Ways To Reduce Stress for Students: 3 Actionable Classroom Tips

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In his book, Mind Rules, John Medina describes key principles on how the brain works. One of these principles is “Stressed brains do not learn the same way as non-stressed brains.” Emotional instability can lead to chronic stress and chronic stress affects concentration, language processing, problem-solving, and memory (Medina, 2008). More specifically, children who are anxious about their learning, their abilities, their homework–almost anything–will have elevated levels of cortisol, the hormone associated with stress. What does this mean? Increasingly teachers need to find quick and easy ways to reduce stress for students. 

Determining the emotional state (and thus the readiness to learn) of each of the students in front of us is a complicated task. One in which we channel time and effort into structures such as morning meetings to help us gauge students’ readiness for learning. However, with the ever-increasing numbers of students who have difficulty self-regulating, it is imperative that we find other solutions for helping to reduce students’ stress in the classroom. 

 As educators we need to be aware of how our behavior and expectations affect our students. It may be possible to reduce students’ stress levels by integrating these three principles into our classroom instruction: 

1. Design Classroom Environments that Support Learning

Our classroom environment is more than the decor on our walls. The environment is a reflection of how we want students to think and feel while they are learning. To that end, focusing on positive relationships with our students is one of the most effective ways we have of ensuring that our classroom environment supports students’ emotional states as well as their learning. 

“A great classroom conveys to all students, ‘This is hard, but you can do hard things, and I’m not willing to let you settle for less.”  – from Fulfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom – Carol Tomlinson

One of the most important factors in building positive relationships is creating a respectful, safe environment for students. No student wants to feel anxious, embarrassed by their living conditions or lack of knowledge and skill level. Teachers who have positive relationships with their students strive to find ways to make students feel supported and capable. They do not lower expectations by diluting the curriculum or teaching solely below grade level, but instead they create safe environments for learning and risk taking. Ideas for fostering positive relationships and classroom environments include, but are not limited to:

  • Standing by the door to greet students by name and with a smile.  
  • Maximizing visual spaces (both in-person and online) to provide learning supports for students such as vocabulary displays and word walls.
  • Reducing “visual noise” by keeping the classroom and workspaces uncluttered and purposeful with visual learning supports.
  • Reducing or eliminating bad noise and replacing it with background noise in appropriate zones.
  • Teaching students speaking and listening structures to encourage discussion and respect among their peers, including Numbered Heads, Think-Pair-Share, and Pairs Square. 

Related Study: Rodrgues, P. and Pandeirada, J. When visual stimulation of the surrounding environment affects children’s cognitive performance. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Volume 176, 2018.

2. Plan Lessons To Reduce Learning Stress

Reduce stress for students by starting lessons with what students already know, beginning with vocabulary instruction, and providing visuals (see our Word Wall makeover ideas here) and personal experiences to prepare students to move from the familiar and concrete to the subject-specific, unfamiliar, and abstract content and concepts. Learning Goals should be sequenced throughout the lesson to build early success, and offer low threat, supported opportunities to practice skills such as working with a partner. Use High-Yield Strategies like Collaborative Pairs and other collaborative discourse and interactions to provide Distributed Summarizing and practice, i.e., Numbered Heads, Think-Pair-Share, and Writing to Learn strategies like The Important Thing or Quick Writes.

3. Promote a Growth Mindset 

In her research on fixed and growth mindsets, Carol Dweck describes two types of mindsets: individuals with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is innate and therefore cannot be changed; individuals with a growth mindset believe that intelligence can be developed through effort and hard work (2010). 

Students with a fixed mindset may believe that effort is not required and that tasks should be easy for them. Consequently, even higher achieving students may stumble and fail at the task. Students with a growth mindset feel safe and understand that they can succeed with effort and persistence, and are therefore motivated to achieve even more difficult tasks. As a result, students with a growth mindset are often more motivated, persistent, and do better with challenging tasks, which in turn helps to reduce the stress that comes from these types of tasks. Students see these as an opportunity to learn something new and put forth the effort needed to be successful. 

Teachers with a growth mindset communicate their beliefs to their students. They affirm through modeling and personal examples that the brain grows stronger with active effort and that intelligence can be developed. 

Support students development of a growth mindset by: first, providing feedback to students that focuses on effort and persistence rather than ability to build confidence and efficacy, and second, teach students that hard work does pay off and that “smart” is under the student’s control, and third, because challenge leads to increased intelligence, both of which lead to new learning, ensure that your activities and assignments are appropriately challenging.

Stress management for students is not an overnight fix. However, these three principles help counteract the stress that students may experience throughout their day. Each of these principles can be adapted to better support students when they encounter academic challenges and in turn, improve their readiness for learning. 

Learn more about these principles and other strategies and practices that support student learning by registering for one of our online courses, such as Strategies for Increasing Learning Using the Classroom Environment, or Learning Goals and Lesson Essential Questions. 

Lindsey Hampton

During her 20+years as an educator, Lindsey served various grade levels and subject areas. For 8 years she led inclusive classrooms and taught advanced placement courses. Following her classroom years, Lindsey spent 10 years as an instructional coach, professional development specialist, and district administrator of new teacher induction. She has presented at numerous conferences, including the Florida Association of School Administrator Conference, the Tennessee Principals Association Conference, and the Kentucky Association of School Administrators. Today, she works directly with teachers and school leaders in the implementation of the Learning-Focused Instructional Framework.

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