Teaching Students to Recognize Stress

Recently, I spoke with a teacher about the transition back to the physical classroom. Although his students were happy to resume in-person learning, many of them experienced higher stress levels upon returning to a bustling classroom. Our conversation left me wondering what we as educators can do to support students who experience stress. As we know, stress can be dangerous and has the potential to interfere with learning. We can help students learn the science behind how stress works in their body, support them in recognizing stress, and offer tools like emotional regulation and mindfulness activities. By doing so, we allow students to take charge during these stressful situations.

Teaching the Science Behind Stress

Childhood stress expert Dr. Daniel Siegel uses a hand model of the brain to teach young people about the science behind what happens when they experience stress or anxiety. The idea behind this teaching tool is simple: children and adolescent brains are still developing, which makes them more likely to allow stress and anxiety to take over. By teaching young people about the brain structure and patterns involved, we empower them to use mindfulness techniques to notice and reduce their own stress. In this way, we can use the science of stress to teach effective emotional regulation to children. Tell students to place their thumb in the middle of their palm, then fold the other fingers over to make a fist. Their thumb represents the Limbic system (memory, emotional response) and the four fingers represent your prefrontal cortex (decision making, problem solving, concentration). When they feel calm, the brain is like this closed fist, with the prefrontal cortex able to operate, breathing slowly and feeling relaxed. The limbic system, which is responsible for our behavioral and emotional response (including fight, flight, or freeze response), is often described as the “caveman brain” or “reptilian brain”. Yet when students experience a stressful situation (a pop quiz, basketball tryouts, bullying), they might lose access to their prefrontal cortex, allowing their Limbic system to take over. This can result in shallow breathing, tense muscles, and an increased heart rate. Students can show with their hand that they have “flipped their lid” by opening their hand all the way. For younger students, the hand model is a great way to teach emotional regulation. You can instruct students to practice using their hand to show which part of the brain is in charge. Of course the point of teaching using this model is to promote awareness of our natural response to stress and promote mindfulness. We can model this for students by explaining how we ourselves employ coping mechanisms to deal with stress.

Open Awareness for Recognizing Stress

Chronic childhood stress can be toxic. It can have extremely negative effects on the body over time. The first step in combating stress is to become aware of it. You can have an enormous effect on children’s ability to regulate stress simply by giving them tools to notice how it is affecting their bodies. A simple way to do this is to have them make notes of what they feel in their bodies when they experience stress throughout the day. Do they feel jumpy? Full of energy? Tired? Tight muscles? Do they feel a faster heartbeat? A simple checklist is a great way to put young people in charge of their stress and at ease. By noticing the stress, they can regulate their body’s response to it. By choosing simple responses like breathing, closing their eyes, drinking water, or finding a quiet space, young people take control over stress.

Teaching Mindfulness 

While understanding the science behind stress and recognizing how it affects our bodies are both important to helping students self-regulate, we can also teach mindfulness as a tool to allow students to alleviate negative emotions. Simple exercises can empower students to take the initiative before stress becomes too much to handle. Simple mindfulness activities might include: – breathing exercises that encourage students to focus on their breathing for a few minutes at a time; – encouraging students to do a quick body scan in order to focus on parts of their body that feel tense; – developing coping skills such as coloring, drinking water, stretching, or walking; – paying attention to the breath while focusing on the five senses; – simple yoga or stretching exercises; – incorporating quiet time into daily routines. Resources https://www.asset-edu.org/recognizing-stress https://qbi.uq.edu.au/brain/brain-anatomy/limbic-system

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