We typically assume that the academic requirements may cause students stress at different times of year as they complete large projects or encounter unfamiliar content that takes longer for the student to master. Teachers are trained to present new concepts and material using different formats and methods to engage all types of learners and facilitate comprehension of the curriculum without frustration. School includes multiple factors beyond the academics that cause stress, sometimes even debilitating stress for individual students, that parents and educators should consider when working with students of all ages.
1. Unstructured Time
Unstructured time such as lunch and passing periods can be sources of intense anxiety for students. In the classroom, it is clear when to talk and questions are often posed, but there are times when few adults are present and some students may find it difficult to interact with each other without the structure of class guiding their conversation. If you know a child who is severely impacted during unstructured times, talk with a teacher or school administrator to add some structure by giving the student a job to do during lunch or allowing him or her to eat in a classroom with a teacher instead of the cafeteria.
Getting from class to class on time, especially for middle and high school students who may have different peers in each class, causes some students to experience anxiety. Lockers, which do help reduce the amount of textbooks a student has to carry, also pose a significant issue for many students who perseverate on whether or not they will remember the lock combination or have time to get there and back. Practice, practice, practice is the key to ensuring the student is confident opening both the lock and the locker. It also doesn't hurt to hide the combination (perhaps written in code!) somewhere in the student's backpack or purse as a reassurance that even if they forget, there will be a way for them to access the combination and retrieve the materials they need.
3. Social Pressure
Even when a class is small, students compete with each other for a teacher's attention. They also work both collaboratively and competitively with peers at different times of year as friendships solidify as well as retract. Students who are preoccupied with social activities that do or don't include them are often distracted in the classroom. While some students are naturally out-going and easily connect with their peers, other students experience social awkwardness ranging from shyness to a true disability with understanding conversation and body language.
If a student is prone to lose items, keeping papers and backpack organized can be a task accompanied by a great deal of stress. This factor can be easily observed when a student keeps rifling through the same stack of papers without finding the appropriate one. Organization can be a significant frustration for many students who may need outside help from a family member or tutor to learn and implement strategies for staying organized.
5. Class Participation
So many students suffer incredible anxiety at school because of a constant fear about whether or not they will be called upon to answer a question they don't know the answer to. Even when points are awarded for class participation, there are some students who purposely choose to forfeit those points rather than speak aloud or ask a question in front of other students.
When a student's grade or health is suffering over a fear of class participation, please talk to the teacher about arranging a private signal or making an agreement only to call on the student if that student volunteers. Just knowing that they won't be blindsided encourages greater participation from those students who prefer a lower profile. In addition, some teachers are willing to assign a question in advance so that reluctant learners are able to participate. For example, if the teacher shares that she'll call on the student to share his answer for question number 2 at the end of class, the student then has all night to practice and prepare a response to that question. Also, he will be able to relax, listen, and learn for questions 3 and higher. Such accommodations can be written into a 504 plan or IEP to ensure that the arrangement that works can be continued in future years.
Some students forfeit points or refuse to turn in homework that doesn't exactly meet the specifications the teacher has given. For example, if a report should include tabbed dividers to separate each section, the student who has forgotten the dividers should still be encouraged to turn in the report and get at least partial credit for the work she has done. In trying to be clear, teachers are sometimes unaware of the stress caused when students miss a particular color of pen or other supplies that they believe, sometimes mistakenly, that they must have for class.
7. Change in Routine
Once adjusted to the regular school schedule, events such as fire drills and assemblies that interrupt that routine can become disruptive to a student's confidence as well as their schedule. Try to announce known changes in advance, or at least acknowledge from time to time that something unexpected may happen so that it's not so alarming when it does.
While homework by definition should occur at home, students who struggle to complete homework assignments may then become embarrassed when they don't have anything to turn in on the due date. Their shame and frustration can be compounded in classrooms where papers are exchanged for peer grading. Teachers can reduce the additional anxiety that students experience by creating a designated drop-off location for homework rather than collecting through publicly-visible methods. The benefit of giving a reminder to turn in completed homework by asking students to "pass homework forward" can still be achieved by providing a reminder at the end of the class, "If you didn't turn in your homework on the way in, please leave it in this basket on the way out."
9. Extra-Curricular Activities
Many students are motivated to attend school because of the extra-curricular activities, including sports, music, arts, and a variety of clubs. Many of these activities are very competitive, requiring years of practice for participation at the high school level and constant commitment to coaches and teammates. Many sports require on-going training and conditioning even in the off-season, so students are rarely allowed a complete break. When Malcolm Gladwell writes in the book Outliers that approximately 10,000 hours needed to develop a high level of skill, it is worth noting that many of those hours occur during childhood and adolescence.
These students experience stress not only because they constantly push themselves to be the best but also because their performances are often very public events. Athletes who miss an important play may be blamed for the team's loss. Artists who display their work are instantly open to criticism and misinterpretation. The stress sometimes causes talented students to withdraw from activities they enjoy, or to suffer academically when their time and attention are focused on their extra-curricular activity.
Summing It Up
School includes so many non-academic situations that can contribute to a student's stress level. Parents and teachers can help mitigate the impact when they understand what factors are causing anxiety and think of creative solutions. Our overall goal is to remove as many barriers to learning as possible so that all students gain the benefit of learning and growing as efficiently as possible.