Is there such a thing as good stress? Research says yes. Too much stress is bad, but so is too little. So where is the sweet spot? Answering this question is tricky as it’s so subjective. A situation may be stressful for one student but not for another, and so it may become difficult for teachers to support their students.
A lot of our reactions to stress are dependent on our view of our own capabilities and the resources at hand. The way students interpret a stressful situation or task can have a significant influence on the actions that follow. So how can teachers take advantage of stressful situations to develop successful learners?
It’s all about your stress mindset
There is a two-step process that individuals go through when presented with stress:
- First, they judge how demanding the situation is.
- Then, they assess whether they have the resources to cope with the situation.
Stress is usually received as either threatening or challenging. A situation may be seen as threatening if the individual believes they do not have the resources or ability to cope with it. On the other hand, a situation may be deemed challenging when the individual perceives themselves as able and having sufficient resources.
Research shows that altering your evaluations of stress from ‘threatening’ to ‘challenging’ can improve responses to stress. Your stress mindset shapes how you handle situations. This means that teachers could encourage their students to change the way they view certain situations that may be considered stressful. To do so, teachers can provide solutions and resources for students who are faced with a stressful task. This way, they can feel more comfortable in their abilities to complete the task, instead of panicking and feeling helpless.
Another way to manage stress and turn it into something motivational (as opposed to draining) is through the development of a growth mindset, which states that our skills are open to improvement and are not fixed traits. Those who have developed a growth mindset tend to worry less about their problems. Instead, they think about what they can learn from a situation to develop themselves and their skills further. This goes hand in hand with viewing stressful situations as challenging and as an opportunity to progress further as a learner.
Is stress always a bad thing?
We often focus on stress as a negative thing that we want to minimize. However, research suggests that a bit of stress can be a good thing.
“Too much, too little, just right”. The answer to managing stress lies in the Goldilocks Principle. This principle states that something must fall within certain margins and not reach any extremes.
Low levels of stress can lead to weak performance as students will feel bored and demotivated. Once the stress begins to increase, so will the student’s attention and interest in the situation. However, too much stress can lead to impaired performance as students may feel strong anxiety related to the task or situation at hand. When students suffer prolonged periods of intense distress, they need proper help and support to help them cope. Over-working due to excessive stress can lead to many physical and mental health issues, which is why teachers should try to avoid this kind of situation as best they can.
The balance between the two extremes is known as ‘eustress’. Eustress is good stress. It is a positive response to external stressors, leading to a state of optimism and confidence. This type of stress helps us stay motivated and work towards our goals. When faced with a challenging task, teachers should reassure students that they have the skills necessary for them to succeed. Also, the opportunity to develop new skills can be a point of motivation for many students as they can understand how they will be useful further on. Students who feel as though they are being academically challenged are likely to have more focused attention and work at their optimal performance.
Research demonstrates that students showed higher levels of effort and perseverance in learning when they felt pressured to perform well academically. Over 3000 students from 147 different schools were examined based on how academic pressure influenced their performance. It was found that when students felt more academic pressure, they were more likely to engage in the classroom. This could be because they were in an environment that emphasised academic excellence and thus felt the need to meet the expectations of performing well. Some amount of stress in the classroom is necessary to keep students engaged with the content. However, as a teacher, it is important to communicate with your students to ensure that they feel motivated and focused, not drained and helpless.
Too much stress can cause distress and too little stress can cause apathy. Finding a balance between the two extremes can be difficult for teachers, but it is not impossible. Communicating with students and offering them support to complete tasks will help keep their stress within a healthy margin. Helping students develop a mindset through which they view stressful situations as challenging instead of debilitating can be particularly useful. This can teach them to take advantage of stress and use it to develop new skills that can be valuable in the future.