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July 11, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 9

Re-Framing Teen Stress

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Teenagers are facing an epidemic of stress. With care and connection, educators can help them cope.
Social-emotional learning
School Culture
Instructional Strategies
illustration of a teen girl with a hand on her forehead with stacks of books
How can schools nurture well-being in teenagers? The question looms as dire statistics regarding adolescent health, including alarming rises in suicidality rates, continue to make headlines. Adolescents at this stage of life are becoming more cognizant of life's big questions, and they are pondering their purpose in a world laden with violence and inequity. With interruptions in education and social engagement due to COVID-19, negative effects of social media, a lack of sleep, homework, worries about their future, and financial concerns, teens face daily challenges that have real implications in our classrooms.
The hard truth is that 83 percent of adolescent students report school as a main stressor (Smith, 2020). Solutions are within reach, but they require us as educators and administrators to get curious and act boldly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021) report that adolescent mental health is bolstered when teens feel a sense of connection to school and to each other. As educators, we can help students feel more connected. With a critical, contemplative approach, we can empathetically acknowledge the problem through a historic and systemic lens, reflectively inquire into solutions in collaboration with students, and equip our classrooms with practices to nourish long-term well-being.
I call this three-part process AIR:
  1. Acknowledge stress with empathy.
  2. Inquire with compassion into sources of stress and possibilities for regulation.
  3. Resource systems for equanimity and recovery.
Let's look more deeply at how this process can work in schools.

The Problem of Systemic Stress

Before looking at practices that can help students manage their stress, we must first acknowledge that the problem is bigger than them. The perception that stress is a problem for students—a challenge they must self-regulate and "get over"—misses the root issues. Rather than attempting to fix students, schools that nurture student health are committed to taking a hard look at the policies and practices eroding well-being in the first place. As Chris Emdin asks in his book Ratchetdemic, "When will we recognize that even mindfulness, socio-emotional learning, and restorative practices, if nested in the perception that the youth are broken, will only serve to maintain the existing structure?" (2021, pp. 157–158). Only organizational practices nested in compassion and criticality can transform structures.
And yet, school districts continue to implement practices that are antithetical to current research-based understanding of the science of learning, as well as deeply held wisdom on the art of teaching. Inequitable standardized high-stakes practices and policies are prime examples. Not only do testing regimes often run counter to science and wisdom, they can be intensely stressful for many students. Our systems are, as professor of education Patricia A. Jennings (2022) clearly puts it, "completely outmoded and becoming so dysfunctional that students and school staff are being stretched to the breaking point."

Welcome students’ expertise, brilliance, and wisdom on what it means to be a teen right now.

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Abby Wills

We continue to waste an exorbitant amount of instructional time on testing while educators report consistently that they feel they have little to no time to attend to classroom well-being. If COVID-19 taught us anything, it's that change in educational practices does not have to be slow as molasses. We all engaged in swift change to meet our collective health needs when a deadly virus swept the globe. Adolescent mental health is equally as crucial to address. As we boldly acknowledge and drop practices and policies that are unhealthy, we can make time for what matters most. A culture of care grows from a commitment to centering students' well-being and organizing the academic experience around it. Schools that give the time needed for effective well-being practices necessarily break down one of the most precarious misconceptions in unhealthy systems: that there is not enough time for health.

