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Creative Stress Relief: Reducing Student Anxiety in Schools

I was talking with a teacher friend recently about the differences between our time as high school students and students today.

“Kids today are so much more stressed than we were,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe it.”

Surely it can’t be that bad, I replied. We faced academic and social pressures in school. We got through it.

“Not like this,” my friend said, earnestly.

He went on to tell me about a recent episode in which he sent a young woman to the school counselor’s office after she broke down in tears in his classroom. The reason: she received a B grade on an exam.

Ask almost any classroom educator, it’s likely they have a similar story.

On one end of the spectrum there are students who deal with intense expectations and the unrelenting competition of college admissions. On the other end, there are students who face the social and psychological effects of violence and poverty. Add to that the challenges presented by social media, bullying, and other daily encounters, and the reasons for such breakdowns are obvious.

A 2014 study by the American Psychological Association found that teens reported a higher stress level during the school year than adults. With incidents of teen suicide increasing over the past 15 years, school leaders are looking for ways to defuse student stress before it becomes dangerous.

While each school or district chooses to tackle these challenges in their own way, many have positioned the need for stronger student engagement and mental health at the core of this work. Here are three districts that have made student mental health a priority and what they’re doing to relieve students’ stress.

A culture shift in Lexington

Lexington High School in Massachusetts saw the effect of intense academic stress first-hand when one of its students committed suicide in January, as reported by the New York Times.

In a town only 10 miles from the campuses of Harvard and MIT, superintendent Mary Czajkowski and her staff knew they had to change a culture that over-emphasized admission to the Ivy League, reporter Kyle Spencer writes. It wasn’t just the students who needed a change in mindset—the school made an effort to engage parents through workshops on anxiety and college admissions issues.

Want more on how to face your own stress? Read 4 ways to make school-related stress work for you

The district also de-emphasized competition in its classrooms by eliminating class rankings. And it integrated new classroom lessons specifically to teach mental health knowledge and relaxation techniques.

Changing school culture is never easy, and telling highly ambitious students and parents to ratchet down their expectations is next to impossible. But with stress levels at an all-time high, administrators in Lexington hope refocusing the district’s mission will help relieve much of that unhealthy student tension.

Teaching mindfulness in Seattle

At Roosevelt High School in Seattle, teachers and staff are teaching students to live in the moment.

As teacher Karen Grace told Paige Cornwell in the Seattle Times:

“We find ourselves always functioning on this low-level panic, and I think we are seeing that more and more. Life continues to speed up, and kids don’t have the life experience and tools to figure out what to do with that.”

The school gives students 20 minutes of free time each day: to catch up on homework, check-in with teachers, or just to simply relax. Every Thursday, teachers use this special class period to teach students the tenets of “mindfulness,” or being aware of your own thoughts and feelings in a particular moment.

The hope is that students will be better-equipped to think about things other than academics, to enjoy their school experiences, and to manage their anxiety.

Only a few months after introducing the free periods, students and teachers report a calmer tone in their classrooms and hallways, Cornwell writes.

Rethinking physical education in Houston

Before retiring as superintendent of Houston ISD in Texas, Terry B. Grier knew he had to do something about rising student stress levels, he writes in a commentary for Education Week.

Inspired by a program in California and New York that taught stress relief through yoga, breathing exercises, and learning to focus, he decided to pilot a similar program in his district.

After seeing results in select schools, the district decided to expand the program, Grier writes:

“We soon expanded the program to 14,000 students on 26 campuses and saw the same results as in previous research: fewer behavioral issues, students and teachers regaining focus, and a palpable shift toward a culture of care and compassion at each campus.”

What steps is your school or district taking to battle student stress and anxiety? Tell us in the comments.