Stress in Student Behavior
WHAT’S THE ISSUE: “Half of the IB Diploma students in this school are seeing a Psychologist, and the other half are suffering from too much stress.” In a conversation I had with a parent, we talked about the problem of student stress. It’s now common knowledge that the parents of a child who is suffering from an addiction or a mental illness must take them to a clinical psychologist, a child psychologist, a psychiatrist, or a trauma therapist. Yet there are kids who are not ill or addicted, but who are very stressed or anxious. Some of them may be doing OK in school, but have stress-related skin conditions like dermatographia, or they may suffer from stress-related stomach pains. Others may not present as people who do not get stressed – but their body is clearly pulling them down into a hypoaroused, lethargic, low energy stress state. Their parents have tried taking them to a psychologist, but they don’t want to go as they have been informed that the child does not have a mental illness. So they come to me.
FROM STRESS AND OVERWHELM TO CURIOSITY AND FLOW
“Contrary to what we tend to assume, the normal state of the mind is chaos. Without training, and without an object in the external world that demands attention, people are unable to focus their thoughts for more than a few minutes at a time.”
Dr Mihaly Csikszemtmihalyi (2002) Flow, p 119.
More and more schools and parents are now becoming aware of how too much stress affects a student’s ability to learn, manage their time, organize themselves, and be productive. I’m a Youth Mentor and EFT Tapping Practitioner who specializes in stress, anxiety and academic performance. I support students ages 14+ who are not suffering from a mental illness, but who are being held back from achieving their academic and/or well-being potential because of unhelpful levels of stress. In this article, I talk about what student behavior looks like when a kid is being held back by too much stress. We need to understand a child’s starting point, before we can set personal mentoring goals to help them learn better.
Learning from a state of flow is an enjoyable, mindful kind of focused attention. It is an enhanced focused learning state that boosts a student’s sense of accomplishment and well-being. Schools and parents who want their kids to become confident and happy independent lifelong learners know that exposing your students to opportunities where they can learn new self-soothing stress management and mindfulness tools matters. These tools help learners to shift from experiencing learning as a drudge and a struggle to getting themselves into a state of focus and productivity known as “flow”.
Good study habits, time management habits, morning routines, and evening routines matter. Having a curiosity-based Growth Mindset matters. But students who are not thriving yet have not got all these pieces of the puzzle in place yet. And that’s where I come in.
STRESS IN STUDENT BEHAVIOR AND LEARNING IN DISTRESS
“Hans Selye, the German physician who coined the term ‘stress’, originally broke it down into two poles: distress, or negative stress, and eustress, or positive stress – the kind of stress that causes an athlete to excel, drives an entrepreneur to persevere with a creative project, or inspires a painter to reach new heights of inspired creative expression. Unfortunately, human experiencing being what it is, the word ‘stress’ has become associated exclusively with distress, while the word ‘eustress’ has disappeared from the lexicon.”
Dr Dawson Church (2014) The Genie in Your Genes, pp 85-86.
Some kinds of stress are good. When I talk about mentoring students for stress relief, I’m obviously talking about reducing the distressing kind of stress. You know, the kind that gets in the way of a child achieving their academic or well-being potential. As in the kind of stress that causes a student to struggle to get out of bed in the morning, even if they slept a lot – which is a far cry from a human child that is thriving! Originally, positive psychological stress was known as “eustress”, and negative psychological stress was known as “distress”. Over time, “distress” was replaced with the term “stress”. So when we talk about how to help students reduce their stress levels, we’re talking about helping kids who aren’t yet thriving because of too much distress (which we now call “stress”).
When too much of the distressing kind of stress piles up, it affects a child’s ability to think clearly and to stay on top of his or her studies and assignments. It can also affect their ability to sit in a chair and focus on their schoolwork independently for a meaningful length of time. Of course, you’ve also got the group of kids who are able to focus and get their work done, but their stress levels are negatively affecting their health or well-being. If your child is exhibiting one of the following clusters of behaviors, it’s likely that they are being held back from achieving their academic or well-being potential because of too much stress. These are of course generalizations, and in reality, there’s more of a spectrum of behaviors than these 4 categories of negative stress.
THE 4 MAIN STRESSED LEARNER PROFILES
1) The tense / panicky emotionally immature kid who is not being productive.
This is the child who is most likely to get the help they need in reducing their stress levels so that they can focus and improve their grades in school, because their stress is easily “seen” by others. Schools have these kids on their “causes for concern” lists to keep an eye on, because they often owe one or more of their teachers some work. When it’s time for them to sit down and do their homework, these kids can struggle to sit still and study or do their assignments, even though they haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD. Some may have been diagnosed with borderline ADHD, but that’s as far as it goes. They can behave impulsively, and they focus on doing things that they define as fun as a way of trying to escape from the stress of the academics. When they become more self-aware, they realize that their escapist behaviors only bring about temporary stress relief, as the work piling up leads to even more stress. They fear getting in touch with difficult emotions like fear, stress, and anxiety, and try to distract themselves from having to face hard academic tasks by doing things that feel more fun, relaxing or exciting, like watching a movie or scrolling through social media. This child sometimes develops a habit of lying about having studied for a test, or about having started working on an essay, or about having handed in an assignment. When delaying starting a big project or assignment, you hear them using language that minimizes the challenge of a project or an assignment (“I just have History homework to do today”, “I only need to…”, “The teachers said I just need to…”). As a result, their teachers and parents may find it hard to trust them.