Empathetic Acknowledgment

Changes at the system level are essential, but that doesn't mean that educators cannot or should not help teens learn to effectively cope with stress on a smaller scale. To do so, I recommend beginning with the first step in the AIR process: Expressing empathy for what they are experiencing. Acknowledge that school can be ultra-stressful, especially during the pandemic. Acknowledge them for showing up and trying. Assume every student is doing their best given the conditions of their lives.
This acknowledgement of students' humanity is critical. As Gholdy Muhammad reminds us in her book Cultivating Genius, "Empathy is the essence of what it means to be human" (2020, p. 118). Humanizing our approach to stress recognizes that it is a complex, collective experience in which our perspectives, policies, and educational practices play a direct role.
So how does empathetic acknowledgment look in the classroom? For one, teachers can remind students that stress is a normal part of life, and that a tolerable amount of stress actually helps us grow and learn. Consider sharing about your experience with stress at school, as appropriate. This helps students hear that they are not alone in their experience, which promotes connectedness and empathy.
Along with acknowledging stress as it arises, remember to name students' resilience and aptitude in navigating the ceaseless stressors of life. Stress is not strictly a problem to be overcome. When we become more adept at noticing the signals of stress in the body, mind, and emotions, we can relate differently to it, seeing it as a message that more or less effort in a particular area may be needed to maintain well-being.
The kinds of stress students experience are as diverse as the students themselves. Eustress, the healthy stress that motivates us to meet our potential, can be a signal to reach for our goals. Signs of distress in the body, like a racing heart, can be a message to slow down and rest. Acknowledging the complexity of stress and the intelligence of our body-mind systems in co-regulating stress is key to well-being.

Reflective Inquiry

Why is school so stressful for students? If you really want to know what will help teen students cope with stress, take the guesswork out and ask them. At every turn, pivot, and decision-making process possible, invite student input. Welcome their expertise, brilliance, and wisdom on what it means to be a teen student right now. Whether through surveys, student councils, classroom discussions, or anonymous feedback, engage youth fully in this move toward well-being.
We know that dysfunction in our school systems breeds when educators are not effectively included in decision making processes that directly and deeply effect their professional and personal well-being. This is true for our students as well. We must engage students in inquiry to reflect on solutions and be allies for them and their families to advocate for change.
We can also take time to hear students' thoughts on their experiences with stress at school. Encourage students to share their insights on the origins of their personal and collective stress, as well as ideas on how to manage it. Where is this stress coming from? What can we do together to help bring us into more balance? Ask them to name the aspects of school that are most stressful. Is it testing? Homework? Pressure to achieve? Peer relationships? How is stress manifesting physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially?
Look for opportunities to make connections between students' responses. Young peoples' connectedness is nurtured when students see they are not alone in their struggles and dreams. Likewise, take a strong stance of honoring differences, knowing that each student is living a different experience.
Once students are more aware of the characteristics and causes of their stress, they can apply compassionate curiosity. Ask them to brainstorm ideas for how your class or school can meet stress with care. For example, what actions or practices can the class engage in leading up to a test? How about during and after testing? Invite students to imagine a school where people have the right amount of stress to achieve their dreams, but not so much stress that they feel defeated. What would that look like? Encourage students to answer openly and honestly. Let them know you will consider all ideas.
Continue to inquire with students over time about the specific sources of school stress. Guide them to reflect on solutions at regular intervals. With practice, students will more accurately identify stressors and start to discern solutions. This growing awareness and discernment contribute to what I like to call stress intelligence. Once we know the origins of our collective stress, we can work together toward solutions. Along the way, we need to consistently resource our systems with care.

