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Making a School Year Less Stressful for K-12 Students

Making a School Year Less Stressful for K-12 Students

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By Dr. Kathleen J. Tate, Professor and Program Director, Teaching, School of Arts, Humanities, and Education, American Public University and Dr. Gregory Mandalas, Assistant Professor, Teaching

This school year is unlike most others due to COVID-19. Decisions are in flux and made at the last minute regarding how traditional K-12 students, teachers, and staff will begin the quickly approaching school year as updates from health organizations change almost daily.

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There is uncertainty for many school districts about whether they will start in-person classroom instruction or go completely online. Some school systems are considering a hybrid structure, rotating students into classrooms on different days of the week. Whatever is decided within and across regions, K-12 students are likely to have additional anxieties about starting or returning to school this fall.

As with any back-to-school season, students tend to be excited, hopeful, and anxious. For kindergarteners, the very first day of school is new and may cause some worries for such very young children. With elementary-age youngsters, it is typically quite a leap for them to enter into a new and more advanced grade level.

Upper elementary students may worry about attending middle or junior high school for the first time. Those students beginning high school have a different set of concerns, such as transitioning to an unfamiliar campus, navigating a larger school, and interacting with much older students.

Whether K-12 students are returning to school or attending it for the first time, there are multiple ways to prepare them for a successful transition. Methods can be used include attending to mindfulness, communication, and connections.

Practicing Mindfulness

Across the U.S. and around the world, there is an increased focus on the concept of mindfulness. In short, mindfulness is the practice of being present in the moment and aware of one’s environment. Psychology Today (n.d.) explains that mindfulness is “this state is described as observing one’s thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad.” When a person is practicing mindfulness, he or she avoids overreacting to the present situation. At the same time, a mindful person can cope with change and uncertainty by focusing inward.

Some simple mindful activities include breathing while staying silent and focusing on the moment. While breathing silently, students can focus on the sound of their own breath entering and exiting their bodies.

The concepts that drive mindfulness may be applied to students who are experiencing anxiety due to uncertainty regarding the upcoming school year. Research shows that students who are mindful of their own bodies and their surroundings tend to reduce anxiety (Griffin, Campos, Khramtsova, & Pearce, 2020). Similarly, Waterford.org (2019) adds that mindfulness in elementary schools is proven to increase academic achievement, focus, social skills and emotional regulation, self-esteem, sleep habits and compassion while reducing stress levels, mental health issues, fatigue, and bullying.

The benefits of mindfulness extend to families and educators. Waterford.org (2019) shares that “by practicing mindfulness, teachers can learn emotional regulation techniques that change the way they view their jobs and interact with their students” (para. 2). Waterford.org also explains that mindfulness “changes the way our brains respond to stressful situations” (para. 3). Individuals tend to thrive when their environments are stable. The upcoming school environment is variable and anything but stable. By practicing mindfulness, students can better accept changes by focusing inward on what they can control – their own reaction to change.

This stress reduction technique is something that families may model for their children. On the other hand, many students are familiar with mindfulness activities because of the increasing applications of it in classrooms over recent years; they may just need reminders.

However, some strategies may not work for all individual students. When worries do not reasonably subside, remember that each school has resources.

Kimberlee Ratliff, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor of Counseling at the University of Puget Sound, points out that “there are professional school counselors available. Most school counselors are still providing services and parents may want to reach out to the teacher or school counselor directly for support or guidance.” Typically, the email addresses for the teacher and school counselor can be found by searching a school or district website.

Fostering Communication

Aside from mindfulness, students sometimes find it difficult to communicate their worries to others who may be able to help. But those students can benefit from interacting with others in various ways as the school year begins.

Some students may think they will be judged or perceived as weak if they express concerns. However, students who communicate their worries to others will have a greater chance of conquering their fears than those who do not.

Children, adolescents, and teens should be encouraged to communicate negative types of feelings to their parents and caregivers. In turn, these adults can show empathy and validate those feelings. Stating phrases such as “I understand why you feel that way” or “Tell me more” confirm that feelings of uncertainty and stress are okay to have and may help prompt more sharing. Such exchanges provide a healthy outlet for expression.

The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) (n.d.) recommends talking to students using words they understand and encouraging them to ask questions. Beyond feelings, think about what information you want to share with children and how to share it. There are many kid-friendly websites, including a CDC page and the National Institute of Mental Health pages.

K-12 students should also communicate with their peers who experience similar anxieties. By communicating with other students, children will understand that they are not alone in their feelings of uncertainty. Structuring opportunities for kids to have safe and socially distant social time with friends and others of similar ages allows them to talk about their lives and thoughts and feel connected to one another.

How to Help K-12 Students Form Connections

In addition to connecting to peers and family, it is a crucial time to connect to school. Research indicates that college students who connect with their institution report feeling less stress and anxiety when compared to those with no connections (Becker, Dong, Kroholz, & Brownson, 2018).

Similar to higher education, the home/K-12 school connection is important. Henderson and Whipple (2013) emphasize there is a definite benefit when teachers connect to families. In fact, Henderson and Whipple note that “research shows that strong ties with families and community can make it four times more likely that…students will make major gains in math and reading” (para. 1). Henderson and Whipple suggest a parent-led walk, so that educators and families view the neighborhood together through their different perspectives. Though their article focuses on doing this activity especially in lower-income neighborhoods to gain insights, this kind of walk could yield many types of positive outcomes in any neighborhood.

