For Kappan authors, understanding student and teacher stress is a first step toward managing it.
Stress and anxiety have no doubt been part of schools since schooling began, but, for decades, they were not frequently addressed in the pages of Kappan. Over the magazine’s first 50 years, a handful of authors wrote about student mental health and its effects on their behavior, performance, and general well-being, but stress and anxiety received little to no focused attention.
Understanding student stress
One early mention of the topic occurred in May 1950, when A.N. Hieronymus (“Mental and physical health”) wrote of the connection between physical and mental health and noted that anxiety levels are one important aspect of mental health. For Hieronymus, “anxiety is defined as a fearful anticipatory response to situations that normally are not regarded as dangerous. . . . persons with adjustment problems usually respond with anxiety to social situations that represent sources of satisfaction to most people” (p. 446).
In May 1976, Thomas Ringness (“Whatever happened to the study of classical conditioning?”) took up this idea of anxiety as a fearful anticipatory response to some common event, such as going on stage before an audience, competing in physical education class, taking a test, or visiting the principal’s office. Such fears are common, he argued, and their effects are not entirely negative:
In general it seems that a mild degree of anxiety (or challenge?) can facilitate performance, but that too high anxiety is likely to interfere. Thus if our students are highly anxious they are less efficient than they could be; additionally, there is the humanitarian factor to consider. (p. 447)
Ringness recommended that teachers who wish to improve student performance and well-being look to the world of classical conditioning, in which students are exposed to their fears in small, gradually increasing doses. With the help of a school psychologist or guidance counselor, such exposure can help reduce student fears, he argued.
By the 1980s, stress was coming up more regularly in Kappan. Louis Chandler’s December 1981 article (“What teachers can do about childhood stress”) began with an attempt to help adults understand the child’s perspective when seeking to help them manage stress. Children perceive limits, for example, differently from adults. While adults might chafe against limitations, for children, they create a sense of security and confidence that enables them to seek out new challenges. He also cautioned adults to avoid pushing their own stresses onto children:
The mass media glut our minds with information about social causes, the concerns of various citizen groups, and such problems as crime, pollution, terrorism, and war. These are legitimate adult concerns. But children are ill prepared to confront these larger social issues. Adults who foist such concerns onto children are only encouraging a pseudo-maturity, in which youngsters’ levels of rational awareness will outstrip their emotional readiness to deal with these issues. (p. 277)
By the 2000s, we had begun to get a much more sophisticated understanding of how stress affects social behavior, memory, attention, and learning — and the emerging research began to show up more often in the magazine. Authors such as Jessica Minahan and Nancy Rappaport (“Anxiety in students: A hidden culprit in behavior issues,” December 2012/January 2013) explored how anxiety can lead students to behave inappropriately, such as by melting down or withdrawing. And teacher responses can raise students’ anxiety even more, exacerbating the behavior. The challenge for teachers is understandable, as anxiety-driven behavior is not always easy to predict:
For teachers, the inconsistent and erratic nature of anxiety-related behavior can be baffling. Stephanie breaks her pencil on Monday and calmly asks the teacher for another. On Tuesday, she breaks her pencil and sharpens it. On Wednesday, she breaks her pencil and screams, cries, and runs out of the room. This outburst had little to do with the broken pencil. Unbeknownst to the teacher, her level of anxiety was extremely high when her pencil broke on Wednesday. Fluctuating anxiety can lead to behavior that has inconsistent patterns or seems to come “out of the blue.” (p. 35)
Helping these students is not as simple as telling them to relax. As Jessica Minahan and Jerome Schultz explained in the December 2014/January 2015 Kappan (“Interventions can salve unseen anxiety barriers“), students experiencing extreme anxiety are in a fearful state, and their brains do not process new information properly. For this reason, “trying to teach a child to relax in the midst of high anxiety is like trying to teach someone how to swim when sharks are in the water” (p. 47). The best approach is to catch potential problems early, before fears spiral out of control.
School as a source of stress
Some Kappan authors have stepped back to consider what it is about schools that makes them a source of stress for students. For example, some students experience test anxiety, a phenomenon that Spencer Salend discussed in March 2012 (“Teaching students not to sweat the test”). In the article, Salend offered suggestions for improving tests so they are more student-friendly and teaching test-taking strategies and methods for reducing anxiety.
