The Academic Life Coach

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By - Marie Corfield

High School Students Stress — 5 Ways Teachers Can Help

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Educators have an obligation to track student stress and help them through those difficult times. Here are 5 great ways to do so.

In my last post, I wrote about three big myths in education, how they add to high school students’ stress, and tactics students can use to overcome them. In this post, I’ll focus on 5 things educators can—and should—do to help.

Defining the problem:

Recognize this? It’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If you’ve never seen or heard of it, here’s how Psychology Today defines it:





In his influential paper of 1943, A Theory of Human Motivation, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that healthy human beings have a certain number of needs, and that these needs are arranged in a hierarchy, with some needs (such as physiological and safety needs) being more primitive or basic than others (such as social and ego needs). Maslow’s so-called ‘hierarchy of needs’ is often presented as a five-level pyramid, with higher needs coming into focus only once lower, more basic needs are met.

Maslow called the bottom four levels of the pyramid ‘deficiency needs’ because a person does not feel anything if they are met, but becomes anxious if they are not. Thus, physiological needs such as eating, drinking, and sleeping are deficiency needs, as are safety needs, social needs such as friendship and sexual intimacy, and ego needs such as self-esteem and recognition. In contrast, Maslow called the fifth level of the pyramid a ‘growth need’ because it enables a person to ‘self-actualize’ or reach his fullest potential as a human being. Once a person has met his deficiency needs, he can turn his attention to self-actualization; however, only a small minority of people are able to self-actualize because self-actualization requires uncommon qualities such as honesty, independence, awareness, objectivity, creativity, and originality.

As this image shows, these levels of need have their place in the learning process as well. But, as in their home life, it takes supportive and nurturing adults to help students achieve them. It’s when both these pyramids are firing on all cylinders that the top of these pyramids can be reached.

Helping students cope:

In a recent post on Edutopia, teacher David Tow shared his best practices for helping students through the stresses they face on a daily basis:

1. Ask “How are you doing?”—and mean it. For the past six years, I’ve stood at the door and welcomed my high school students in with a handshake and a variant of that question. If I sense any problems, I might ask  “Really?” or “You sure?” I think it’s reassuring to students to know that an adult in their life cares about their well-being, and the research strongly supports that position.

Student responses, even if they don’t answer honestly, can reveal volumes about their actual mental and emotional status. In my class, as students complete the warm-up, I go to my roster and note which students seemed upset or otherwise off.

Over the course of an average month, I think it’s a good goal to seek out one substantial check-in with every student, no matter how they seem to be doing. The teacher will have made a meaningful one-on-one contact, and the student will know that the teacher has their well-being at heart. Furthermore, it’s easy and cheap in terms of time invested, but can yield important insights.

2. Set office hours. This is a policy I’ve borrowed from some of the best teachers I’ve worked with: Set formal office hours and use them to meet with students about more than just academic concerns. For example, I’ll try and meet with each of my students once per semester at some point outside of class time and use the conversation to learn more about who they are, what their academic goals are, and whatever other concerns they have. More often than not, these conversations move into more meaningful territory—most of my students just want or need someone to talk to. The primary objection is that this costs a great deal of time, and I agree. It’s time intensive, but I think it’s worth it.

3. Remember your Maslow. It seems trite to point this out, but in the midst of all the testing and the grading, we need to remind ourselves that mental health trumps academic performance every time. Students who don’t feel grounded or safe or healthy cannot do their best work. Instead of constructing a classroom environment that operates at 100 percent difficulty all the time, consider alternate models that allow students to feel supported and competent first—and then consciously and explicitly ratchet up the difficulty and complexity as appropriate. I try to practice a type of curricular minimalism: lots of guided and independent low-stakes practice, culminating in a manageable set of summative exercises.

4. Consider what matters. I have often spoken with both past and current colleagues about makeup work. Many are of the belief that if a student misses an assignment, they should be—and often must be—responsible for timely completion upon their return. Others tend to recommend a gardener’s approach, pruning the material to its most vital branch. More specifically, when a student is out, it’s important for teachers to consider what work, what skills, and what benchmarks are actually important for outcomes.

When a colleague suggested to me that not all assignments matter, and those that do matter don’t all matter the same, I balked—but there’s plenty of wisdom in the idea. When a student falls behind, consider dropping assignments or editing down the work and, most importantly, explain to the student why that exception is being made. They will appreciate the clarity and the empathy, and most respond by working with greater discipline toward more manageable outcomes in the future.

