Supporting Students Who Are Stressed

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By Tricia Kurtt

Recently a student said to me, “I don’t ever get stressed out.” This student just overheard another student  rattle off, in a panic, a laundry list of things they needed to get accomplished in a short amount of time.  “Really?” I replied, “You never get stressed?”  He then answered confidently, “I don’t get stressed. I just live in the moment.”  I smiled.  His response made me reflect a little on my own stress level.  I, myself, feel stressed quite often and probably need to adopt his approach and live in the moment a little more than I do.  My “never get supporting-students-who-are-ststressed out” student tends to live in the moment a little too much and probably needs some structures in place to get his to-do list done in a timely manner.  Finding the balance for most of us can be a challenge. As educators, we need to manage the stress in our own life and then support our students as they learn to tackle the demands of their busy lives.  We can coach them through times when they are stressed if we Look and Listen, Rephrase and Reassure, and provide Tips to Tackle Stress.

Look and Listen

The better we know our students the easier it will be to notice when they might be experiencing stress.  Look for signs that the student just isn’t quite their normal self.  Sometimes there can be physical signs that a student is stressed.  Some of those signs might be withdrawal from people or activities, quicker than normal or stronger than normal emotional reactions, or high levels of worry or nervousness.  If you notice a student seems to be stressed, take a few minutes and listen to what is on their mind.  Giving students a chance to verbalize everything that is weighing on them and being there as someone who will listen is a great first step.  When you listen, free yourself from all distractions and give the student your undivided attention so they know, without a doubt, that you are listening fully to what they are sharing with you.

Rephrase and Reassure

After you listen fully, take a moment to rephrase what the student just shared with you.  You can infer a lot about what is troubling the student by not only listening to the words they are saying but also paying attention to their tone, body language, and emotion as they share.  When you rephrase back to them what they have said to you, include some of the emotions you believe they are feeling so they know they have been heard.  Don’t worry if you misread their emotion.  End your rephrasing with a prompt that lets the student reiterate or correct what you have stated.  “I hear you saying that you are overwhelmed by the amount of homework you have and you are really worried you can’t get it all done because of basketball practice. Is that right?”  Rephrasing reassures the student that you are fully listening and that you understand what they are saying and feeling.  You can also reassure by adding statements that help the student understand that what they are feeling is a normal emotional response that everyone experiences when things pile up. “The good news is, it sounds like you are on top of everything you need to get done!  I often feel the same way you are feeling when I have a list of things to get done and not enough time to get them done.  I think lots of people feel this way when times get extra busy.  Can I share a couple tips that I have found helpful?”  the-key-to-supporting-students-as-they-deal-with-stress-is-to-try-and-identify-it-early-1

Tips to Tackle Stress

If a student is open to hearing some tips for tackling their stress, share some strategies that have worked for you. Something that has always worked for me is to write down everything I need to get done.  Once I have written it down, I can prioritize what needs to get finished and make a plan for addressing the items I am not going to get completed on time.  For students, this might be making a list of all the school work they need to do, prioritizing what they can get done with the time they have, and then making a plan to address the items they are not going to be able to complete by the deadline.  Encourage the student to email or talk to the teachers about the work that is going to be late and collaboratively come up with a timeline for getting it turned in.  In my experience, teachers are very understanding and appreciate this proactive approach.  There are also other ideas about what to do to lessen or alleviate stress.  Encourage students to pause for a moment and take a couple deep breaths while reminding themselves that everyone has limits.  Share with them what types of activities you build into your week to proactively tackle stress.  For me, I enjoy going on daily walks, talking with friends, and spending time with my husband and kids. Ask them what they enjoy doing and encourage them to make those things a priority during the less busy times of their life so they are recharged and ready to tackle the more stressful times they encounter.

The key to supporting students as they deal with stress is to try and identify it early.  First, Look and Listen to students when you see stress building.  Giving students an avenue to share what they are feeling is a great first step to tackling stress.  Second, Rephrase and Reassure students that stress is a normal reaction that almost everyone encounters on a regular basis.  When students know that someone understands where they are coming from and that stress is a normal part of life they can keep a healthy perspective when dealing with it.  Third, share Tips to Tackle Stress with your students. Let your students know what strategies and action steps you take to handle stress in your life.  Help them put into place some strategies to try.  Reiterate that stress in life is normal and is to be expected.  Supporting your students is a great first step but don’t forget that there are other professionals in the school setting that can partner with you to help students who need more support than you alone can give. As educators we can implement this thoughtful approach and develop our students ability to rely on effective strategies for tackling the stress they face now and better equip them to tackle the stress they will face in the future.


Tricia Kurtt is a 2015 ASCD Emerging Leader who currently serves as a high school instructional coach in Norwalk, Iowa.  She is a National Board Certified teacher who recently graduated from Iowa State University with a master’s degree in Educational Leadership. Connect with Kurtt on Twitter @tkurtt77.

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