass shootings, climate change, increasing suicide rates, immigration, sexual harassment, and the opioid epidemic continued to make the list of significant stressors just like in previous years. The difference this year was: 78% also named the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their life.

Everything that was stressful about life before March 2020 continues to be stressful, only now it’s all happening within a global health crisis that doesn’t come with an end date.

With all this stress laying heavy all around, it’s bound to make its way into your classrooms – whether you invited it or not. So, let’s talk about it.

What Is Stress?

The best definition for stress that I found comes from the Mental Health Foundation. They define stress as, “our body’s response to pressure…often triggered when we experience something new, unexpected or that threatens our sense of self, or when we feel we have little control over a situation.”

The National Institute of Mental Health adds another important detail to that definition. They say there are three types of stress:

  • Routine stress related to the pressures of school, work, family, and daily responsibilities.
  • Stress brought about by a sudden negative change.
  • Traumatic stress experienced during an event such as a major accident, war, assault, or natural disaster where people may be in danger of being seriously hurt or killed. [2]

Here I was thinking I was one kind of stressed, when I’ve actually been stuck in a stress-level trifecta.

We all are…and we’re each responding in our own ways.

What’s Your Stress Response: Fight, Flight, or Freeze?

Typically, our stress response takes one of three (or four or five depending on the model you look at) forms.

Fight

The stress shows up and you get to work. You go on the offensive, proactively tackling the problem head on. When you’re a fighter under stress, you might:

  • Literally want to fight someone
  • Start cracking jokes
  • Scream
  • Aggressively act out

In the classroom, a fight response might look like disruption, defiance, disrespect, inappropriate language, or fighting.

Flight

Where some people run toward the problem, you actively avoid it and retreat to a safer space. When you’re a flighter, you might:

  • Run away
  • Skip out on responsibilities
  • Fall asleep
  • Work on something unrelated to the problem you need to solve
  • Actively avoid other people

In the classroom, common flight responses might involve issues with attendance like skipping class or being tardy.

Freeze

When the pressure gets to be too much, you shut it out and pretend it isn’t happening. The same way a deer will stand completely still while a car’s headlights come straight at it, if you don’t respond to the problem maybe it’ll go away. If you’re a freezer, you might

  • Stop responding to questions
  • Keep quiet
  • Refuse to ask for help

Freeze behaviors might not result in a referral, so noticing them when they happen in class requires diligent attention on your part. While you’re paying attention to your students, watch out for your freeze responses, too. Notice when you’re spending a significant portion of your team meeting admiring some problem-venting about a problem rather than working to solve it; that’s a freeze-type response. 

We rely on these stress responses as a form of survival, to keep ourselves safe in a dangerous situation. They work great when the dangers come quickly and last a relatively short amount of time – like when you hear aloud noise in a quiet space or it’s the night before a paper is due and you’re staring at a blank page. (Hi, my name is Megan and I’m a procrastinator.) So, what happens when the stressful situation goes on and on? Without an off switch, our stress becomes chronic and wreaks havoc on our physical and mental health.

When Chronic Stress Meets the Classroom Setting

Students are not immune to the stressors of this moment. Remember that survey from the APA? Just over half of teens surveyed (51%) said it’s impossible to plan for their future. Not only is that sentence hard to read, it’s also reflective of a freeze response. Because of the stress they’ve experienced over the last year and a half, your students might return to school:

  • Panicky or obsessive
  • Wanting to just get things over with
  • Afraid of looking stupid or making mistakes
  • Doubtful of their abilities [3]

That’s a lot to manage. You’re going to need some strategies for how to handle all of these fight, flight, and freeze responses.

Don’t worry. We’ve got some ideas. 10 of them to be exact.

1.    Establish Consistent Routines

Disrupted routines are a surefire way to ratchet up the stress in your life. Right now, your students might be dealing with the effects of job loss, food insecurity, displacement, or recovering from illness. Your classroom might be the one constant their lives. Lean into that. Provide consistent routines and teach them to everyone, like how to ask for help or how to let you know when they need a break. It’s possible the consistency you establish in your room will make them feel safe enough to leave a little of their stress at the door.

2.    Consider Motivation

Understanding why students do what they do is like finishing the edge pieces of a new puzzle – your work isn’t finished, but you sure do know where you want to focus your attention next. Instead of picking a random solution and hoping it sticks, spend a little time asking yourself, “What’s the motivation here?”. A good resource to check out as a beginner’s guide to understanding motivation is the free, online, self-guided training called The Basic FBA.

3.    Give Yourself Options

We love the folks over at the Midwest PBIS Network and their classroom practices page is a go-to whenever we’re looking for fresh ideas on how to handle behaviors that come up during the day. One of the strategies we come back to over and over is developing a continuum of response strategies. If you feel like your strategies for responding to student behavior in your classroom have gotten a little stale, check out their ideas and see if there are some new ones you can add to your repertoire.

