How to Relieve Stress: A Quick Guide for Educators

Before we discuss how to relieve stress, you might consider checking out our article on the causes of stress if you haven’t already!

In summary, there are four primary causes of stress, which we can use as a springboard for considering how to relieve stress in the classroom. The four causes are:

  • Novelty
  • Unpredictability
  • Harm (to body or ego)
  • Lack of control

So our first strategy is as simple and straightforward as using these four criteria as a lens by which you can identify and alleviate stressors. As a professional and as a human being, consider where these elements lie in your life. If you’re able to identify a particular task or responsibility as especially stressful, use this framework to determine what exactly is stressful about it. (Why, exactly, are you dreading those meetings? What is it about the stack of ungraded work on your desk that’s actually stressing you out?) The causes of stress will vary for everyone, even when considering the same scenarios, but once you have identified the root, you’ll be far better equipped to address it. 

This same framework and thought exercise can be used when thinking about how to relieve stress for students. Examine an assignment, project, or classroom practice using these elements. Ask yourself:

  • Is this novel? 
    • Novelty is often a catalyst for engagement — especially if you’re able to bring in some new digital tool, game, or classroom practice that students find new and exciting.  But by the same token, novelty can evoke stress.  This effect is heightened when the stakes are high, e.g. new content on a big exam.  And yes, while some stress can enhance performance, too much of it can be toxic.  
    • Consider a new unit you might be starting next week.  The content is new in that students haven’t learned it yet.  If this prompts a healthy stress response that looks like students cracking their knuckles and getting to work, great.  But if the stress response looks like avoidance, not showing up for class, and not completing any of the assigned work — that’s a problem.
    • The easiest way to diffuse stress that stems from novelty is simply to make it less novel.  We all know the importance of activating prior knowledge when it comes to making new connections and building stronger, more durable learning — but prior knowledge is also a great remedy to counteract any negative effects associated with newness.  Help students to facilitate these connections on their own (“What does this discussion format remind you of?” / “Where have you seen a formula like this before?”), or make those connections explicit yourself (“Remember when we read Animal Farm? Well this is going to be a lot like that, just a bit longer”).
    • Sometimes, novelty can feel inevitable, like when thinking about a student’s first days in a new school building, or the novelty of a high stakes testing environment — but these effects, too, can be dulled.  Holding a summer tour for incoming freshmen can do wonders for incoming 9th graders’ mental health.  Likewise, there are a host of benefits associated with recreating a high stakes testing environment prior to the real deal — meaning lower stress levels and higher test scores on test day.
    • I recently had the opportunity to participate in a workshop with military personnel on the use of games and simulations for training new marines, and this exact practice came up — albeit we were discussing the stresses of war and battle, rather than the stresses of an Algebra I test.  (Interesting to think that regardless of the cause, whether it’s poverty or pressure to excel from wealthy parents, whether it’s bullets or AP Bio, the amygdala does its job and the body reacts more or less the same way — with stress and all the associated chemicals, feelings, and effects.)  One of the officers in the workshop shared that General Mattis was insistent that new troops should not experience feelings of novelty when engaging in their first missions, or engaging with the enemy for the first time.  The logic of using immersive simulations in the military is simple, but when considering the workings of stress, the science is sound, too.   
  • Is it unpredictable?
    • Similar to novelty, unpredictability is often associated with an especially engaging class.  At its best, this might remind us of students chattering before the start of class, asking each other eagerly, “What on earth does he have in store for us today?”  But it’s typically not the unpredictability that students are enthusiastic about — rather, it’s the string of engaging lessons that leaves them excited for more.
    • When it comes to stress, unpredictability in the classroom manifests itself as an assignment with unclear instructions, a project without a rubric, or uncertainty about a teacher’s mood.  So, to be sure, in thinking about how to relieve stress, these are the best paths forward.
    • Never keep your students guessing about the learning objective or intended learning outcomes.  Always make your instructions as clear and thorough as possible, and provide ample opportunities for Q&A.  Use rubrics and clear grading criteria everywhere that you can.  And always meet your students with respect, positivity, and optimism. 
    • That said, there are surely instances when a little unpredictability might be part of your game plan.  There’s a body of work in game-based learning that focuses on the use of alternate reality games in class — and while the learning experience can be both immersive and profound, the associated uncertainties can be stressful, too.  The answer isn’t necessarily to trash alternate reality games, but it’s important to keep a pulse on student well being, and to keep your ethics in check.
  • How might this be perceived as threatening?
    • Note that the question is not, “Is this assignment or learning task threatening?” because the stress response isn’t about whether or not a situation is actually threatening.  Rather, it’s all about perception — and so it can be incredibly helpful to think about the various scenarios in which the learning task in question might be considered “a threat.”  In thinking about how to relieve stress, this lens can be incredibly helpful.
    • Let’s try this together with a relatively popular activity — “popcorn reading.”  (If you aren’t familiar with popcorn reading, it’s basically a class read aloud where one student reads until they’ve had enough and “cold call” on a classmate to pick up where he or she left off.)  Simple enough, right?  And yet perceived threats might look and sound like this:
      • “Will I look foolish in front of my classmates if I mispronounce a word?”
      • “Will I embarrass myself in front of my crush if I read in character?”
      • “Will I be made fun of for being a nerd if I articulate every word loudly and clearly?”
    • Keep in mind that these possibilities aren’t even scratching the surface of threats to the ego (“Will I feel worse about myself if I make a mistake”), or pre-existing threats to the body (“I’m hungry” / “There’s a student in the room that has been bullying me”).
    • In thinking about how to relieve stress associated with feelings such as these, Universal Design for Learning offers us some really powerful advice.  In short, minimize threats and distractions by implementing practices that are non-threatening for everyone.  As per UDL, the solution to a student’s perceived threat regarding “popcorn reading” isn’t to give that student pass — rather, it’s to give everyone a pass.  Instead, perhaps any student might be asked to simply speak up and interrupt the reader when he or she feels like reading, with a minimum time of one paragraph before the next interruption may occur.  (I’ve had great success with this — something my students and I refer to as “spirit reading.”)
    • UDL would call out cold-calling for similar reasons.  The strategy of calling on students at random is often heralded as effective for keeping kids on their toes, but at what cost? Brain research shows that cold-calling is far more effective at evoking stress than it is at just about anything else — so if your goal is durable learning and brain health, consider alternate strategies (small group discussions, asking peers to voluntarily share each others’ ideas, digitally submitting responses for a teacher to review and read aloud, etc.).   
    • For more on Universal Design for learning, check out CAST’s UDL Guidelines, or even just the specific section on minimizing threats and distractions.
  • Do students feel like they’re in control?
    • As is the case with the elements described above, this is much more about the perception of control than it is about actually having unfettered power over all aspects of one’s learning environment… and when thinking about how to relieve stress, perception is everything.  Fortunately for us (and for our kids), nearly all of the strategies that are heralded as “highly effective” because of their student-centeredness can be equally as effective in reducing stress by empowering learners and thereby imparting “control.”
    • In reflecting on the degree of control you may already be affording students, you might ask yourself questions such as:
      • Are students the ones asking questions, or am I?  (Do they feel like they can contribute to or steer the class discussion, or are they just along for the ride?)
      • Do students have the opportunity to suggest or develop assessment types?  Can they contribute to the grading criteria, or participate in a discussion about which parts of a rubric should be weighted more heavily?  (If not, why not?)
      • Do students have the opportunity to demonstrate their learning in multiple modes that don’t interfere with the learning objective?  In other words, if the objective is to assess a student’s understanding of Biology content, requiring all students to write an essay would be unfair to any ELLs.  (Talk about a continuous source of stress for some of our most vulnerable student populations!)
      • If a student failed an assignment, do they still have the opportunity to demonstrate their mastery?  Can he or she resubmit for a revised grade?  Or is he or she better off resigning to an inevitable failure?
    • The bottom line is that more student choice, more student-centeredness, and more opportunities for students to share in the instructional design process will empower your kids.  There is, of course, an important balance between this recommendation (carefully facilitated and “appropriate” student choice), and a haphazard “do whatever you want” approach.  It’s easy to imagine how suddenly opening the floodgates of student choice might yield higher levels of novelty, unpredictability, and other associated threats!  Anyone who has ever assigned an open-ended or interest-based research paper in which students come up with their own topics, thesis statements, and original arguments is surely already familiar with that brand of stress!