Other authors took a broader view and looked at how school cultures, specifically cultures focused on high performance, might increase stress. As David Dockterman and Chris Weber explained in “Does stressing performance goals lead to too much, well, stress?” (March 2017):
Simply put, stressing goals often leads to stressed out people. When we become too aggressive in our focus on performance objectives, people can become less able to meet them. We believe wholeheartedly that schools must set rigorous expectations for all students. But schools must be thoughtful about how they define and pursue those expectations. (p. 31)
Too often, goals set by outsiders involve factors that are outside students’ (and teachers’) control. And when that happens, said Docterman and Weber, “stress overtakes inspiration. Anxiety replaces optimism” (p. 32).
Almost two decades earlier (October 1988), Amos Hatch and Evelyn Freeman considered the problem with overly ambitious goals in “Who’s pushing whom? Stress and kindergarten.” Their study of Ohio teachers and administrators found that as kindergarten programs became more academic, it was not just children who became stressed out. Teachers, principals, and supervisors also suffered from increased stress:
That stress grows out of a conflict between what these professionals are expected to do on the job and what they believe to be appropriate educational practice in dealing with young children. The perception is widespread that “someone else” is pushing for academic kindergartens; meanwhile, many teachers, principals, and supervisors are concerned for the children they serve and alienated from the work that they do. (p. 146)
Stress among educators has come up numerous times in the pages of Kappan, and it continues to be an important topic, as the 2019 PDK poll attests. In March 1983, Walter Gmelch (“Stress, health, and coping strategies of public school administrators”) described a survey of 1,156 public school administrators in which “more than 60% reported that at least 70% of the total stress in their lives was job related” (pp. 513-514).
How did they cope? A majority turned to physical activity, such as jogging, chopping wood, or doing yoga. A smaller number (around 40%) used mental strategies, such as adopting a positive attitude, setting realistic goals, or sharing with colleagues and spouses. Another common, but less frequent, strategy was to improve their skills in such areas as time management, personnel management, and conflict management. No single strategy is best for everyone, Gmelch pointed out:
No amount of research can identify a single, specific means of combating the harmful effects of stress for every administrator. Moreover, as this study demonstrates, the causes of stress are likely to be many and varied. Perhaps the message to be gleaned from our study is that those who best cope with stress are those flexible enough to draw on a number of techniques. (p. 514)
In September 2011, Jerome Murphy (“Dancing in the rain: Tips on thriving as a leader in tough times”) encouraged stressed-out leaders to take a look inside themselves:
In the privacy of our minds, we can make things worse by fighting our discomfort, getting hooked on our troubling thoughts, and scolding ourselves for falling short. As a consequence, we can sidetrack our work and lose sight of what really matters to us. Too often our performance deteriorates, our joy evaporates, our misery escalates, our energy dissipates — and some of us even burn out. (p. 36)
Instead of running from these feelings of discomfort, leaders would be better off to accept it and “focus our energies on changing not our feelings but our behavior — consistent with our true and enduring values” (p. 37). This is easier said than done, of course, because:
our big, busy minds can turn on us, spewing out all sorts of crippling distractions, doubt, and criticism. They tell us we’re falling short of our potential, failing to live up to our own standards, succumbing to our own weaknesses and imperfections — and we believe them. (p. 38).
The answer, Murphy recommended, is for leaders to recognize that their negative thoughts and discomfort do not define them, nor do they have to define their actions.
A schoolwide solution
There is no simple way to manage stress in schools, as it arises from so many different sources. But schools can create a climate where mental health is emphasized, and perhaps that will help students and teachers cope. In March 2017, Ellen Spiegel (“Managing STRESS for at-risk students”) told the story of the BRIDGE Alternative Middle School in Lowell, Massachusetts. Students come to BRIDGE because they haven’t been able to function successfully in traditional schools, often because of early trauma and stress that make it difficult for them to respond appropriately to conflicts and challenges. And so BRIDGE focuses on helping them learn to manage their emotions. They do so by creating a calm environment, ensuring students feel physically and emotionally safe, and giving students ways to communicate their feelings.
Not all students will need the level of support that the students at BRIDGE do, but it’s likely that every school has some students who will need this level of support. And it’s likely that everyone could use some of these strategies for understanding their own feelings of stress and how to manage them.
Citation: Preston, T. (2019, Oct. 28). How Kappan authors have addressed stress. Phi Delta Kappan, 101 (3), 5-7.