4.    Document What Happened

This year, consider documenting the minor, classroom-managed behaviors happening in your room. In fact, if there are behaviors you might have sent students to the office for in the past, what would happen if you tried handling it as a minor first? Chronic stress is likely to play a big role in the behaviors you see in your room. Give students the benefit of the doubt and see if you can help them without sending them to the office. Then, document that interaction as a minor referral. Every minor referral you write gives your PBIS team one more piece of information about what’s happening in your room and gets everyone the support they need just a little faster.

5.    Start Moving

Every article you read about managing stress suggests exercise. Moving our bodies reduces stress hormones and stimulates endorphins. It quite literally is a stress fighter and mood lifter. Perfect! I know what you’re thinking. “Megan, there isn’t enough square footage in my classroom or time in my day to incorporate calisthenics into my lesson plans.” I know. But, what if you made it ok for students to walk around the room sometimes? What about offering active seating options like wobble seats? Encouraging movement in your class gets the blood moving and adds one more way to combat stress.

6.    Check In And...

Your students may not seek you out when they’re feeling low. So, incorporate a classroom-wide check-in strategy as one of your consistent daily routines. There are lots of way to do this.

  • Daily online check-in forms are another private, quick way to gauge the overall emotions in your room. Offer a separate form for when anyone is experiencing something urgent.
  • Create a classroom advisory panel called a “cogen” to open up space for regular feedback.
  • Notice opportunities to discretely ask individual students how they’re doing.  

7.    …Check Out

In our conversation with Saki Malose on Expert Instruction, she shared a classroom management strategy called WOW where the last W stands for “Wrapping up with intention”. Move beyond your default routine of cleaning up your space, gathering your things, and heading out. Create an intentional space for reflection where students can feel supported before they transition out of the classroom.  

8.    Take a Break

Sometimes all anyone needs is a quick break to regroup and try again. Why not provide that opportunity in your classroom. Make taking breaks a classroom-wide option. Let students know they can ask for a break when they need one and show them what a break looks like in your room. Let everyone know there will come a time when you ask someone to take a break and that suggestion isn’t a punishment. Normalize breaks as a way to take some space and come back ready to learn.

9.    Look For the Strong Silent Types

Sometimes someone’s stress response is so quiet it would go unnoticed if you weren’t actively paying attention. Throughout the day take a scan of the room.

  • Who hasn’t answered questions today?
  • Who hasn’t turned in their assignments in the last couple of days?
  • Which students do you notice looking out the window instead of at the board?
  • When it’s time to partner up, who doesn’t immediately start asking other students if they want to partner with them?

When you notice someone checking off one or more of these boxes day after day, it might be time for one of those discrete check-ins.

10.  Use Your Senses

Grounding is a strategy some use when they feel anxious or panicky. It’s pulls your attention into the present moment rather than letting it wander through the pressures you’re under. One grounding technique is called the 5-4-3-2-1 method. Using this method, you force yourself to acknowledge:

  • 5 things you see around you
  • 4 things you can touch
  • 3 things you hear
  • 2 things you can smell
  • 1 thing you can taste

The important part of this exercise is to bring awareness to where you are and remind yourself you’re in control. Incorporating the whole exercise might not be appropriate in your classroom (although, maybe it is if you have snacks), but you can look for ways to ask students questions about their physical space – Where do you see examples of right angles in our room? Write a haiku about the way your pencil feels in your hand. Open a window and have students name three things they hear outside then write a math problem that incorporates two of those sounds.

The last 18 months have been stressful — relentlessly so at times. Our minds and our bodies are not equipped to handle long-term fight, flight, or freeze responses. Eventually, something gives and our response becomes less than graceful. When that happens in your classroom, remember that investing in the relationships you have with students, creating consistent routines, and having a continuum of classroom-level responses available will set everyone up to feel supported and safe even in the most stressful time.

[1] American Psychological Association (2020). Stress in America: A national mental health crisis. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/sia-mental-health-crisis.pdf.
[2] National Institute of Mental Health. 5 Things You Should Know About Stress [Fact Sheet]. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress.
[3] Jacob Ham (2017, July 17). Understanding Trauma: Learning Brain vs SurvivalBrain [Video]. YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KoqaUANGvpA
Megan Cave

About

Megan Cave

Megan Cave is a member of the PBISApps Marketing and Communication team. She is the writer behind the user manuals, scripted video tutorials, and news articles for PBISApps. She also writes a monthly article for Teach by Design and contributes to its accompanying Expert Instruction podcast episode. Megan has completed four half marathons – three of which happened unintentionally – and in all likelihood, will run another in the future.