2) The tense / panicky reliable and responsible kid who is being productive.
When these kids experience too much stress, they feel tense / panicky and go into a workaholic or perfectionist approach to their studies. They are conscientious, high-achieving kids who sometimes suffer from over-exerting themselves to achieve their ambitious goals or dreams. Their fears of failure and performance-related distress tends to go unnoticed, or be dismissed or minimized by teachers and parents, because their achievements make their schools, teachers and parents look good. They may routinely stay up late studying and working on their assignments, often because their schedules are so packed with so many other after-school activities and commitments that burning the midnight candle it’s the only way for them to get their homework done to a good standard. Their bad sleeping habits may worry a parent enough to “have a talk” about the importance of sleep and to let them know that they’re worried about them doing so much, but that’s usually as far as it goes. Their unique emotional and well-being needs tend to be the most overlooked/neglected in a school or a family, because they are not a “problem child” or an academic/behavioral “cause for concern”. They conform to what what is expected of them to try their best at whatever they do, but they may feel socially isolated and alone, particularly if they are surrounding by peers who think it’s “cool” to talk with their friends when the teacher is talking, get in trouble for being a “class clown”, or routinely fall behind with schoolwork.
3) The apathetic / lazy kid who used to do well when school was easy.
This child is often the most misunderstood. Often dismissed as ‘lazy’ by teachers or parents, or ‘just a typical teenager’, they start to internalize these labels and believe them to be true, themselves. Schools have these kids on their “causes for concern” lists to keep an eye on, because they often owe one or more of their teachers some work. They have low energy and feel tired most of the time, even though they drink shed loads of coffee to try and stay awake to get work done. They feel bored, unmotivated. They move slowly, feel a bit spaced out, and have an ‘I don’t really care’ approach to their schoolwork that exudes apathy. “My parents think I don’t care that I’m getting bad grades and that I don’t get stressed. But actually, I’m feeling really stressed. I just don’t show it.” This is what I hear when a student with this hypoaroused stress response feels safe to open up to me about their true thoughts and feelings. The main emotion they feel in times of intense pressure and stress is not panic or anxiety – it’s anger of frustration, which often lasts weeks or months. Their body posture is (literally!) very “laid back” (leaning back in their chair, looking like they’re super chilled and relaxed). But when they get in touch with their feelings, they realize that they experience stress as a suppressed form of underlying frustration or anger. This child sometimes develops a habit of lying about having started working on an assignment or about studying. When delaying starting a big project or assignment, you hear them using language that minimizes the challenge of a project or an assignment (“I just have History homework to do today”, “I only need to…”). As a result, their teachers and parents may find it hard to trust them.
4) The kid who goes from “tense / panicky” one moment to “apathetic / lazy” another moment
This can feel quite confusing and bewildering for the child and parent alike. When I work with kids who are oscillating between panic and apathy at the thought of all the work they are behind on that’s piled up, one of the first things that come up is how confused they feel about this panic-apathy mood swing cycle. Yet there is a biological reason for it: when we put ourselves in high-pressure situations after delaying starting on work that keeps piling up, one of the ways that our Autonomic Nervous System responds is to oscillating between hypoarousal (apathy, low energy, “I can’t be bothered”, “I don’t care”, “I’m to tired”, “I’ll do it tomorrow” response) and panic (that awful “!!!!” feeling, dysregulated breathing, hands possibly shaking, heart racing, “I’m going to fail”, “It’s impossible”, “I feel like I’m going to die”). It’s basically a combination of stress response No. 1 and stress response No. 3. And it’s a normal biological response to overwhelming levels of stress. The number 1 priority for all four cases is always reducing unhelpful levels of stress; this is how the child can access the front part of their brain, which is responsible for time management, wise decision-making, and higher-order thinking. However, stress relief is a non-negotiable “Stage 1” intervention, when I am about to start working with a child who is oscillating between the states of panic and lethargy throughout the day. Kids need help to balance their nervous system, and just going for walks, lighting candles at night, and taking deep breaths doesn’t cut the mustard when stuck in these levels of paralyzing and overwhelming stress.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? [SUPPORTING INDIVIDUALS]
“More and more scientific studies and more and more health statistics are showing that the way we’ve been leading our lives – what we prioritize and what we value – is not working. And growing numbers of women, and men, are refusing the join the list of casualties. Instead, they are re-evaluating their lives, looking to thrive rather than merely succeed based on how the world measures success.”