5. Use the professionals. The best attempts of teachers pale in comparison to the support, resources, and guidance of professionals. I cannot advocate enough for teachers and all school staff to get to know your on-site school psychologists or mental health counselors (if you are so lucky), or to find those very important names and numbers immediately. Every mental health professional I’ve met in education has impressed me with their sensitivity, care, and ability to identify underlying issues well beyond my knowledge, and they explain the connection between a student’s case history and my observations in a way that is both useful and crystal clear. Although teachers tend to try to be self-sufficient and eschew asking for help from those outside the classroom, we aren’t mental health professionals—and this sort of assistance is necessary.

(emphasis mine)

Contrary to the damaging education”accountability” policies of the past 15 years, educators cannot test students into better mental health, but we can provide a safe learning environment for every child. For many students, school is the only safe place they know. That feeling of safety can sometimes manifest in strange ways; their behavior can be worse than expected. Why? Because, while they may be getting their deficiency needs met, and thus feel safe enough to express the pain inside, they don’t know how to express it, so it comes out inappropriately. It’s like the pot of boiling water with no way for the steam to escape: eventually the lid blows.

While Maslow said only a small number of people actually reach the top of the pyramid, educators can and should do everything in our power to provide a strong, sturdy ladder for every one of our students. It’s ultimately up to them how far they climb.



7 thoughts on “High School Students Stress — 5 Ways Teachers Can Help

Heidi April 3, 2018 at 3:28 am

i hope all educator read your post, i certainly wish more of my teachers had offered this type of COUNSEL. i was lucky to have a wonderful maths teacher, who i think inherently knew these things, he was much loved and respected.

i found the maslow’s HIERARCHY for educators very interesting, not just for high school kids but for all of us trying to live our best lives.

mental health has really come to the fore these days and its wonderful to see someone helping to EDUCATE our EDUCATORS.


david April 3, 2018 at 2:08 pm

Very interesting article! I agree when you say “use the professionals” , I actually think that going to a professional is the best way to deal with any problem.


Eric April 3, 2018 at 2:43 pm

I found this article funny on-site mental health counselors, psychologists? never heard of such a thing.I didn’t even know much if anything about a guidance counselor. I do like the fact you try to find out about your students, don’t think I had a teacher like that even in college.

High school stress wasn’t an issue, classes and grades pretty easy. It was everything else that was a mess and for many, that indicates there aren’t any issues. My question is what do you do when there is an issue?


    admin April 3, 2018 at 5:03 pm

    Thanks for stopping by, Eric. On-site school counselors are very common in public education. Students come to school with so much more baggage than when I was a student (eons ago!), that educators aren’t equipped to handle that. We can and should be seen as trusted adults in whom students can confide, but when a situation is outside the scope of a teacher’s training (abuse, neglect, violence, etc in the home), that’s when we need the help of trained professionals. They are so important.


Lee Ann April 3, 2018 at 2:56 pm

First I want to say thank you for the time you take for students.
It seems that there are some teachers who just try and get through the day (as with all jobs I guess).
But I also know there are still the teachers who do care about the students and have built a better relationship with them that allows them to tell when a student is having an off day.
If you have a student with an unhappy home life (for whatever reason) they start out anxiously wanting to get to school, oping it will be a more relaxed ENVIRONMENT for them.
If it isn’t, then you have a very unhappy and stressed student.
My 13 year old has a teacher that could learn from you.
My daughter is an honor roll student with an F in science. That alone should tell this teacher something isn’t right. He puts them in groups for labs. She ends up with the group that doesn’t do their share of the wotk, or are absent. This counts against her. How is that right?
Our students need teachers like yourself, and thankfully there are more like you than not.


    admin April 3, 2018 at 4:59 pm

    Lee Ann, when cooperative learning is done right, it should never result in one student doing all the work but not getting a grade that reflects that effort. Nor should it result in pulling down the grades of all in the group. Cooperative learning is when a group of students work together, but assessed separately—because of the reasons you mentioned. I feel for your daughter. That should not be happening.


Andrew Bromley April 3, 2018 at 5:06 pm

Going through the stress and turmoil of high school must take it’s toil on the students and sometimes they may need special care and handling. you have done well in highlighting this problem


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