General Information

Stress is a normal, natural response to life events and situations that everyone experiences. Stress reactions occur in the mind and body, and are tied to the nervous system and hormonal activity. This built-in stress response system is a good thing since it helps us handle challenging circumstances and promotes success under pressure; stress can be motivating, allowing us to complete challenging tasks. But difficulties can arise when we are overwhelmed by stress—we have all experienced this from time to time. It can occur as a result of a single, high-stress event or situation or from the buildup of stress over a longer period of time.

Some people are more resilient than others when faced with stress. What creates stress for one person may not cause stress for another, and the reactions or consequences of stress can also vary from person to person. Much of the variation comes from each person’s unique life experience, the number of stressors and the intensity of the stress over time, and the skills the person has to cope. A person can be more vulnerable to, and therefore more impacted by, a situation or event if there is already a buildup of stress. This is that feeling of being overwhelmed that most of us can relate to.

Some of the top life stressors for children and youth include family breakup, moving/changing schools, adjustment to adolescence, gender and/or sexual identity, family financial problems, parental health issues, and the loss of a loved one, including a pet. More routine, day-to-day stressors for school-age children include school work (class work, tests, reports), peer relationships, and activity overload. For some children, unhealthy and unsafe living situations are a factor. Everyone can learn to handle stress more effectively with coaching, support, and reinforcement. For children who are struggling, a plan of action can be necessary to guide the process.

General Characteristics To Look For

Changes in body
  • muscle tension, headaches, stomach aches
  • tiredness, sleepiness, fatigue
  • sweating, increased heart rate
  • changes in sleep and appetite
  • changes in bowel habits

Changes in emotion
  • feeling worried and confused
  • feeling angry and irritable
  • having trouble coping

Changes in actions
  • withdrawal from family and/or peers
  • avoiding situations
  • losing patience with people
  • restlessness, arguing, fighting
  • smoking/substance use
  • increased caffeine use (energy drinks, coffee)

Changes in thinking
  • breakdown in thought processes—trouble concentrating, remembering, and making decisions
  • negative thinking and self-talk

Impact On Student Success

  • Underdeveloped coping strategies can be one of the factors contributing to poor school performance.
  • Stress can cause students to become easily frustrated and have difficulty completing their work.
  • Students under stress may act out with anger.
  • Excessive stress has a profound effect on overall health.
  • Research shows that stress can be a precursor to many physical and mental health issues.
  • Coach and promote healthy living through physical activity, food choices and eating habits, sleep, and social relationships. We are in a better position to handle stress when these basic needs are being met.
  • Help the child cultivate a friendship with a classmate, and be sure that he/she has one meaningful connection with an adult at school.
  • Give the child opportunities to be involved in an activity of interest or help in developing a hobby.
  • Be a good observer of children’s non-verbal responses (facial expressions, body position and movements, voice tone, etc.).
  • Take time to listen carefully as children talk about what is creating stress for them.
  • Consider the child’s behaviour as his/her attempt to solve a problem that he/she cannot express in words. Try to help them giveit words—for example, “It looks like you are upset, frustrated, stressed about something. Tell me how you are feeling.” Research has shown that simply naming a feeling out loud can have a positive impact on emotion.
  • Model healthy stress management and coping skills, e.g., time management, verbal expressions about being able to handle it (e.g., “This is hard for me, but I know I can give it my best effort”; “I hurt my friend’s feelings, but I know my friendship is strong enough to handle this, and I will make it known in my actions”).
  • Teach students about stress, coping strategies, and stress management.
  • Greet each student warmly. Be present and connected.
  • Help the student, parents/caregivers, and other staff draw on the student’s strengths in maintaining a positive self-concept and identity. This helps promote resiliency by creating some balance between stress and stress-reducing activity.
  • Eliminate stressful situations, e.g., by ensuring a balance of noisy and quiet areas accessible to the student.
  • Provide time to relax and regroup. Quiet time is often quite helpful for some; others need to be busy.
  • Provide opportunities for students to celebrate stress management, and promote healthy coping strategies as part of the health curriculum and character education.
  • Provide training opportunities for staff on the topic of stress.
  • Be available to greet and speak with students.
  • Promote positive home-school relations.
  • Inform the school team that the child may be dealing with stress.
  • Encourage your children to talk about what is bothering them. Listen when they talk to you. Try to understand how they feel.
  • Spend one-on-one time with your child as well as doing things as a family.
  • Encourage healthy eating and exercise. Healthy snacks can help the body cope with stress more easily.
  • Be a role model.
  • Bedtime routines help children relax at the end of the day. Sleep is important.
  • Be available to the school, the child, and the family to offer support.
  • Help the child, parents/caregivers, and teachers draw on the student’s strengths in maintaining a positive self-concept and identity.
  • Provide parents, children, and teachers with material focusing on relaxation and visualization techniques.
  • Focus on “UPSTREAM” prevention initiatives.