Arianna Huffington (2014) Thrive, p 14.
When I’m mentoring a child who is not yet thriving, I look at the following four areas of development, to get to the root cause of what’s holding them back. I gather the information that helps me understand what the child’s starting point is on the following progress continuums:
- Negative stress / struggle to learn state —- Positive stress / learning in flow state
- No independent daily scheduling, project management, and time management habits —- Excellent independent daily project, scheduling, and time management habits
- No independent study habits —- Excellent independent study habits
- No proactive emotional self-care habits —- Excellent proactive emotional self-care habits
- Fixed Mindset —- Growth Mindset
Once I have an overview of a student’s starting point, I use this information to go off and create a personalized mentoring program proposal for child and parent to consider. They then decide if they wish to proceed and start working together.
The overall goal of any youth mentoring program I create is to process unhelpful levels of student stress so that the student can feel more confident, relaxed and able to focus and motivate themselves. Sometimes, we look to create new study habits (in some cases, for the first time, as the child hasn’t yet developed an independent study routine). Sometimes, the child has no meaningful emotional self-care routines, so we work on creating new habits there to support their personal well-being. And sometimes Fixed Mindset blocks are present, which clearly get in the way of a student’s ability to thrive and to achieve their academic potential.
CO-CREATING A THRIVING LEARNER PROFILE
“When you think you’re not good at something, you can still plunge into it wholeheartedly and stick to it. Actually, sometimes you plunge into something because you’re not good at it. This is a wonderful feature of the Growth Mindset. You don’t have to be really great at something to want to do it and to enjoy doing it.”
Dr Carol S. Dweck, Mindset The New Psychology of Success, p 53.
While the IB Learner Profile works quite well for getting kids into a good university, it doesn’t cut the mustard for helping kids thrive. This is why I’m currently interested in talking with people about what a Thriving Learner Profile could look like. If you are a parent, teacher, or school administrator, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you a Thriving Learner Profile looks like in your mind, in the comments below.
Each individual mentoring program I create is personalized and tailored to the individual learning needs of the student I am working with. However, in the back of my mind, there is always an overall set of “thriving student behaviors” that we are always working towards, which constitutes a healthy and confident lifelong learner profile. What follows is my rudimentary attempt at proposing a Thriving Learner Profile for educators and parents to discuss, composed of specific behaviors, attitudes, and responses to stressful learning challenges that let us know we are making progress in helping kids thrive.
A THRIVING LEARNER PROFILE [SOME INITIAL THOUGHTS]
I believe students who display thriving behaviors are happy and confident learners who are intrinsically motivated to learn. They know how good it feels to be productive from a positive stress state of flow. They are confident and happy kids who enjoy making progress and being productive in a focused, grounded state of flow.
Thriving learners are curious students who have a Growth Mindset. Thanks to their Growth Mindset, they enjoy being challenged as learners, feel fine asking questions in class when there’s something they don’t understand, and respond well to constructive feedback from their teachers on how they can improve. Instead of trying to escape from painful emotions like fear of failure and anxiety; they are curious about what they can learn from choosing to face their fears. They are also curious to learn how they can transform negative stress into positive productive stress.
Students who are thriving have a positive attitude towards learning, are keen to develop their knowledge and skills, and feel grateful that they are one of the lucky kids in the world who actually has access to education. They are aware that many kids their age are forced to work instead of going to school, for whom the opportunity of going to school is something that they can only dream of. They do not exude an attitude of entitlement; they feel grateful to their teachers and parents for helping them have a good education.
They have good study routines, time management habits, sleep habits, and morning /evening routines that support their learning and well-being. They understand the difference between a task and a project, so they can break a big assignment/essay down into the smaller projects and tasks that need to be done over a period of weeks or months. They are not dependent on their school virtual learning environment, like Google classroom, to see what homework is due when every night, because they have their own calendar/diary that they use to organize themselves on a daily basis.
Thriving learners feel accomplished and proud of themselves when they hand in a piece of work that they know they tried their best on. They enjoy how it feels to be making progress in their skills and knowledge. They have a ‘toolbox’ of stress management techniques that they use whenever they need to self-soothe, and they have helpful morning and evening routines that proactively support their mental health and personal well-being.
Last but not least, thriving learners understand that helping to make the world a better place is less about what you do for a living when you grow up, or what university you go to. It’s more about striving to become the best version of themselves. And being a positive influence in your family, in your work environment, and in your community. They are happy with their personal life and their compassion for helping to make a difference in the world is seen through their proactive and positive community contribution.
About the author
Eleni Vardaki works with individuals and small groups online to support parent, teacher, and student well-being. Her mission is to help bridge the gap between mainstream education and the well-being skills we need to thrive in the 21st century, in a trauma-sensitive way. She believes in doable, sustainable interventions for student wellbeing in school cultures that value student and community wellbeing.
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