Students Are Stressed and Teachers Can Help

A MiddleWeb Blog

When I decided to become a teacher, I had an inkling that it would be challenging, demanding, and rewarding. Over the last 25 years, this has proven true. I love what I do and enjoy going to work every day, but that does not mean I am free from stress. I’m an adult. I expected this.

What I didn’t expect is the level of stress among my students. Unfortunately, it seems to be getting worse every year. The educational community has begun to respond, but there is more we can do.

Last week I polled my middle school students, asking about the stuff that makes their lives so stressful. As one can imagine, there were several common threads. Friendship drama, pressure about appearance, and time management appeared numerous times as did multiple school-related issues.

To the extent that educators can, we try to address things that happen that are outside of the school realm. We talk to parents about their child possibly being overscheduled. My all-girls school has experts such as Dr. Lisa Damour visit and speak to our parents and students about life for adolescent females. We meet with families when necessary to address difficulties their child may be having.

But we are not so naive to think we can solve these problems from a distance. What we CAN impact are our policies and practices at school – so those are what I’m addressing here.

There were several school-based sources of student stress that showed up in my survey. As expected, homework load, time management, grades, assessments, and school environment were mentioned. I reviewed what my school and I already do to help alleviate this stress as well as ways we can do more. Below, I share what my students said and my thoughts.

“I get stressed when I forget to do an assignment.”

Our school, like most schools, provides and encourages the use of daily planners. For most students, this is not their natural way of doing things; it is new, and it can become a chore. Since many students do not need to use planners in elementary school, we spend the first half of sixth grade trying to get students into that habit. Many catch on and fall into this routine quickly, but it’s more of a struggle for some.

One way we support them in learning a self-organization process that works for them is to also post their homework assignments online on our school’s intranet. And we encourage our students to establish a homework buddy in each class. That way they can contact their buddy if they forget something, need clarification, or are absent. With this “belt and suspenders” approach, it is much more difficult for students to forget to do their work.

“I am stressed about getting bad grades.”

When our entire educational system revolves around grades, it is only natural that anything less than perfection causes stress. Couple that with the pressure to get into a highly competitive university (never mind that they are only in middle school), and worrying about grades can become all-consuming for some.

Sadly, there has been little movement in this area. While there are many educational experts who promote standards based grading and other positive grading practices, the majority of schools have not embraced or adopted these ideas. To some extent, this is understandable as it involves a paradigm shift and those shifts are rare and take time.

Many schools have jumped onto the mindset bandwagon and reinforce with their students that mistakes are okay and we only learn by taking risks. However, this becomes a moot point if we are not using growth mindset grading practices.

If we tell them it’s okay to make mistakes, then it is unethical to grade them on their practice (homework) where mistakes are intended to be made. The same goes for not allowing for re-dos and re-takes to achieve mastery. That goes against growth mindset. There is much more work to be done here, and it will take the entire village to get on board and sort this out.

“I am stressed about tests and quizzes.”

The reason students worry about tests and quizzes is because of the above—they want good grades. There are many things that can be done to help alleviate test anxiety. I’ve previously written about this at the SmartBrief blog, “Tips to Ease Students’ Test Anxiety.”

One way my school helps is a master assessment calendar. Each teacher writes all tests, quizzes, and major projects here. In addition, evening performances that involve large numbers of students are recorded. This allows us to avoid scheduling more than two assessments in a day and avoiding the day after a performance or a holiday. Although tests and quizzes are a necessary evil, balancing this load with a master calendar has assisted in making this a bit better for our students.

“I am stressed when I have a big project or assignment due.”

This is an area where teachers can definitely help. One of the major issues here is that there is often an assumption that if we just tell students to “do a little bit every day” or start in advance that they will magically be able to manage their time. This is not a natural skill and needs to be taught explicitly. When assigning a big project, divide it into chunks, provide a timeline and a checklist, and have regular check-ins to see students’ progress instead of just turning them loose and hoping for the best.

“I am stressed when it’s too noisy or chaotic.”

As someone who is very sensitive to noise and prone to distraction, I empathize with this. I teach English so I give my students the gift of the first 10 minutes of class every day for silent reading. We do nothing else during this time except read. Not only does this enhance my curriculum, it allows them to quieten or refocus their minds. By the end of free reading they are ready to learn. If you’re a teacher in another content area, research has shown that a minute (or even 30 seconds) of calm breathing – or just closing one’s eyes and thinking about the topic – is beneficial.

“I am stressed about the amount of homework.” 

To some extent, the amount of homework varies depending on the school district. Research shows that the average amount of homework assigned has not really increased over the last few decades, but this research doesn’t take into account the variations between schools and districts.

When I’ve taught in some settings, we have assigned little to no homework to be sensitive to outside circumstances. In those cases, we didn’t see much benefit in assigning daily homework given the other stressors children were dealing with.

When I’ve taught in suburban districts (especially affluent ones), there is much more homework assigned. Somewhere along the line, the perception has developed that tremendous amounts of homework indicates you are more rigorous and challenging and therefore a better school. This is simply not the case, and research has not proven that homework in excess of the “10 minutes per grade level” rule of thumb is beneficial.

I have written here about improving homework policy before, but one simple place to start is by not assigning homework over the weekends or holidays. Students are already so busy that they have very little family time, and I don’t want to infringe upon it.

Another idea is having different subjects assign homework on different nights (this works naturally when schools have a block schedule, but can be a bit restrictive if your class meets every day). An alternative to this is to have each academic class leave one night a week free from homework. For example, science class does not assign homework on Tuesdays. Most important, let’s reevaluate the need for homework and/or make sure that what we do assign is of value. (Searching “rick wormeli + homework” in your browser will lead you to some great material for group discussion.)

Less stress, more growth

In this new millennium, life is stressful enough for tweens and teens without adding more undue causes for concern. Even if a change we make only impacts some of our students, making many positive changes may impact them all.

There is time enough to be an adult with adult worries. Middle school should be a time of positive social, physical, emotional, and cognitive growth. We have a pivotal role to play in making that happen.

Cheryl Mizerny

Cheryl Mizerny (@cherylteaches) is a veteran educator with 25 years experience – most at the middle school level. She began her career in special education, became a teacher consultant and adjunct professor of Educational Psychology, and currently teaches 6th grade English in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Cheryl writes about student motivation and engagement at The Accidental English Teacher. Read more of her MiddleWeb articles here.

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