By Dr. Anne Andrew
Anxiety and stress in teens is an epidemic, and has been well-documented. A 2014 survey revealed that 83% of teens reported school-related stress. Now with COVID-19, increases in gun-violence and racial tensions, the numbers are likely to be even higher. Are there some things that teachers can do to play a role in their student’s mental wellbeing? This article will point to several strategies that can and will make a difference.
Firstly, as parents and teachers, it is important to take a look at our own fears around Covid-19 and school…
We need to be clear about what those fears are so we can help our children and students to understand theirs. We may experience a whole range of emotions and feelings from sadness, to anxiety to despair, perhaps disappointment, but underneath those what is the actual fear? Is it a fear of death? A fear of losing a loved one? Is there a sense of loss – loss of a secure future, loss of normality, loss of control? Is there a sense of shame? Or a sense of being a victim? We need to be able to understand and address our own fears so that we don’t pass them along and add to the fears of our students.
Doing our own inner work is the best way to help others especially our children.
Our students are coming to school with all sorts of questions playing in their heads, consciously and subconsciously.
Will I be popular?
Will I be safe?
Do I have what it takes to get good grades?
Is my future secure?
Will anyone notice I gained ten pounds?
How will I achieve my goal in these circumstances?
How will I be judged?
School is a place that students come to be evaluated academically by their teachers, and socially by their peers and even by their parents. Many students actually believe that the love of their parents depends on their grades.
It is as if the school environment is designed to stack them up on ladders which they have to scramble up as far as they can. Many students give themselves the message that their worth depends on the opinion of others and on their achievements.
That’s why, I believe the most effective way of helping our students to reduce their stress levels is to help them understand that their worth is intrinsic. They have inherent worth just by virtue of being human. One baby is not worth more than any other as we are taught at the beginning of the book of Genesis and in the charter of human rights. Inherent worth is something they don’t have to earn and can never lose. This goes right to the root of their being.
I’ve witnessed the power of this concept to change lives and be the catalyst for recovery from depression, anxiety and even addiction. Understanding our inherent worth, to the exclusion of other ideas about ourselves such as that we are worthless, not good enough, or that we don’t belong, is the antidote to any of the negative core beliefs we or our students may have and allows positive transformations to happen.
Here are a few strategies for calming stress levels in the classroom:
- Mindfulness or meditation. These techniques bring us to the present moment, a place of safety and calm, by focusing on our senses and our breath. Take a mindful moment at the beginning of each block to reduce student anxiety and improve their ability to concentrate. Simply ask students to close their eyes, focus on their breathing, notice their touch points (places where their bodies are in contact with the floor, the chair or other surfaces), and have them take some deep breaths making the exhale longer than the inhale. This need not take more than a minute or two, but done regularly will make a big difference.
- Gratitude gives us a felt sense of our inherent worth and it is good for mental and physical health. Establish a gratitude practice at the end of each block or at the end of the last block. The key to a great gratitude practice is to be specific. You go first and give an example of gratitude that is related to the lesson you just taught such as: “I’m grateful that the chemistry we learned today helps scientists to understand global warming”, or “I’m grateful for the astonishing blue color of copper sulphate,” or “I’m grateful that sodium chloride tastes great on French fries.”
- Be careful with praise. Students can become praise-dependent, associating the amount and quality of praise with their worth. So, if a student gets a good mark on an assignment ask about the work rather than automatically praising. What did they find most interesting? Was there anything that surprised them about what they learned? Is there anything they’d do differently next time? This way you’ll get to know more about your student or your child and it helps the student to figure out what it is that they are passionate about and how to go about achieving the goals they set for themselves.
- Remind them directly: Your worth does not depend on your grades, nor by your musical or sporting ability. Your worth just is and it is infinite.
- Deemphasize grades. Be very specific about what is being evaluated. You might say: “The results of this test will show me how well I’ve taught the material, and how I can help you best. It’ll show you how well you understand the material, how well your study habits worked, how motivated you are to succeed in this subject. It is not a judgment or a measure of you.”
By helping students to know and deeply understand that their worth is inherent and doesn’t have to be earned, we can alleviate stress, anxiety and depression in adolescents and teens.
Anne Andrew has a Ph.D. in geology and over 20 years’ experience working as a school principal. Today, Anne runs What They Don’t Teach in Pre-Natal Classes: The Key to Raising Trouble-Free Kids and Teens workshops for parents of elementary school age children. She has written a book on the same topic. For more information, visit anneandrew.com.