As an educator supporting international school students all over Switzerland, it is distressing to see how many are struggling with mental health issues.
A 2017 OECD survey of 540,000 students aged 15-16 across 66 countries found that 66% of students felt stressed about poor grades and 55% felt very anxious about school testing even when very well prepared.
Fast-forward a few more years to today. Students have more to stress about than ever, with Covid-19 disrupting daily life and a global recession in progress limiting future opportunities and employability.
Generation Z are also the first cohort never to have known of a world before the smart phone. Whether it is the easy availability of pornography, online bullying or the constant presence of “FOMO” fear of missing out, these new online frontiers are creating a more complex school life for our children. In fact, according to another survey (Associated Press/MTV), school was the most frequently mentioned source of stress for 13 to 17-year-olds.
But surely school stress is not all bad?
Stress can be a short-term response to an event like an upcoming exam or a class presentation and in small doses it can be beneficial. It can help us perform better, get motivated and do more work in the time we have available. However, too much stress that becomes chronic can be harmful.
High cortisol levels can impair brain function and suppress the immune system. In childhood, the neural circuits for dealing with stress are malleable, and stress over long periods can rewire the brain to become overly reactive or slow to shut down when faced with threats. Too much stress can disrupt normal brain development. It has also been linked to increased risk of diseases into adulthood.
Stress can end up with school refusal
At TutorsPlus we have supported families over the years where the stress has got to be too much for some children, and they have refused to attend school. Here we have an article on school refusal. As parents we want to help quickly and intervene to ensure we don’t end up in such difficult circumstances.
So, what are the sources of school stress?
Hardly a new problem, bullying affects many students, but the difference today is that while it used to stop when kids reached the safety of their own front door, it now continues into the home. This super connected generation can be reached through their mobile at any time of the day (or night).
This means children can feel there is no longer a safe space and the relentlessness of being constantly bullied can lead to quick deteriorations in mental health.
Whether it’s parents pushing for better academic results or teachers giving less-than-stellar grades, academic pressure can take over if students don’t learn how to deal with it.
So, with more pressure to achieve at school and in life, by parents, by peers, or by students themselves, school life adds up to a huge source of stress and anxiety.
Sometimes stress can be linked to a specific school subject. In our teaching we most often see this linked to Maths. Children can create a complete block, refusing to work at all on that subject. Here we have written an article on Maths anxiety, including tips on how you can help children overcome it.
Even though most international students would be considered privileged, there can be unique vulnerabilities of pressured youths, breaking under the weight of high expectations. The unrelenting pressure on students comes from parents who want A’s, coaches who want wins for their school’s reputation and exams which are never too far off.
I recently spoke to a parent who told me about her teenage daughter who had been traumatised that her phone had broken. Unfortunately, the issue wasn’t a quick fix, but there turned out to be a silver lining. After a few days her daughter said what a pleasure it was not to have to respond to the constant flood of messages from friends.
Peer relationships can be complex and stressful. Do they have enough friends? Are they likable? Can they keep up with friends? These are all questions that, particularly in the teenage years, can be huge sources of stress.
Stress and anxiety are reaching record levels, but as parents we can be hopeful, there are things we can do to help.
But what can parents do to manage stress and lessen the impact?
- Check you aren’t inadvertently being an additional source of stress for your child.
No parent wants to make stress levels for their children worse, but inadvertently that is what might be happening. Pressurising our children to get better grades or work harder can be counterproductive. Not only do teens often do the opposite of what their parents advise, stress may be getting in the way of them trying their hardest to achieve.
No one does their best while under huge levels of stress, so instead you can look for ways to offer help and support. Some students use a coping mechanism that it is better not to try than to try and then fail.
- If your child appears stressed help them work out why?
Understanding the cause of stress is half the battle and stress can creep into life gradually and it can be hard for a child to articulate the cause. Helping them find the source of pressure can be a first big step to making things better.
- Help students learn to change their thinking.
Although it doesn’t always feel that stress is controllable, we can help our children learn how to use healthy stress to get things done. While also teaching them and important life lesson on how to make stress manageable.
Try helping them understand that “You cannot get stressed out unless you believe your thoughts,” that stress is a reaction to a given situation and that students can choose to have a different reaction.
Help them combat negative thinking. This could be with positive visualisation techniques or breaking down a project or problem into small chunks to make tackling it more manageable. “All or nothing thinking” is also a product of stress and can make finding solutions even harder. It can help to separate “performance” from “self-worth.” Performance may go up or down but that doesn’t change the way you value yourself.
This approach also helps avoid the trap stressed students can fall into, that it is better not to try at all, as this avoids the risk of giving up or failing.
- Help students get organised.
Stress can be caused by students feeling overwhelmed by schoolwork. Deadlines can pile up, and students can have trouble organising themselves
Clutter can cause stress and decrease productivity. A tidy, calm place to work away from distractions is important to minimise stress. Also, helping your child get organised and finding strategies and systems to help them independently manage workload and deadlines.
This can help lower stress levels, save time in finding lost items, and keep family relationships more positive. It can also help students gain self-confidence and independence.
If you don’t have the time a tutor can help your child learn the study and organisation skills needed to take the stress out of homework and exam preparation. Here you will find more on how our tutors can help.
- Go through the stress checklist for your child.
Are they getting enough sleep?
Not getting enough sleep impairs academic performance and makes it harder to get through the day. The sleep foundation recommends the following hours of sleep for school age children. Click Here for more detailed information.
School age children (6-13): Sleep range 9-11 hours
Teenagers (14-17): Sleep range 8-10 hours
Younger adults (18-25): Sleep range is 7-9 hours
Does your child have a stress outlet?
This could be finding a hobby or joining a sports club or going out with friends. It could be walking the family dog or doing arts and crafts. It doesn’t matter as long as it relaxes them. Gaming and messaging friends, while enjoyable, can often not be activities that give students relaxing downtime.
Do they know how to use relaxation techniques?
This can include things like meditation, breathing exercises, thinking positive thoughts, or visualization.
Meditation and yoga are proven to lower stress and can be done by children and adults alike. Here are the best of the best, personally tested by the TutorsPlus team.
Best yoga for primary kids.
Best Yoga app for teens and adults.
Headspace is a great resource. Here the first link is for adults and second is especially for children. For children we especially like the one that get the start of the day off in a positive way and the meditation for calmness with simple, fun breathing exercises.
Do they have someone to talk to?
Often just talking about what’s stressful or having someone listen to your problems can drastically reduce anxiety and stress. So, checking your child has someone they can talk to is important, whether it is a friend, aunt or teacher what is important is they feel comfortable sharing their problems with them.
Are they taking regular exercise?
Blowing off steam through sports or exercise can be very effective at reducing stress levels. Helping your children get regular exercise can make a big difference and set up healthy living habits for a lifetime.
By Sara Lloyd
Sara has been an education consultant for TutorsPlus for over 10 years and is an expert on international education in Switzerland. She is also a parent of two lively children.