The beginning of the school year can be a difficult time for students. Evidence suggests that the stress may lead to an initial reduction in grades and problems with self-esteem and attitudes towards teachers. But there are steps teachers can take to make things easier.
Ideally, some work to help minimise this would have already happened in the weeks and months leading up to the start of the school year – useful strategies(pdf) include taster days, giving out clear information to set expectations, and using some of next year’s material in advance. However, there may be some students who struggle to adapt. So what are some strategies teachers can use once the year has begun?
Find out what’s causing their stress
For younger students, the biggest worries about starting secondary school include making friends, finding their way around a new environment, and having to establish multiple teacher-student relationships. Research suggests that this is one of the most stressful transitions for students during their education. Older students obviously have different worries, with social status, for example, being more of a focus for teenagers.
By paying close attention to students, teachers can better understand them and guide them towards more appropriate strategies. Helping students to develop a “sense of belonging” at the school is very important for both their wellbeing and achievement, and the quality of the teacher-student relationship is central to this.
Let’s try a quick experiment. Imagine a scenario where I ask you a series of questions, and there are two possible outcomes to you getting the answers wrong: a) I will definitely give you a mild electric shock, or b) I may give you an electric shock. Which do you find more stressful? If you chose option two, you’re in good company. Recent research from University College London found that those in the uncertain scenario experienced more stress.
It turns out that it’s not the worst-case scenario that worries us the most – it’s the not knowing. If we want to help students transition better between school years with less stress, we have to reduce uncertainty. Be explicit about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour – making sure you include a fair amount of repetition to ensure the messages get through – and talk clearly about good work habits and expectations.
Provide both challenge and support
Environments that help to foster resilience need to be high in both challenge and support. Too much challenge and no support results in excessive stress, burnout and isolation, while too much support but not enough challenge can lead to complacency and boredom.
A study of university students found that those who were able to keep a sense of perspective coped better with change. The trick, then, is to remind students of the big picture, ie that everything will turn out ok, while also giving them a short-term strategy to focus on, ie what they should do next. It’s also important to encouraging support networks, to help individuals manage stressful situations.
Fostering a growth mindset
Researchers from Columbia University and Stanford University tracked teenagers over two years and found evidence to suggest that a student’s mindset (pdf) affected how well they managed these transitions. Those with an incremental or growth mindset were more likely to get higher grades, take on learning goals, value effort, and adopt positive coping strategies and were less likely to feel helpless than students with an entity or fixed mindset.
This is because if students believe they have a set amount of ability or intelligence, new situations can be stressful as they don’t know if they will be able to cope with the new demands. If they believe they’re able to improve their abilities, there is less fear because they know they can develop the skills required.
The good news for teachers is that a follow-up study by the same researchers suggests that this attitude can be taught and developed, reversing the decline in performance in students with a fixed mindset. Useful strategies include asking students growth mindset questions as well as subtly weaving a growth culture into daily classroom practice.