Second Step® Insights

Understanding Student Stress and How Schools Can Help

June 20, 2024 | By: The Second Step® Team

Virtually every student at one time or another experiences stress at school. Between classes, homework, tests, and social dynamics, it’s no surprise that school is the most commonly reported source of stress for teens. Stress isn’t always a bad thing, though. Some stress can boost motivation, which might help students study for tests or present in front of the class. But when stress shifts from temporary and motivating to chronic and troubling, it could seriously impact students’ well-being. It’s important to know the signs of student stress as well as strategies to help kids cope with and combat stress.

What does stress look like?

Typical, temporary stress may present like classic sweaty palms and a racing heartbeat. It may be that nervous feeling before a test begins. But excessive stress can present as:

  • Increased moodiness or irritability
  • Changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • Social withdrawal
  • Lack of engagement in activities a student used to enjoy

The indicators of long-term stress can also be more subtle. Students may feel constantly run down or tired. They may seem to catch one bug after another. Long-term stress is known to weaken the immune system, which can make students more susceptible to illnesses. It’s important to recognize signs of long-term stress before more physical and mental health issues take hold.

Strategies to help manage student stress

While most schools can’t do away with testing, and social interactions are part of the territory, there are several strategies schools can implement to help reduce and manage student stress.

1. Foster a positive school climate

Studies show that a positive school climate can promote adolescent well-being and lead to greater school engagement. Plus, students who report a positive school climate tend to show improved academic performance. Schools can cultivate a positive school climate through social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum. SEL programs are designed to teach skills like empathy, perspective-taking, and respect among students. Social-emotional skills can also help students understand and manage their own emotions, including anxiety. Together, these life skills can contribute to a sense of belonging and a positive school climate.

2. Teach health literacy

Understanding how stress shows up in the body can be a helpful step to stress management. It’s important for students to know how stress can impact them both physically and mentally. Knowledge and proper language can help reduce the stigma around the impacts of stress and give students the tools to manage, talk about, and seek support when necessary.

3. Practice stress management exercises

Breathing and muscle relaxation exercises have been shown to help reduce students’ stress. After practicing these stress management techniques, elementary school students demonstrated lower levels of stress and improved aspects of quality of life. Educators and families can follow our step-by-step guide on belly breathing.

4. Encourage peer support

Peer-led support models train students to share about positive coping behaviors so other students can learn from someone with lived experience. Peer relationships become increasingly important in adolescence, a time when stress also tends to increase. Peers can share strategies such as participating in healthy activities, building friendships, finding resources, and seeking support from trusted adults.

While student stress cannot be entirely eliminated, educators can implement tools like social-emotional learning principles, health literacy, stress management techniques, and peer support to help children and adolescents better understand and manage stress.

Learn more about our research-based Second Step® SEL programs for K–12 students.