National Stress Awareness Day in the U.K. is on 4th November 2020. It falls one day before a second national lockdown is imposed in England and comes at a time when many other countries are in varying degrees of lockdown. Managing stress in schools is hugely important at any time. It is even more important in the context of the intense demands of navigating school life during a global pandemic.
The stress experienced by staff, students and parents in the last few months and at this time cannot be underestimated. National Stress Awareness Day presents an opportunity to focus on the issues we face around stress and explore some strategies to help alleviate its impacts.
The first thing we can do to address stress is to become clearer about what it is and the impact it can have. In the definition used by the charity International Stress Management Association:
Stress is a response to demands on the body and life, a response to crisis and fears. If stress gets overwhelming it can cause other mental health problems, emotional exhaustion and physical illness and can impact on work, relationships, families, and every aspect of life.”
Mind the UK mental health charity states that there is “…no medical definition of stress, and health care professionals often disagree over whether stress is the cause of problems or the result of them…. But whatever your personal definition of stress is, it’s likely that you can learn to manage your stress better by:
- managing external pressures, so stressful situations don’t seem to happen to you quite so often
- developing your emotional resilience, so you’re better at coping with tough situations when they do happen and don’t feel quite so stressed”
Understanding Sources and Levels of Stress in Ourselves and in Each Other
Education Support’s teacher wellbeing index from 2019 indicated that:
Nearly three-quarters of teachers and 84% of school leaders now describe themselves as “stressed””
A TES survey at the end of September 2020 found that:
Less than a month into the new term, nearly half of teachers are “drained and exhausted” while a third are “just about coping” and 15 per cent are “physically and mentally on the brink””
Implementing Stress Management Strategies
How do we respond to actually manage and ease stress in schools? It is important to state that many of the underlying issues will require action by school leaders and other policy-makers if they are to be resolved over the longer term.
For National Stress Awareness Day 2020, the branch of MIND in Coventry & Warwickshire has suggested that employers:
Create a Stress Awareness Space in your workplace to help maintain your wellbeing, as noticing what is making us stressed can help us learn how we can deal with it.”
This space might be in the form of a display board in the staffroom and/or an anonymous online survey for staff about the levels and sources of stress they are experiencing. In the same way, a physical ‘Worry Box’ or a ‘Worry Jar’ drawing activity might be provided for students.
In our blog post “6 Things Schools Can Do to Support Teacher Mental Health through COVID-19 and Beyond” we suggested 6 practical strategies which school leaders could implement to alleviate stress among their staff.
One quite often hears suggestions for staff to use more effective time management, yet this alone doesn’t present the answer for managing stress in school in all the ways it presents itself from minute to minute, and with the significant demands placed upon school staff even before the pandemic, and now through it.
Similarly, while mindfulness for students and staff can have a very significant and valuable part to play in developing resilience, mindfulness strategies alone cannot reasonably be expected to resolve a situation where a member of school staff feels overwhelmed, or where a child or young person is experiencing extreme distress.
There are, however, many evidence-based strategies which school staff can deploy, with children and with themselves, in order to manage and alleviate stress. These include:
1️⃣ A momentary break from the situation, to interrupt the immediate fight or flight response which stress elicits. Sometimes known as the “STOP Skill” within CBT, DBT and Mindfulness, this break might be in the form of a minute or so of deep breathing (this is helpful because our breathing becomes more shallow when we are experiencing stress), a physical break from the classroom environment even if just for a minute to allow time for the stress reaction to be ‘reset’, or a distracting activity such as reading a favourite book or watching a funny programme in order to calm the biological stress response.
2️⃣ Making at least a little time daily for a pleasurable activity to help protect against and ward off feelings of fear or anger that can be aroused in stressful situations. This might involve a walk outdoors observing sights and sounds, listening to soothing music, building micro-breaks into the school day, or engaging in a hobby or pastime even if only for a few minutes.
3️⃣ Daily journalling for 10 to 20 minutes. This is a proven tool for processing challenging situations and emotions, giving voice to our innermost thoughts and stresses. In addition, keeping a Gratitude Journal in which to note 3 things each day, preferably in the evening before sleep, can help end our days in acknowledgment that even in stressful times, there can be glimmers of hope and small things to be thankful for.
4️⃣ Cultivating compassion towards oneself and others, for example through regular guided meditations (there are many free meditations available on Insight Timer suitable for both staff and students, which we have used and can recommend). Practising regular compassion-based meditation, such as a mindful Loving Kindness and Compassion meditation, can help staff and students alike to feel more connected to themselves and to other people, mitigating self-reproach and helping pacify the voice of our inner critic.
5️⃣ Taking care of physical needs, including: maintaining a healthy balanced diet without excesses of sugar and stimulants; engaging in regular exercise to release endorphins that promote feelings of wellbeing, perhaps in the form of exercises such as yoga or Tai Chi to release tensions that have built up both physically and mentally; putting in place a sleep regime, possibly including Progressive Muscle Relaxation if sleep is a particular concern, to promote sufficient rest over time and thus benefit from the restorative properties of sleep. Download our Free Sleep Exercise & Healthy Balanced Diet poster pack for more tips.
6️⃣ Distinguishing between the things we can and cannot control in our lives, both in a general sense and in specific stressful situations which we may encounter in school and elsewhere. Focussing our energies on the things we can exert some control over and accepting the things which are not in our hands is a CBT skill which can help to alleviate stress. Download our Free visual aid about Things We Can and Cannot Control about the Pandemic.
7️⃣ Problem-solving those situations which we might hope to gain some control over and which we find chronically stressful, to find solutions that will bring more lasting relief from longer-term stressors. This might include using negotiation and communication skills such as the “DEARMAN” skills taught in DBT, as developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan.
The stress management strategies outlined above provide a solid starting point for individuals to alleviate stress. They feature in our mental health and wellbeing programmes for students, and will also feature in and be elaborated on in our upcoming Staff Mental Health & Wellbeing Programme due to be published in January 2021, with further evidence-based strategies also covered.
To mark National Stress Awareness Day in the U.K., we have explored some of the sources of stress in schools and have outlined 7 evidence-based strategies to both foster personal resilience and to exert control or influence, where possible, to lessen external stressors. Whilst such strategies for use by individuals undoubtedly play a valuable part, school leaders, governors and governments have a responsibility to address the underlying issues that contribute to systemic stress within schools, as borne out by increasing numbers of educators in the U.K. leaving the profession in recent years. The strategies outlined in our previous post “6 Things Schools Can Do to Support Teacher Mental Health through COVID-19 and Beyond” may be helpful in this regard.
Alongside individual students and staff employing evidence-based strategies to manage their own stress, it behoves policy-makers to begin devising and funding meaningful solutions to mitigate the likelihood of lasting impacts of chronic stress upon many school staff, children and young people in the wake of the pandemic.
By Ava S. Hasan & The Mentally Well Schools Team
P.S. If you have something to say in response to this post, please comment below. We’d welcome your thoughts!