Stress and Students
According to Dianna Bohmer of familyeducation.com, stressful situations for kids occur when
- Parental Problems (divorce, aruing parents, etc.)
- Fighting with friends or a sibling
- Taking a test (college entrance exam, state standardized assessment, class finals, etc.)
- Being attractive to someone
- Not enough privacy (sharing a bedroom with siblings or extended family members)
- Birth of a sibling (or new step-siblings)
- Moving to a new school
- Not having enough money
- A teacher who doesn’t like him/her
Children that live in poverty may be part of many, if not all, of stressful situations. Here is a realistic scenario that I have put together from interactions I have had with students.
Scenerio: Jack lives with his father and his father’s new girlfriend in a small three bedroom place. Jack’s parents split up over the summer and his two younger sisters stayed with his mother. Jack’s mother is living with his grandmother, aunt, and two cousins. Jack’s father has moved in with his girlfriend who lives in the neighboring school district. Jack and his father move into the small place with his father’s girlfriend, her son, daughter, and newborn (that is believed to be the son of Jack’s father). Jack has to share a bedroom with the girlfriend’s son.
When his parents separated, Jack’s father promised to drive Jack to his school every day so that he could still be with his friends. However, over the first two months of school, Jack’s father did not come home a few nights, the truck was broke down a few days (and it was the only vehicle that was in running condition), and his father recently lost his job. Jack has become truant, so his father is going to enroll him in the school district in which they live.
Jack's father and his girlfriend argue about not having money for groceries, rent, electric, and/or water. Usually the argument ends with Jack’s father slamming the screen door closed on his way out to the front porch to smoke a cigarette.
Jack does tries to fit in with the kids at his new school, but a group of boys give him a hard time and call him a dirtball because he transferred from a “country” school. The taunting escalated one day and Jack pushed one of the boys away. The gym teacher immediately sent Jack to the office and has not been friendly to Jack when he returned to class.
From experience as an educator and from spending my formative years in a rural area, I know that this situation is similar to the situations that many kids are living. However, the scenario did not mention anything about drug or alcohol use (by parents, the youth, and/or peers), sexual acts(forced or voluntary), time constraints(sports, clubs, jobs,etc.), or the strain of working to help the family pay the bills.
The bottom line is that many students like Jack are living in stressful situations and show up to school every day, well maybe not every day, but nevertheless the kids come to school and want to learn. More importantly, the kids NEED to learn. If the students are able to learn and advance their branch of the family tree, so that their offspring may have more of a chance for success, then, over time the cycle can be broken.
Stress has a psychological impact on kids and as educators we need to know how it affects kids. Students that live in poverty have high levels of stress and usually maintain a high level of stress most of the time. With stress, the human body produces cortisol. Cortisol in the human body suppresses body functions that are not immediately needed to operate such as the reproduction system and immune system. If stress is constant, cortisol is consistently produced, and the immune system is shut down frequently. Thus, with an immune system not functioning, illnesses occur more frequently, and a higher rate of absence ensues.
Vanessa Bennington (n.d.) states that cortisol causes an increase in gastric acid production, intense food hunger, and an increase in cortisol levels causes the scheduled release of cortisol to be affected. An increase in gastric acid leads to more illness and absences for students. In addition, students that do not get enough to eat already, an increase in food hunger causes kids to think more about lunch than the lesson being presented. Typically cortisol is released and is highest in the morning and gradually falls to a low point late in the afternoon. The morning release of cortisol helps the body to get up and get moving. However, with an altered cortisol release schedule, students may be getting their morning cortisol at some other point during the day. High levels of cortisol in the evening can cause difficulty falling asleep and would lead to the student to dozing off the next day in class. I have spoke with many students who claim to go to bed at a reasonable hour but could not seem to fall asleep until well after midnight. At first I just thought the students were trying to tell me what I wanted to hear. I figured they were up late playing video games or perusing social media. However, understanding the effects of poverty and the role stress has on the body has provided me with a better understanding of the kids that I teach.