How to Relieve Stress: Tigers and Zebras

In her book, Engage the Brain: How to Design for Learning that Taps into the Power of EmotionAllison Posey explains that students’ who struggle with reading have been shown to have the same levels of stress hormones in their bodies as individuals who are trapped in a room with a tiger.  So what does that teach us about how to relieve stress?  Well, her point is powerful, and twofold: (#1) the chemical effects of stress are very, very real; (#2) so often, WE are the tigers!  Instead, we must consider how to reduce these perceived threats for students — by fostering a culture of respect and trust, by building relationships, and by implementing brain-based strategies for teaching and learning.

On the topic of wild animals and stress, Robert Sapolsky’s book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, provides another compelling insight in terms of managing and relieving stress.  In short, when zebras’ bodies are flooded with the same kinds of stress hormones, they’ve most likely encountered a physical threat in the wild, e.g. a lion.  At that point, what’s a threatened zebra to do?  Well, they run and they run and they RUN.  And in the end, if they survive, zebras recover to perfect health, because all of those stress chemicals have burned off.  Modern humans, on the other hand, feel stress in their homes, at their desks, and in the workplace.  Those stress chemicals aren’t immediately burned off — they linger, and accumulate, and ultimately yield toxic effects.  But the great lesson to be learned from zebras is that a little exercise can go a long way.  We hear this often, of course, but considering the importance of literally burning off cortisol and adrenaline in the body really highlights the importance and power of exercise.

If there’s one more animal we can learn from regarding how to relieve stress, perhaps it’s the sloth.  Generally, the easygoing sloth sleeps for upwards of 18 hours per day — and sleep is one of the most effective ways to combat stress.  Again, from a neuroscientific perspective, when your body is asleep, it is literally chemically-free of stress hormones.  (For more on the amazing power of sleep, you might check out Matthew Walker’s book on Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, or enjoy Walker’s TedTalk, “Sleep is Your Superpower.”)  We hear, time and time again, that sleep and exercise are important for our mental and physical health, but modern brain science really connects the dots for us.

Similarly, activities such as meditation and mindfulness help the body to experience a state that some neuro-psychologists refer to as “radical downtime.”  Like sleep, when the body is meditating or engaging in a mindfulness exercise (e.g. eyes closed, deep breathing, focused on scanning the body, etc.), the brain reacts in positive ways.  Stress chemicals fade, and the amygdala learns to reign its impulse to hijack the brain.  At the time of this writing, Headspace is one of the best solutions out there for guided mindfulness practice, and they’re offering their services to teachers 100% free.  Here’s a quick link to the Headspace for Educators page, if you’re interested in registering for free access.  Pretty awesome, considering Headspace is relatively expensive for just about everyone else!