Teaching Students: The Good Stress
As teachers, it’s easy to worry about the student’s stress levels and do what we can to reduce them. It’s not hard to find evidence that there is stress in a student’s life and that it can be a barrier to learning. We trust each other less. Our relationships are more tentative. We don’t get enough sleep. We take more drugs, are more depressed, attempt and commit suicide more often.
But we should not ignore the physiology of stress that tells us the good things that come from stress. In “The Stress Sweet Spot”, Richard Friedman writes: “Stress is really just our body’s response to a challenge. The key to good stress is that the challenge be something you can manage and even master.” He is a psychiatrist and tells us that the “right kind of stress can actually be beneficial. And it’s particularly important for young people, whose brains and bodies are uniquely sensitive to the impact of experience.”
Just as background, Hans Selye was the inventor of ‘stress’ and was researching it early in the 20th century. He “discovered and described the General Adaptation Syndrome, a response of the body to demands placed upon it. The Syndrome details how stress induces hormonal autonomic responses and, over time, these hormonal changes can lead to ulcers, high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, arthritis, kidney disease, and allergic reactions.” It’s not a new thing!
Amit Sood of the Mayo Clinic explains the chemical responses taking place: Adrenaline is largely responsible for the immediate reactions we feel when stressed. Imagine you’re trying to change lanes in your car. Suddenly, from your blind spot, comes a car racing at 100 miles per hour. You return to your original lane and your heart is pounding. Your muscles are tense, you’re breathing faster, you may start sweating. That’s adrenaline. It gives you a surge of energy and focuses your attention. Norepinephrine, a hormone similar to adrenaline, has the primary role of arousal. When you are stressed, you become more aware, awake, focused. You are just generally more responsive. It also helps to shift blood flow away from areas where it might not be so crucial, like the skin, and toward more essential areas at the time, like the muscles, so you can flee the stressful scene. Cortisol is a steroid hormone, commonly known as the stress hormone. It helps to maintain fluid balance and blood pressure while regulating some body functions that aren’t crucial in the moment, like reproductive drive, immunity, digestion and growth. Too much cortisol can suppress the immune system, increase blood pressure and sugar, decrease libido, produce acne, contribute to obesity and more. (edited from https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/adrenaline-cortisol-stress-hormones_n_3112800).
How can we as teachers avoid the bad stress and stay with the good stress with our students, and maybe even in our own lives? Richard Friedman points out: “a challenging teacher who incites mild anxiety is more effective than one who is either permissive or terrifying. Good teachers know how to push students without making them so anxious that they give up. They have found the sweet spot for stress: Too much or too little and people don’t do their best.” Eustress or good stress actually promote happiness, hopefulness, and purpose. That is illustrated below:
In fact, it seems that to protect our students from stress actually inhibits resilience and promotes anxiety. In other words, no stress is as bad for our children as chronic stress. Sood suggests three primary reasons for chronic stress: “demand resource imbalance, lack of control and lack of meaning”. What to do?
Demand resource imbalance:
- Before beginning a unit, check with the students to see what they already know what they don’t know, and what they need to know. This allows you as the teacher to meet the child rather than, unrealistically, require the child to meet you.
- Used spaced practice to improve mastery, resilience, and the student’s locus of control
- Scaffold learning by student, not by class, allowing the student’s journey to dictate pace rather than the calendar (if that seems out of reach in upper school, then apply that to teaching of the same material to more than one class – allow each class to move according to their journey)
- Promote peer learning and group study so that students can balance strengths and weaknesses, knowledge and ignorance
- Be clear about the objective. Just be clear. Does everyone in the class know what the point of the class is? Hattie says that just this has an effect size of .75, that is, students in your class that has clarity will score higher than 75% of students in a class that lacks clarity.
Lack of Control
- Give students choice both in content and methodology. For example, teaching the novel could be through their own choice of reading or from a select list. Carrying out a science experiment could allow them to choose their function in the lab group. This is automatically done in most preschools through centers and other means of recognizing the autonomy-within-structure that children value.
- ‘Teach to the test’, however the summative assessment is formulated. Teach to the test has been discredited by No Child Left Behind and other kinds of summative assessment that restrict curricular innovation, teacher authority, and pedagogical engagement. However, teaching to the test simply means that you test what has been learned, surely a basic for valid measurement. From the student’s point of view, this kind of predictability is treasured as evidenced by the numerous times it comes up in student interviews.
- Work on strategies with the children to improve working memory. One large study in the UK showed that children with poor working memory also scored poorly on reading comprehension and math tests. It’s more important than IQ! For example, teach students to use notepads, make lists, create priorities, create routines, try different ways of remembering, carry out tasks sequentially, have physical movement breaks, practice remembering.
- The Pygmalion Effect teaches that what I believe about my ability will result in a parallel outcome. If I think I can achieve a B, I will most likely achieve a B. The same is true of the teacher and the student. If the teacher believes the student is a B student, everything the student produces will be considered in that light. It’s hard for a “B student” to get an A. You as the teacher must genuinely question what you believe the student can do and then help the student believe as well.
- Stress the context for all learning – even making the attempt to seriously answer the question “why are we learning this?” is helpful.
- Focus on formative assessment where feedback loops from teacher to student and/or from student to student, and/or classroom aide or room-mum to student provide substantial intellectual and emotional support for the ongoing work
- Ensure the work is challenging with high standards. This is an interesting one because it is easy to imagine that students want the easy way out. Nothing is further from the truth – unless they are overwhelmed/stressed! They actually want high standards and high challenge so long as they believe they have a chance to overcome the challenge and get the support that will make that happen.
- Teach the students that stress (in your class!) is a positive and help them understand how it works to benefit them.
We’ll give the last word to Professor Friedman: “for most young people, everyday stress is beneficial and promotes resilience. No need to shield them from the world with trigger warnings and the like. Instead, let’s enhance their capacity to handle stress and succeed in the face of adversity”.