A Teacher’s Guide to Toxic Stress in the Classroom

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Most students feel stressed at times in class, but some might be more vulnerable to stress than others. When stress builds up to severe levels for a child, they may be at risk to develop toxic stress—which can have lasting effects on their social-emotional, behavioral, and physical health. But if you can recognize signs of stress in your students, you can provide them with support to help them manage it before it overwhelms them.

Read on to learn what toxic stress is and how it can impact a student’s physical and mental well-being. Then, discover tactics for spotting and preventing toxic stress in your classroom.

What Is Toxic Stress, Anyway?

Everyone experiences a little stress from time to time. Because school is designed to challenge students and teach them new skills, some stress is even expected—as long as it’s within healthy limits. But when a student feels stressed all the time, they may be suffering from a more serious condition: toxic stress.

Toxic stress is defined as when a student deals with overwhelming experiences or emotions for an extended amount of time without proper support. This can cause their body’s natural stress response to become overactive and regularly release stress hormones.[3] As a student’s body adapts to these hormones, they may fall into a vicious cycle of high stress levels with little relief.[5]

When it lasts for an extended amount of time, toxic stress can be a detriment to childhood development and long-term health.[2] Children who experience toxic stress, for example, are more likely to develop the following mental and physical illnesses later on:[3]

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Certain cancers
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Asthma

Additionally, toxic stress can cause emotional or behavioral health issues that make it difficult for students to participate in school.[4] For example, children with toxic stress are more likely to fit the parameters for chronic absenteeism, or excessive school absences.[6] Students who are characterized as “difficult” or “bad-mannered” may be overwhelmed with toxic stress and unable to access the support they need because of the way others view them.

More students in your classroom may be suffering from toxic stress than you know. According to student stress statistics, nearly half (45%) of the teenagers polled reported that they’re stressed all the time, and 70% report that anxiety or depression are “major problems” for themselves or their peers.[9,11] And toxic stress can begin much earlier. In fact, one-fifth of all children report that they worry a lot.[14] Regardless of the grade you teach, it’s likely that at least one student in your classroom deals with chronic stress.

A Few Common Causes of Student Stress

studentWhen it comes to school-related causes of stress in students, academic pressure is near the top of the list. Students often feel so overwhelmed by school that they compromise their health or well-being just to get good grades.[7] And how a teacher reacts to challenges can influence classroom stress, too. When a teacher’s stress or burnout levels are high, students are also more likely to feel overwhelmed about school.[7]

Social pressures at school can also contribute to toxic stress in children. Friends can act as a support system for stressful situations, and if a child feels like they don’t have any friends in school, they may be more vulnerable to toxic stress. Additionally, victims of school bullying are more likely to develop chronic stress than their peers—as well as depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.[16]

Student stress can also be caused by factors outside of school, like adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) or trauma.[2] This can refer to any stressful or traumatic event that occurs during childhood, such as health issues, loss of a loved one, community violence, and abuse or neglect.[4] In particular, poverty, societal discrimination, or mistreatment at home are linked to toxic stress.[2] For educators, it’s important to watch for signs that a student is experiencing any of these in addition to school stressors to provide them with the right support.

How to Use Stress Management Techniques in School

In some cases, you may not feel prepared to support students with toxic stress in school—particularly if that stress is linked to trauma. However, even in serious cases, providing school resources and help where possible can significantly improve outcomes for your students.[3] As their teacher, you can provide your students with a safe, mentoring relationship and connect them with resources to alleviate stress.[4]

Knowing which students are suffering from or vulnerable to toxic stress is the first step in supporting these children. Look for signs of toxic stress in children, including:[13]

  • Feelings of anxiety, irritability, or sadness
  • Inability to control their emotions
  • Lack of participation in school
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Somatic symptoms, like headaches or stomach pains

Anxiety about grades and assessments is one of the major causes (outside of ACEs) of student stress.[12] For that reason, it can be helpful to focus your classroom goals on learning and growth rather than on grades alone. Additionally, be mindful of stressors or commitments outside of the classroom and allow extensions on assignment deadlines for students with extenuating circumstances.[10]

Also, add some social-emotional learning (SEL) lessons to your curriculum alongside academic curriculum. When students practice SEL skills in class—mindfulness in particular—they are better able to cope with stressors in and outside of the classroom.[5] If you notice a student who seems to struggle with stress more than others, you can offer them additional SEL exercises to practice on their own.

