The life of a student can be a stressful one. Factors such as homework, social life, perceived parental pressure, university applications, and never-ending workloads all generate stress.
Although research shows that a moderate amount of stress can be beneficial and act as a motivator for students to do well, too much stress can impact their overall well-being. So much so, that 70% of students report that depression and anxiety are a “major problem” in their school community.
Chronic stress can also lead to poor academic achievement, increase the likelihood of dropping out of school, and diminish motivation. Therefore, both students and educators need to recognise what the triggers are and what they can do to better manage everyday school stress.
What causes stress at school?
Teachers use homework for two things: engaging their students outside of the classroom and covering topics that they don’t have enough time to teach in class. Although research shows that students who are set regular homework perform significantly better, 84% of students and 57% of teachers believe homework causes stress.
What’s the cause? The number of homework assignments. A survey showed that teachers assign an average of 3.5 hours of homework a day, which equates to 17.5 hours a week. However, researchers state that less amount of homework is necessary to improve performance.
This is because there is only a positive correlation between homework and academic performance within the first 90 minutes of completing homework. Once students hit the 90 minutes to 2.5-hour mark, homework seemed to provide limited benefit as students are no longer able to focus.
Too much homework can result in burnouts, less active learning, students feeling overwhelmed, and can stop them from committing to their other responsibilities.
Extra-curricular activities help students build confidence, explore hobbies, and develop values such as teamwork and responsibility. Yet an increasing number of students are reporting overscheduling as a cause of their stress. It’s a simple case of ‘time poverty’ - too much to do but not enough time to do it.
But why do students sign up for more than they can handle?
Places for top universities are becoming more competitive. There is a greater emphasis on being a well-rounded student rather than just academically talented. As a result, students feel that they have to participate in a wide range of activities and consequently spread themselves too thin.
Research shows that being overscheduled can lead to numerous stress-related symptoms. These not only include headaches, exhaustion, irritability, and sleep deprivation but have been linked to several health issues like chronic stress and stomach ulcers as well.
Poor sleep habits
Students are meant to have 8-10 hours of sleep a night. However, research shows that 45% of adolescents report getting insufficient sleep, with this figure rising to 62% amongst sixth form students.
A survey found that 80% of college students report that feeling stressed by their academic responsibilities was a cause for their lack of sleep. This was supported by research which showed that high levels of stress can result in poor sleep quality and eventually lead to chronic insomnia. However, this can go both ways: sleep deprivation can also be a cause of student stress.
Prolonged sleep deprivation can also result in the development of mood disorders and weakened immune systems – with more doctors diagnosing stress-related gastrointestinal issues.
Poor sleep habits result in lower concentration, poorer memory, and can negatively impact academic performance. A study found that teenagers who had an average grade of a C had 3 hours less sleep per week compared to their higher scoring peers (B grade or higher).
This one is more for the parents than the students. Although it’s natural to want your kid to do well in school and get those top grades, parents may be doing more harm than good. 66% of students report parental pressure as a source of prominent stress.
Whilst research shows that parents having high academic expectations of their children can improve their grades, placing too much pressure on their child to constantly meet these expectations can have negative consequences on overall well-being and grades.
If the first thing parents ask their child after a day in school isn’t “how was your day” but “how did you do on your math test”, they’re emphasising the fact that they place more importance on their grades over anything else. Consequently, students resort to cheating, are sleep-deprived, have lowered self-esteem, as well as increased stress and anxiety levels due to a fear of failure.
6 tips to manage everyday stressors at school
To help your students deal with their day-to-day stress better, share these strategies with them:
1. Change your mindset
Instead of having a negative outlook on the tasks you need to do, consider them as opportunities to learn and improve. Yes, some tasks may be boring or overwhelming and we’re not asking you to play down the stressors you encounter. It’s about changing your perception of difficult situations and focusing on the positives rather than on all the things that could go wrong.
By adopting a growth mindset, you’ll place a greater emphasis on becoming better and learning from mistakes, rather than being overcome by stress as you feel you’ll likely fail. For more tips, check out our blog about Challenging Unhelpful Beliefs.
Exercise is an effective way of reducing stress levels. Physical activity produces endorphins – neurotransmitters that relieve pain and stress in the body. Research shows that exercise can counteract the negative effects of stress such as concentration and fatigue.
Aim to exercise between 30 minutes to 1h a couple of times a week. Not only will it benefit your overall physical health, but your mental health as well. And you don’t need to run a 5K - even a walk is enough to make a difference.
3. Stop procrastinating
To reduce your stress levels, you need to stop procrastinating. 50% of students report engaging in problematic procrastination behaviours that inhibit their academic performance. By completing tasks before their deadlines, you can control and limit the stressful situations you’re exposed to.
If you find it difficult to get started, then try and do the task for 5 minutes. This is because once you start something, your brain remains alert until you finish it. This is known as the Zeigarnik Effect. Starting the task is always the hardest part.
4. Develop a sleep routine
Sleep and mood go hand in hand. So when we’re tired, we can view our surroundings more negatively. Students who regularly report better sleep quality have been found to have better academic performance (about half a grade difference).
Set a regular bedtime, as inconsistency can negatively impact quality of sleep, making you feel tired and groggy – even if you’ve slept 8 hours! Sticking to a sleep schedule has been found to have one of the greatest positive impacts on academic performance.
If you’re feeling stressed, one of the best things you can do is to talk to someone. Talk to friends or teachers if you’re feeling overwhelmed by school, or parents if you feel their expectations of you are having a severe negative effect. By developing a support team, you don’t need to suffer in silence. At the end of the day, your mental and physical well-being is more important than your grade.
When you’re surrounded by deadlines, it’s difficult to know where to start. This can make you feel overwhelmed and even more stressed out. Create a timetable for revision sessions or make a to-do list of all the tasks you need to do, how long you think you’ll take to do them, and their deadlines. This will enable you to manage your time better.
Research shows that effective time-management is a powerful mediator of stress and has been positively correlated with better academic performance in students. Planning what you need to do on paper will allow you to organise your thoughts better and provide direction of where you should start.
Being a student is tough. When we’re stressed, our “fight or flight” response is activated, which can cause our body to shut down.
Homework, sleep deprivation, overscheduling, and parental pressure can all play a significant role in the development of chronic stress issues. This can have a detrimental impact on not only academic performance but physical and mental well-being as well.
However, by encouraging your students to change their mindset, effectively manage their time, and develop good habits, they'll alleviate a lot of the stress they feel on a day-to-day basis and enjoy what time left they have at school.