Sara Gottfried (n.d.) reports that “Over time, high cortisol, when sustained, is linking to high blood pressure, diabetes, increased belly fat, brain changes such as atrophy of the hippocampus (where memory is synthesized), depression, insomnia, and poor wound healing.” Dr. Gottfried links high cortisol levels to more medical concerns, thus causing students to miss more days of school. And “atrophy of the hippocampus,” affecting memory would cause students to have difficulty remembering. Difficulty remembering does not bode well for test scores. Students who have “increased belly fat” and lower test scores may be tormented and harassed more by other students or their own self perception causing additional stress in their life.
In the classroom stress affects student behaviors and actions. The two systems that are affected by heart rate are the “fight or flight” system (Sympathetic Nervous System) and the “rest and digest” system (Parasympathetic Nervous System). Both systems continually work in conjunction with one another, however, one system is primarily controlling the body’s action based upon the heart rate (Basis, 2013). The “fight or flight” system is in control of the body when stress is present. For students that have constant stress, the “fight or flight” system is engaged more often than the “rest and digest” system. Many times students will exhibit an improper behavior and the witnesses will believe that the behavior was not rational in comparison to the events that led to the misbehavior. However, stress is a hidden element and a stressed student is constantly on edge. Therefore, educators can provide beneficial and supportive interventions for the students when they understand that some actions occur more quickly, more frequently, and at higher levels of intensity due to the amount of stress in a student’s life.
To combat stress, Nane Steinhoff (2013) recommends that students have a varied and healthy diet, exercise, meditate, take regular breaks, get a pet, sleep, quit smoking, try to see the positive side, listen to music, and laugh. Students living in poverty may have the opportunity to follow some of the suggestions, but may not always have the support from family or friends to follow through. As an educational system we can provide support for the students.
Students living in poverty may not be able to have a varied and healthy diet at home, however, at school we can provide students with a top notch quality breakfast and lunch. For starters, adding Vitamin C to meals will help the student’s immune system fight illnesses. Students of poverty are eating most of their meals from a box, dry goods or frozen. If the food served at school does not look enticing or taste good, then kids will forego lunch and eat at home. Minneapolis Public Schools and others across the nation have been serving delicious and healthy meal options every day for breakfast and lunch. Every day numerous lunch options, fresh fruit and juices, and a salad bar is available. See the menus for yourself.
In the classroom, teachers can utilize techniques to help students reduce the stress and anger exhibited by students. Teachers can emphasize and teach social and emotional skills in a classroom to help students with positive self talk. Hanging posters with inspirational quotes on the wall has quite an effect on students and sometimes we never know it does. Years after a student had graduated, he informed me the poster I had in the corner of the room…Steve Prefontaine crossing the finishing line of the ’72 Olympic Trials with the a Tom Fleming quote “Somewhere in the world someone is training when you’re not. When you race him, he will win.” The former student informed me he read that poster everyday in class, he recited the quote to me and told me that he used it as inspiration for his weight training leading into senior year for football. Through individual or entire class discussions about being a good person and “leaving this place better than when you arrived,” I was able to provide students with inspiration, along with the belief that sometimes a life lesson is more important than the math lesson.
Teachers can also use bottled water, water breaks, restroom breaks, hallway conversations to provide students with breaks to keep the in-class stress subdued when the out of class stress is constantly overflowing.
The biggest reminder for teachers would be to “stay off the escalator.” Kids will push to the limits and test adults. Kids are not testing to see how far the limits can be extended; the kids are testing the adults to see how much they care for them. Teachers that choose an office referral over a relationship earn no trust and no respect from the student sent away. Some students that remain in class also lose trust and respect for the teacher because they can envision their self in the student’s shoes that is walking to the office. Adults in education should keep situations calm and do not escalate or allow students to escalate a situation into a more egregious offense than has already occurred. Tranquil solutions allow the teacher and/or student(s) to resolve a conflict without losing respect and dignity.
Bennington, V. (n.d.). The Ups and Downs of Cortisol: What You Need to Know. Retrieved from http://breakingmuscle.com/health-medicine/the-ups-and-downs-of-cortisol-what-you-need-to-know
Gottfried, S. (n.d.). Cortisol Switcharoo (Part 1): How Cortisol Makes You Fat and Angry, Plus 7 Practices to Rock Your Stress. Retrieved from http://www.saragottfriedmd.com/cortisol-switcharoo/
Steinhoff, N. (2013). Students: 10 Ways to Beat Stress. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/education/mortarboard/2013/nov/06/students-ten-ways-to-beat-stress