Collective Resourcing

Distress arises when we don't have, or don't perceive to have, adequate resources to handle the stressors we are experiencing. Collective resourcing means committing to regular, consistent practices to help restore energy, develop students' ability to modulate stress, and move toward vitality. It acknowledges how our personal well-being is connected to those around us. Resources may come through embodiment practices, contemplative arts, nature, relationships, imagery, sensory awareness, and more.
Once your class has co-generated solutions for stress relief, draw from their ideas. When possible, help your class enact their own wisdom. And remember, while teaching these skills is essential for supporting students in navigating daily stress, this strategy alone is inadequate and falls short when systemic stressors are not also dealt with.
Consider whether the following resourcing options might support your class in modulating stress:
  • Nature—There is no substitute for the healing power of nature. Find a place on or near campus for your class to adopt. Facilitate inquiry and additional resourcing there, if possible. Or visit this place for a semi-structured break time. Encourage students to notice the elements of nature they encounter. Invite them to feel the earth beneath them and the sky above. Even 10–20 minutes outdoors can be significantly stress-relieving. If you cannot find a particular spot to spend time in, consider taking students on a walk instead.
  • Fresh Air—The next best option to spending time in the great outdoors is to simply find some fresh air. In rainy or cold climates, a brief jaunt outside to breathe in fresh crisp air is refreshing and de-stressing. If you can, open the classroom windows and ask students to count their breathing cycles or encourage a particular number of breaths. Ten deep breaths is a good starting point.
  • Water or Snacks—A common challenge for teens is getting enough nutrition and staying hydrated when their stressful lives have them on the go and too much in their own heads. Recruit parents to supply fresh spring water and cut fruits and veggies to nourish students' bodies and brains during especially stressful times.
  • Breath—Encourage students to inhale normally, counting the inhale. Then, exhaling, extend the breath by a few counts. Repeat five to seven times. This is one of the most effective ways to release tension and complete a stress cycle.
  • Movement—Almost any movement that comes naturally can be helpful in alleviating stress and completing stress cycles. Try jumping, rocking, shaking, tapping, clapping, squeezing, or other rhythmic, repetitive movements.
  • Rest—Progressive full-body relaxation scripts and guided audio practices are abundantly available online. Offer students 10 to 20-minute breaks to place their bodies in the most comfortable positions they can given the circumstances (heads on desks, sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall). Play relaxing music. Yoga or exercise mats or towels come in handy for deeper relaxation.
  • Music—As a universal language, music can work wonders for co-regulation. Create a collaborative playlist with students to support a nurturing classroom container.
  • Play and Laughter—Make space for joy. Get to know what brings your students joy and share your joy as well.
Whatever modes of resourcing you offer, check in with students afterward for feedback. Did they find meaning and benefit? How would they suggest doing things differently next time?

The perception that stress is a problem for students—a challenge they must self-regulate and 'get over'—misses the root issues.

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Abby Wills

Consistent, daily resourcing is essential to nurturing well-being. Imagine an education system where resourcing ourselves for compassion and connection is as non-negotiable as roll call.
But remember: While resourcing in classrooms is vital, it is not a stand-alone solution to the distress pervading our systems. When stressors that are out of our immediate control are identified, we need to also guide students to identify who is in control of the conditions and seek ways to communicate with them. Students may choose to schedule meetings with administration to discuss ways to alleviate stress on campus or attend school board meetings to advocate for specific changes. Be sure to recognize when referrals to student support staff, including counselors, psychologists, or other school-based mental health care providers, may be needed.

Integrating AIR

We can integrate AIR immediately, understanding that efficacy requires long-term implementation. As we normalize stress as a common human experience and involve students in the decisions that affect their well-being, they will feel more connection to each other and school. Within this connectedness, school can become a resource for teens; a place to know themselves beyond the stressful experience, a space for curiosity about what matters most in their lives.
This possibility hinges on our willingness and ability as educators and leaders to consciously perceive students as whole human beings functioning as best as they can in a confused world. Rather than being the main stressor in their lives, school can be full of zones of healing and belonging for adolescents. What could be more beneficial to students' long-term health than knowing they have resources and support to heal themselves as they work through their difficult emotions? Give yourself permission to imagine what a stress-intelligent school would feel like to you. Let that vision give purpose to making space for the healing benefits of acknowledgement, inquiry, and resourcing in your classroom.

Centers for Disease Control and Preventions. (2021, May 12). Poor mental health is a growing problem for adolescents.

Emdin, C. (2021). Ratchetdemic: Reimagining academic success. Beacon Press.

Jennings, P. A. (2022, April 28). Teachers can leverage their value to transform schooling. K-12 Talk, W.W. Norton & Company website.

Muhammad, G. (2020). Cultivating genius. Scholastic.

Smith, K. (2020, November 24). 6 common triggers of teen stressPsycom.

Abby Wills is a movement, mindfulness, and social-emotional development specialist for Full Circle Consulting Systems, Inc., and regularly facilitates professional development and training for educators of preK–12 and higher. She holds multiple certifications in yoga, mindfulness, trauma-informed practice and embodiment.

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