High School Students Stress — 5 Ways Teachers Can Help
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.
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.