With social distancing and safety in mind, teachers might consider walking with small groups of students and family members, getting to know one another before or as school starts. Alternatively, a neighborhood walk recorded by students and their families via mobile or other small devices using FaceTime with the teacher in real time is an option. Recording the neighborhood and community on video, for later viewing by the teacher, is another way for families and teachers to connect with one another.

Neighborhood walks by any means may help students feel a sense of community, belonging, and action. The idea is to build connections and understandings by getting to know one another and the surroundings to a better degree.

It could be comforting for elementary-age and slightly older students to lead teachers through neighborhoods or tell about their neighborhoods through phone/device recordings. Such activities foster communication, observation and thinking skills, helping students be more prepared academically for the onset of schoolwork.

A better way to connect may be through a classroom orientation. Students should take advantage of in-person tours that schools may offer.

In the COVID-19 climate, many schools have turned to virtual orientations. While those orientations are not ideal, students should participate in them so that they are familiar with school routines, procedures, and expectations before the first day of physical attendance.

K-12 students may feel more at ease after seeing their school classrooms, hallways, library, and other features of their school. If instruction will be delivered online, teachers should share information about online platforms, resources, and expectations for behavior, participation, and assignments.

Families might want to reach out to teachers and schools about orientation sessions. Recorded or real-time video orientations provide powerful, concrete visuals and information for students and families. By working to form relationships, visuals and connections early, there is a better chance of reducing K-12 students’ fears and apprehensions.

Preparation Tips to Decrease Stress for K-12 Students

As parents and caregivers foster mindfulness, communication, and connections, there are additional steps that help students to get ready and feel at ease for the school year:

  • Make sure that students get sufficient rest.
  • Focus on routines; adhere to consistent bedtimes and meal times.
  • Read documents, handbooks and webpages about the school and teacher’s classroom to develop familiarity.
  • Encourage daily fiction and non-fiction reading of books, newspapers, magazines, brochures, or webpages. This reading will help K-12 students practice their learning and comprehension skills and build an age-appropriate vocabulary.
  • Spend time reviewing or looking ahead at the state curriculum expectations for the past and next grade level. Structure related practice by using websites and doing experiments.
  • Encourage hobbies and the pursuit of interests that can be done indoors and outdoors.
  • Do physical activities.
  • Play age-appropriate board, dice, and card games that foster reading, math, problem-solving, and critical thinking.

Resources

There are various online resources to help provide children with fun, educational activities that get them into a school mindset.

Elementary

Middle/Junior High School

High School

Additional resources for teachers and parents include Education Week Teacher and U.S. News and World Report’s page on teaching resources.

Students of all ages may experience unwanted feelings of stress as any school year begins and especially amid COVID-19. However, mindfulness activities empower K-12 students; communication releases their internal thoughts; connections to others and the school provide comfort; and engagement in routines and educational activities will help K-12 students be ready for the demands of the classroom.

References

Becker, M. A. S., Dong, S., Kronholz, J., & Brownson, C. (2018). Relationships between stress and psychosocial factors with sources of help-seeking among international students. Journal of International Students, 8(4), 1636-1661.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (n.d.). Returning to school after an emergency or disaster: Tips to help your student cope. https://www.cdc.gov/childrenindisasters/school-return-after.html

Griffin, M., Campos, H. C., Khramtsova, I., & Pearce, A. R. (2020). Stress and anxiety reduction in college students through biofeedback. College Student Journal, 54(2), 258-268.

Henderson, A. T., & Whipple, M. (2013). How to connect with families. Educational Leadership, 70(9), 44-48. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/jun13/vol70/num09/How-to-Connect-with-Families.aspx

Psychology Today. (n.d.). Mindfulness. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/mindfulness

Waterford.org. (2019, February 26). Why adding mindfulness education to school curriculum strengthens social emotional development and academic achievement. https://www.waterford.org/education/mindfulness-in-schools/

About the Authors

Dr. Kathleen Tate is the Program Director of Teaching and a Professor in the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education at American Public University. Kathleen completed a B.A. in Soviet and East European Studies (with a minor in Economics) and an M.Ed. in Special Education from the University of Texas at Austin, as well as a Ph.D. in Elementary Education from Florida State University. She holds several lifetime Texas teaching licenses in Elementary (1st – 8th Grade), Theatre Arts (1st – 8th Grade) and Special Education (Pre-K–12th Grade). Dr. Tate was an elementary special education teacher prior to her career in higher education.

Kathleen has published numerous journal articles, blog articles, and a children’s book. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Online Learning Research and Practice, formerly The Internet Learning Journal. Her research interests include underserved/underrepresented populations, humane education, and integrated/thematic/arts-based/multimodal teaching and learning.

Dr. Gregory Mandalas is an Assistant Professor at American Public University in the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. He completed an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership at California University of Pennsylvania and M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction at Gannon University. In addition to his curriculum and teaching experience at the college level, he has held K-12 positions as a teacher and principal. His research interests include standard-based reporting and instruction and school administrators as servant leaders.  

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