Back in October, I wrote an article about the importance of holistic teaching. When students are stressed, their capacity for learning is drastically reduced.
In psychology, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs explains in part why anxious and depressed students are much more likely to fail. Even if the situation is not catastrophic, a student’s mind and body “feel” that the situation is very serious. All their brainpower is fixated on dealing with the fight or flight response in the body, plus the repetitive thought patterns that affect daily activities like eating, sleeping, and relationships.
In this cycle, learning takes a backseat to the perceived “disaster” in front of them. For them, it’s about survival, not creativity or self-actualization. If you notice students in your class are stressed, it is vital that you work into your teaching ways to help them cope and reduce their anxiety.
The following 20 tips will give you some tools to create a relaxing learning environment and relationship.
1. Keep Communication Open
Communication is the single most important thing you can do for your students. Create open channels for them to come to you for support, advice, counsel, etc. In both group and individual settings, you can offer your wisdom and experience in dealing with daily stress in your own life. This mentorship approach will build safety in the classroom and help the students to feel like you are on their side.
2. Flexible Assignments
Instead of assigning homework every night, assign a packet of homework and let them decide when to complete the work. With extracurricular activities like sports and music, some nights it might be impossible to do homework without it impacting their sleep. This way they can catch up on the weekends or on a night with less to do.
3. Teach Time Management
If you follow the above advice, it is important to go over with your students how to manage their time. Some kids will be overwhelmed with trying to divide and conquer a big project so practice setting goals in the classroom so it’s more manageable for them at night.
4. Grade Effort As Well As Product
Effort is often the redheaded stepchild of product, but it shouldn’t be. Some kids will work diligently for hours and only be able to produce an average grade. Other students will work ¼ of the time and produce an A+ grade. This can be demoralizing for those students who are putting forth so much effort. Even if you work in a school where grades must reflect a certain level of aptitude (thus limiting your ability to assign an “effort” score), you can offer other awards for those who’ve worked hard.
Check out our article on Should It Matter How Long a Student Takes To Learn?
5. Offer Five-Minute Meditation
At the beginning and end of the day, set aside five minutes for students to do a private meditation or imagery. Teach deep breathing exercises and give them time to relax their bodies and minds.
6. Help Them To See The Bigger Picture
It’s so easy to get pulled into the present so intensely that you forget the bigger picture. Kids who get stressed out easily forget that the assignment they are pulling their hair out about is really quite small in the grand scheme of things. Offer a lighthearted tale about your failures as a student and help them to see the bigger picture.
7. Take The Past Into Account
If a student flunks an exam or forgets an assignment but is normally quite reliable, take that into account. Everyone needs a “Get out of jail” free card once in a while. This may be tricky to execute fairly (especially if you have other students that consistently forget work) but you can create a system of passes. For example, every time a homework assignment is turned in on time, award the student a point. For every student that has banked 10+ points, they are given a free pass if they miss an assignment or do poorly on an exam.
8. Keep Your Students Moving
Sitting in a chair listening to one person’s voice is boring. Let’s face it; the mind can wander in this setting. Worries and fears easily creep in when the atmosphere isn’t requiring all of their attention. Keep the class moving through assignments, stations, and activities.
9. Let Them Chew Gum During Hard Exams
Chewing gum and doodling on notepads are two ways to relieve stress. You might find that students who are very nervous about an exam will do better if they have something like a piece of gum to chew on. Don’t discourage doodling during lectures. It is a way to relieve pent up energy and in some cases, can help with concentration.
10. Set Time In The Day For Organization of Their Desks
Once a week (perhaps on Fridays), create a block of time for students to clean out their desks and backpacks. Disorganized environments cause unnecessary stress. Have one person sharpen everyone’s pencils, clean out markers that don’t work, restock supplies, and refresh old notebooks. This can also be a great time to make lists of upcoming activities, assignments, and projects.
One of the most crucial moments in a student’s career is what they do after they’ve failed an exam.
11. Offer Incentives For Bringing Healthy Food To Class
Healthy food plays a big role in student stress. You cannot control what your students eat for breakfast and lunch, but you can offer incentives for healthy eating. In your classroom, award points for those who bring in vegetables, fruits, or healthy proteins like lean meat and eggs. When a student gets to a certain point level, offer a reward like a free homework pass.
12. Have Music Playing During Class Time
Classical music is an excellent way to calm nerves. There should be time without music too, but during exams, meditation, or silent reading, turn on Bach!
13. Model How To Cope With Disappointment
Disappointment is inevitable. One of the most crucial moments in a student’s career is what they do after they’ve failed an exam. Failure is the world’s greatest teacher. It is like an open doorway to future success. Don’t just hand out a failing grade and move on. Use the opportunity to teach what went wrong, how to face disappointment head on, and most importantly, how to not let it cripple your future work.
14. Don’t Nitpick
You’ve probably had a teacher who did this. You had to use a blue pen, not black. You couldn’t sit a certain way, eat during class, use the bathroom, or wear a hooded sweatshirt. Obviously rules are important, but first try to examine if any of your rules are actually just pet peeves in disguise. Kids who are prone to stress will feel the effects of this type of environment and it will negatively affect their work.
15. Balanced Exams
As much as possible, offer exams that have multiple parts. Can one part be verbal? Open book? Creative? Students learn differently. If every test is a large sheet of essay questions or multiple choice, it doesn’t give students who have auditory or kinesthetic learning styles a chance to flourish. It’s more work for you yes, but it will make a big difference in your classroom.
16. Be Mindful of Ergonomics
Kids are not as prone to back and neck aches, but it doesn’t mean our classrooms should be devoid of comfortable seating and lighting. How much natural sunlight does your room get? Is there opportunity for a quick walk in the sunshine after lunch? Do you have students who suffer from ADD and would benefit from an exercise ball as a seat? In some classrooms, students have the option of using an exercise ball, which not only strengthens muscles, but also gives the “fidgety” students a chance to bounce while they work.
17. Stay In Touch With Parents
Keep communication channels open with parents of stressed out kids. Try to find out if there are other issues besides classwork that are affecting him/her. If the parents are struggling too, a guidance counselor or social worker might be able to help the student cope with difficult life circumstances. Be your student’s advocate whenever possible.
18. Help Students To Enjoy The Learning Process
A stressed out student forgets about the process of learning. They are so fixated on the end result and the grade, they don’t know how to enjoy HOW to learn. Take moments in the day to point out the beauty in discovery, in problem solving, and yes- even in failure. Remind your students that it isn’t all about the grades. It’s about the journey.
19. Give Continual Feedback
If you are able to give “mini” grades each day, it lessens the anxiety about the end-of-term grade. At that point, there is nothing a student can do about it! Students should never be surprised at their grade. Offer constant feedback so they have time to get on track while there is still time to make a difference.
20. Keep Yourself Relaxed!
A relaxed teacher makes for a relaxed classroom. You need to do what you can to alleviate your own stress – be it through meditation, organization, or time of silent reading. We all need to recharge and you as the teacher set the whole tone of the classroom. If you aren’t stressed about tests or final scores, your students will pick up on that vibe too.