Stress in School: What Kids Need to Know

ASO Staff Writers
Updated March 29, 2024
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Stress in Students: Causes & Symptoms

Unlike adults, who can communicate about how stress impacts their lives, children and teens may not recognize or even have the words to describe how they’re feeling. Students are experiencing stress at growing rates, with a 2014 American Psychological Association study finding teens in the U.S. are even more stressed than adults.

However, parents and teachers can watch for short-term behaviors and physical symptoms that manifest when stress becomes a problem. Since age plays a major role in how stress affects us, here are some common causes and symptoms for students in elementary school, middle school, high school and college to help identify when there may be a concern.

How Teachers Can Help Limit Student Stress

Because children and teens spend most of the day in classrooms, teachers can play a powerful role in limiting stress. One way to “displace nervous energy,” according to mental health professional Stefanie Juliano, is to allow students to use standing desks, sit on exercise balls or even work on the floor. She also suggests creating a quiet, serene corner by adding a beanbag chair, relaxing pictures and positive sayings.

Below are some additional ideas teachers can use to limit stress in the classroom:

Classroom Activities to Reduce Stress

Jessica Tappana, a mental health therapist who works with students of various ages, calls things that stress them out “cling-ons.” Here are three strategies she teaches to students that teachers can use for wiping these stressors away:

Brush it off!

Beginning at the top of the head use your hands to gently brush down the face and front of the body, flicking away the negative energy (not onto the person next to you!). Then repeat for the back of the body, arms and sides. When finished, shake your hands and stomp your feet!

Leave it at the door

Place a small paper shredder, paper, pens and a trash bin by the classroom door. Ask students to write a word or sentence that represents something causing them stress and then have them shred it! The problem won’t disappear, but the activity encourages them to leave stress outside the classroom.

Me the Tree

Sometimes when we are stressed, it feels like we are floating above the earth so it’s important to ground your feet and reconnect. Stand tall and bend your knees a bit and imagine your body is a tree trunk. Pretend that there are roots growing out of your feet and picture them growing into the earth. Then imagine your arms are branches and reach out and stretch into the sunshine!

Parent Tips for Reducing Stress

When children suffer from stress, it affects the entire family. Because parents are used to being able to fix problems, not knowing how to intervene can be frustrating and even add to stress in the home. Fortunately, parents can take action by instituting the following tips to reduce symptoms of toxic stress.

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Related Stress Disorders

When sadness and depression become unmanageable it can be a sign of a mood disorder, which affect 1 in 5 children. While experts can identify many reasons why mood disorders occur in children, such as parents getting divorced, loss of a loved one and emotional trauma, stress can be a trigger. In addition, coping with stress can exacerbate symptoms, increasing the pressures associated with having a mood disorder. Here are some examples of mood disorders related to stress and links to more information.

Test Anxiety & How to Treat It

Most people get nervous before taking a test. In fact, feeling nervous motivates us to study so we can pass! But for some students, it goes beyond feeling nervous to the point that it causes them to freeze up and be unable to perform well. In this section, we discuss the definition and symptoms of test anxiety and how students can prevent it from getting out of control.

What is it?

Students with test anxiety become so anxious that it causes a physical response. They may feel their heart beating fast, begin to sweat and become nauseous. Unfortunately, the more they are preoccupied with the anxious feelings, the more anxious they become, creating a seemingly never-ending cycle. In other words, it’s the worrying about worrying that gets in the way.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptom of test anxiety is an accelerated heart rate. However, there are additional physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms that can occur. For instance, students may feel light-headed, have digestive problems and sweat profusely. It’s also common to become angry and scared and feel disappointed in yourself. All these symptoms make it impossible to concentrate.

How can students handle it?

Therapist Jessica Tappana explains that knowing how to breathe is an important part of fighting test anxiety. “Breathing helps us to ground and center and feel present. The increased oxygen flow to the brain will help students think more clearly.”

Getting a good night sleep and eating a balanced meal in the morning is mandatory, adds mental health professional Stefanie Juliano. College students should avoid substances such as alcohol before a test.

Juliano stresses that knowing your triggers will help. “If you feel yourself tensing, getting a headache, feeling your back hurt, or so on, take a quick break either standing (if able) or seated and continue to breathe. Older students can also investigate alternative practices prior to major tests, such as acupuncture, essential oils, massage or chiropractic care.”

Quick Student Stress Busters

Learning how to recognize signs of stress and practicing ways to address these symptoms are important steps on the path to good mental health. Here are some activities from our mental health experts that parents and educators can teach children and teens to get them started.

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