Managing School Stress: An Insider Perspective

This article was originally published on Libero Network. A big shout-out to my friend Lauren Bersaglio, founder. Libero is a non-profit online magazine and resource site that brings awareness to and offers support for those recovering from eating disorders, depression, addiction, anxiety & abuse.

So why is school so stressful?

I’ve been teaching for three years. Before that, I was a student, and still am. I see education from both sides: student and teacher. Let’s talk about how to manage school stress.

I have to start with a disclaimer: School is just one part of your life learning – all that information about the world that you’ve been collecting since you starting sensing stimuli in the womb. We all know learning is a good thing – I mean, kids love learning – and we love learning about things we care about, whether that’s keeping up to date with the newest music, learning some quirky fact about our best friend, or flipping through faded photo albums in grandma’s musty attic.

So why is school so stressful? Maybe because school isn’t simply learning in an way that’s always comfortable or even interesting. It can be, but it falls short.

It’s a flawed human system. Many great people did not do well in school. Thomas Edison’s teacher gave up on him and sent him home to be schooled by his mother. Albert Einstein did very poorly in high school math. Assessment isn’t always done well. Learning styles and teaching styles can differ.

I’d say three major school stressors are peers, grades, and time management. I can’t do anything about your peers (except to recommend that a casual “hi” and a smile goes a log way to say, “I’m not out to get you; you can relax around me”) so I’m going to focus on grades and time management:

1. You are not defined by your grades.

You are a person of infinite value, hidden talents, and incalculable creativity. When a teacher hands you back a piece of paper with a red mark on it, that’s not a reflection on your worth. It might be a measurement of your progress in one particular area. But it is also in the past. Whether bad or good, your assessments do not define you in the future; they provide you with a starting point from which to continue in a positive trajectory.

When a toddler falls down trying to walk, her parents don’t throw their hands up and say, “Oh! We might as well give up – she’s failed!” No. They keep encouraging the toddler to try until she can walk with confidence. Your failures will scare you less when you see that failure is not a final destination, just another learning opportunity. This is the growth mindset. For more on how your mindset might be the thing holding you back, and how to break that, read New York Times Bestseller Mindset by Carol Dweck.

Getting used to short-term failure is key to finding long-term success.

2. Ask for help when you need it.

You understand you’re not defined by your grades, but you still want to do your best in school. Great! Do you ask for help? From a young age we are taught to be independent, but really we are inter-dependent. We need each other. A good place to start is to admit that there will always be someone better than you at a particular skill.

Not asking for help can be a sign of unresolved pride. It says, “I don’t need you” to people whose expertise, wisdom, and guidance could be the exact key we need.

3. Ask for help even before you need it.

Why wait to run into trouble? The best kind of education is when we have a consistent feeling of growth. Schedule a weekly drop-in to your teachers at a convenient time for them and ask them how you can do the best you can. Make sure you understand the week’s concepts by explaining them back to your teachers and asking if you got it right.

Make a habit of studying by doing it with your friends over snacks before there’s a huge test. If you review your notes at the end of class for 5 minutes, then review them again that evening, your retention rate rockets.

4. Make the most of a calendar.

I’ve stayed up way too late finishing assignments. In university a friend gave me a good tip: on a calendar, mark the due dates of your major assignments with a D. One week (or three days, or whatever) before each is due, make an advance completion date (C or X). Then give yourself an estimate of how many days it will take you to finish it (a week, three weeks) and mark the start date S.

You can colour code your classes or figure out your own system. You will never turn in an assignment last-minute or late ever again, you will have enough time to edit all your assignments, you will feel less stress and more proud of your work.

5. Talk it out.

The worst thing is to bottle things up. If you are stressed about school, do talk to someone. Not just your friends. Griping to them might make you feel better momentarily, but it won’t help resolve the root stressor.

Talk to a teacher preferably, or a guidance counsellor, a mentor, a youth leader, or someone in your faith community. Ask them to hear you out and ask them for their advice. Ask them how you might approach the person, class, or project that is causing stress.

6. Stop trying to multitask.

The latest brain research tells us that we really misunderstand multitasking. It’s not as effective as we are led to believe. Instead focus. Say no to new distractions. Complete one task at a time. This method is less stressful and develops our powers of concentration.

7. Don’t get stuck halfway.

The worst place to be is halfway. Not fully working and not fully resting. I catch myself doing this, flipping back and forth when I need to make my mind up. Right now, decide whether you are working or resting. Then make that time clear. Are you going to watch TV for 30 minutes? Watch it guilt-free. When 30 minutes is up, be honest with yourself, turn it off, and start working until you’ve accomplished what you set out to do.

This requires discipline, and there’s only one way to achieve that. Just do it. You can. I believe in you.