Students may be cognitively capable of completing assignments but have so much on their plate that they feel overloaded, get stuck, and end up completing nothing. This phenomenon is all too familiar when students first transition into middle school and make the adjustment to having multiple teachers, each of whom expects their homework to be completed on time but may be unaware of the student's combined workload and their ability to juggle multiple priorities. Academic overload can often impact students' ability to sleep, further diminishing their ability to focus while in class.
In addition, non-academic factors like participation in highly-competitive extra-curricular activities and even navigating platonic and romantic relationships can consume attention and generate high amounts of stress for students, leaving academics a second priority.
Below are several strategies for teachers and parents to help manage stress and minimize academic overload.
Break large assignments into small, manageable chunks
Some students lack the skill of being able to identify parts of a whole, and just shut down if they see multiple steps for a single assignment or are given a large project due a week or two later. Even a packet of work that is designed to be completed over the span of a full week can be intimidating and lead to the student never starting at all, or becoming completely frustrated when they attempt to do the entire packet in one sitting.
Adults can lessen these negative experiences by breaking down assignments into smaller pieces, and helping the student to understand what needs to be accomplished each day. Having several mini-deadlines makes the project less daunting and allows the parent or tutor visibility into the project, as well as reassurance that the student actually is making progress towards completion.
Negotiate an extension
Teachers can minimize unnecessary stress for students by offering a "pass" or "second chance" that the student can cash in if there comes a time during the semester when they aren't able to complete homework or they get stuck on an assignment. In effect, this offers the student control over their schedule and an opportunity to come forward saying that they weren't able to get something done without penalty. It also signals the teacher that this student may need more processing time, struggles with the content, or is overscheduled; the student may need additional support before experiencing any failure. At its best, such policies are never used, but students are less anxious just knowing that they have this back-up plan should they need it.
Even without an established mechanism to allow extra time temporarily, students can often get an extension on an assignment they are struggling with or don't have time to complete if they simply talk with their teacher before the due date. Most teachers are agreeable to such a request in advance, but far less tolerant when the request comes after the deadline was already missed.
Formalize a plan for accommodations
For students who have a learning disability or health issue that impacts learning, a 504 Plan can formalize accommodations that the student needs to learn so that if they are experiencing academic overload, everyone is already clear on the accommodations necessary to enable the student to demonstrate their learning rather than simply measuring the symptoms of the disability.
For example, a student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is expected to be easily distracted and therefore miss important instruction and directions. He can be seated away from noisy distractions like a window or door that opens to a busy hallway, reducing the amount of external stimulus that takes extra energy to filter out. He could also be provided copies of lecture notes, giving him the same opportunity to take his own notes during class but a back-up set of notes that is accurate in case he should miss key points. A student with dyslexia might get access to the reading assignments in advance and have extra time for in-class writing assignments so that she isn't stressed by an unreasonably short timeline. Such accommodations reduce stress and anxiety by mitigating the symptoms of the student's condition, putting them back on par with their peers without disabilities.
Accommodations that include time extensions can go a long way to help students remain engaged in the classroom rather that becoming so overwhelmed that they shut down. Teachers are able to assess skill level more accurately when the student isn't fatigued and experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety.
Balance the workload with courses at a one-to-one school
In a one-to-one mastery-based school, the amount and the type of work—factors contributing to stress—can be adjusted without impacting the rigor of the instruction. Because students are evaluated on the quality of their work and their mastery of concepts, the amount of work on a single concept and the timeline for demonstrating mastery need not be sources of stress.
Teachers address academic overload in various ways in a one-to-one school. Some students may struggle to write down their answers, so teachers encourage verbal responses. Others may be bored by repeating the same content, so teachers avoid repetition. Others may become fatigued and disengaged by the number of math problems, so teachers reduce the volume without affecting the quality of the learning experience.
These adjustments are possible because students are evaluated on what they complete and move on only when they achieve mastery, showing that they understand and can apply each concept.
Students may attend a one-to-one school full time to have a completely customized education program, or select only the subjects in which additional support is needed. A specific class may be chosen based on a history of struggling in that subject or recognition that the course requires a high volume of work that might monopolize the student's time and compromise performance in other courses. In other situations, parents and students decide what courses to take in the one-to-one school by reviewing the syllabus and understanding the teacher's expectations and teaching style. There are many ways to configure a one-to-one instructional program to address all concerns and still preserve the student's health, confidence, and quality of life.