Refer students with severe stress or ACEs to a counselor or school specialist, if possible. These students may need more mental health support than you are able to offer as their teacher. If your school doesn’t have a mental health specialist, try referring their parents to an out-of-school counselor or asking school administrators whether a specialist within the school district might provide support.

5 Quick Tips to Prevent or Alleviate School Stress

Toxic stress can take school from challenging to overwhelming, especially for vulnerable students. But as an educator, you can provide support through stress management activities, strategies, and referrals as needed.

Use these five tips to spot, support, and prevent school stress and keep students from getting burned out:

  • Let your students know that you are here to support and listen to them so they feel comfortable talking with you when they’re upset.[15]
  • Keep an eye out for signs of chronic stress in your students, as well as in-school events that might aggravate your students (such as bullying or an important test coming up).
  • Use SEL activities in class—like mindfulness meditation—to teach students skills that mitigate toxic stress.[8]
  • Try not to schedule too many important projects or tests on the same day. Instead, space big assignments out to avoid overwhelming students.[10]
  • If you suspect a child is experiencing toxic stress or has a history of traumatic experiences, refer them to an in-school or out-of-school specialist.

Sources:

  1. Sigler, M.K. Expanding Transition: Redefining School Readiness in Response to Toxic Stress. Voices in Urban Education, 2016, 43, pp. 37-45.
  2. Shonkoff, J.P., and Garner, A.S. The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress. Pediatrics, January 2012, 129(1), pp. 232-246.
  3. Johnson, S.B., Riley, A.W., Granger, D.A., and Riis, J. The Science of Early Life Toxic Stress for Pediatric Practice and Advocacy. Pediatrics, February 2013, 131(2), pp. 319-327.
  4. Bucci, M., Marques, S.S., Oh, D., and Harris, N.B. Toxic Stress in Children and Adolescents. Advances in Pediatrics, 2016, 63(1), pp. 403-428.
  5. Garner, A.S. Home Visiting and the Biology of Toxic Stress: Opportunities to Address Early Childhood Adversity. Pediatrics, November 2013, 132, pp. 65-73.
  6. Stempel, H., Cox-Martin, M., Bronsert, M., Dickinson, L.M., and Allison, M.A. Chronic School Absenteeism and the Role of Adverse Childhood Experiences. Academic Pediatrics, 2017, 17(8), pp. 837-843.
  7. Oberle, E., and Schonert-Reichl, K.A. Stress contagion in the classroom? The link between classroom teacher burnout and morning cortisol in elementary school students. Social Science & Medicine, June 2016, 159, pp. 30-37.
  8. Shearer, A., Hunt, M., Chowdhury, M., & Nicol, L. Effects of a brief mindfulness meditation intervention on student stress and heart rate variability. International Journal of Stress Management, 2016, 23(2), pp. 232–254.
  9. Collins, J. 45% of Teens Say They’re Stressed “All the Time,” Turn to Online Resources and Apps for Help Says Poll on Stress and Mental Health. Retrieved from globenewswire.com https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2018/02/21/1372739/0/en/45-of-Teens-Say-They-re-Stressed-All-the-Time-Turn-to-Online-Resources-and-Apps-for-Help-Says-Poll-on-Stress-and-Mental-Health.html.
  10. Education World Staff. Saving Kids from Stress. Retrieved from educationworld.com: https://www.educationworld.com/a_admin/admin/admin460.shtml.
  11. Horowitz, J.M., and Graff, N. Most U.S. Teens See Anxiety and Depression as a Major Problem Among Their Peers. Retrieved from pewsocialtrends.org: https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/02/20/most-u-s-teens-see-anxiety-and-depression-as-a-major-problem-among-their-peers/.
  12. Terada, Y. The Science Behind Student Stress. Retrieved from edutopia.org: https://www.edutopia.org/article/science-behind-student-stress.
  13. MedlinePlus Staff. Stress in Childhood. Retrieved from medlineplus.gov: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002059.htm.
  14. Desautels, L. Teaching Students How to Deal With Stress. Retrieved from edutopia.org: https://www.edutopia.org/article/teaching-students-how-deal-stress.
  15. Munsey, C. The Kids Aren’t Alright. Monitor, January 2010, 41(1), pp. 22.
  16. Wolke, D., and Lereya, S.T. Long-term effects of bullying. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 2015, 100(9), pp. 879-885.

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