Combating Stress and Anxiety in the Classroom

Recently I've been noticing how stress and anxiety are preventing students from learning at their full potential.  I've observed that often times students know about strategies to cope with anxiety and they know ways to manage stress.  Transferring that knowledge into practice is a huge hurdle for many students.  With the roll out of the SEL curriculum, I think we've done a good job of educating students on the social and emotional aspects of school.  However, a teacher's impact is rarely in the knowledge imparted, whether it is content or SEL.  Teachers truly impact students through positive interactions, teaching hard truths, listening to students and sometimes even tough love.  I believe that lasting social and emotional learning happens in the moment, when students are experiencing a challenge or stress that pushes them outside of their comfort zone.

I was working in the math office recently when I was approached by a substitute teacher who said there was a distraught Geometry student looking for someone at the front of the office.  I went to talk to this student who blurted out "Our teacher has been gone all week and the subs haven't taught us anything and we have a test tomorrow and I don't understand anything at all." Thinking this student was in study hall, I calmly offered to help her study for the quiz.  This student hesitated and I could see in that moment that she didn't come to the math office looking for help, she came to complain.  She wanted someone to agree with this injustice and make it go away.  She wanted a rescue from the stress of a upcoming test that she didn't feel prepared for.  It turned out that she wasn't in study hall, she had told her Geometry sub that she was going to the bathroom and came to the math office instead.  I told her that I would meet her back in the classroom so that I could help all of the students.

When I walked into the classroom I could feel the stress in the room.  Students were working on a review guide and when I asked what I could help them with, the response was "I don't understand anything.  We haven't learned this stuff yet."  I've always disliked the phrase: "I don't understand anything."  It's not true.  There's no way that a student came to class, did some homework problems and doesn't know anything.  Recently, instead of getting frustrated with these comments, I've chosen to help students see how they are learning. Trying to diffuse the situation in the classroom, I told students to take a deep breath.  I reminded them that they know a lot and that math builds on prior knowledge.  My goal was to show them how much they knew and how that would help them learn new concepts.  I began reviewing properties of quadrilaterals.  As often as I could, I showed students how their prior knowledge was being used in learning how to answer questions about quadrilaterals.  We used slope to determine if opposite sides of a quadrilateral on the coordinate plane were parallel and if consecutive sides were perpendicular.  We also used trig to find the height of a trapezoid.  

When I listen to teachers talking about SEL, the sense that I get sometimes is that teachers are afraid that SEL means always being nice and soft when interacting with students.  This situation didn't call for me "being nice."  It wouldn't have helped the students if I emailed their teacher to say they weren't ready.  Sometimes we face circumstances that aren't ideal.  Of course if their teacher wasn't sick and had been present, they'd feel more comfortable with the material.  But, that's not the situation.  The class had shut down and wasn't willing to engage in learning because the circumstances weren't comfortable for them.  It would be easy for adults to complain about these students saying they are lazy and dramatic (especially after I found out that another math teacher had subbed for them earlier in the week).  It is in these moments when students fail to persevere that we as teachers tend to get frustrated with students.  It is especially important in these moments to use student frustration as a learning opportunity.  It is neither beneficial to rescue students from their stress or to complain about students and their lack of motivation.  The difficulty is the necessary opportunity to teach students how to rise to a new challenge in a way that will stick with them and make a lifelong impact.  We have to be explicit with how to conquer a new challenge.  As teachers, we know that content builds upon prior knowledge.  Students need help with transfer learning and applying prior knowledge in a new context.  Let's make those connections for students and show them how to learn something new without direct instruction.  Let's not let students off the hook for learning in the name of SEL by providing a rescue from a difficult task, but rather walk alongside students overwhelmed by stress and help them achieve more than they thought they were capable of.  The real SEL learning occurs in the middle of a difficulty.  Can we as teachers be flexible to teach SEL on the fly?  Can we listen to how students are feeling and address their anxieties without faulting them for not having mastered these SEL skills yet?