Helping pupils to manage stress

Defining stress is a complex process as it can mean different things to different people. Tina Rae gives advice on how to recognise stress in your pupils, as well as detailing practical approaches to tackling it

Author details

Tina Rae is a senior educational psychologist (behaviour) who has written extensively on topics such as emotional literacy, behaviour management, PSHE and citizenship.

'Stress' is subjective in the sense that it is person specific, similar to words such as happiness, failure or success. Experiencing tensional stress is a normal part of everyday life for everyone. It is when young people experience too much stress that they become anxious, exhausted and unable to function appropriately, both in the learning and social context.

All of us have an optimum stress level which allows us to function effectively and efficiently in our daily lives; what is vital is that pupils learn how to recognise these stress levels, and that they develop coping strategies to fall back on when they experience higher levels of stress.

Pupils need to be able to focus and build up reactions that reduce stress alongside understanding, acknowledgement, and coping effectively with the sources of their individual stresses.

Stress symptoms

Pupils who are experiencing higher levels of stress may exhibit the following behaviours:

  • more aggressive or withdrawn behaviour
  • feeling tearful
  • eating disorders
  • self-harming behaviours
  • school attendance problems
  • attention needing
  • dropping performance
  • lying
  • heightened aggression.

Stephen Murgatroyd (1982) and his colleagues suggests that there are 10 potential stresses or crisis points which are specific to adolescence. It is essential that we acknowledge and understand these, and that in response we support pupils when developing their own self-help strategies.

The crisis points are described as follows.

  1. Feeling that they are falling short of standards and expectations.
  2. Feelings of uncertainty and sometimes a fear of future choices.
  3. Feeling fragmented - not feeling that he/she is a ‘whole’ person and yet also not knowing how to achieve such a goal.
  4. Feeling too dependent upon others (particularly adults) and feeling unable to break free from such a dependence.
  5. An unwillingness to set limits, even those that are known to be needed.
  6. Being unsure in the work situation or in the future in a job.
  7. Uncertainty regarding sexual roles/behaviour.
  8. Difficulties in making and sustaining significant relationships.
  9. Difficulties in coping with the range of emotions rising from our consciousness.
  10. Finding difficulty in accepting responsibility.

As well as the obvious stressors that occur in school, pupils may face stressors outside school as well, such as:

  • family financial problems
  • family disharmony, especially between parents
  • family break-up
  • single parents
  • bereavements
  • abuse – physical, emotional and sexual
  • new partners for their parents
  • moving home
  • moving school
  • friends moving away.

The '5 looks'

An extremely useful strategy for young people to develop and use is the ‘5 looks’. This is, in effect, a basic summary of effective solution-focused stress management as follows:

1. Look about!

  • Try to measure the level of stress you are coping with.
  • Try to include usual daily hassles and things that you have adapted to recently. Remember – not all changes are negative BUT they may be a drain on your energy.

2. Look to yourself!

  • Try to regularly reflect on your own symptoms – are you getting anxious or irritable?
  • Are you trying to do too much or becoming inactive?
  • Try to identify any changes that may be due to a build up of stress.
  • Try to THINK about the way you think, act and feel.

3. Look forwards!

  • Always try to think about SOLUTIONS and particularly focus on whether the solutions you choose will be useful both in the short and long-term.

4. Look back!

  • Think about what worked before and learn from the most helpful and useful patterns of behaviour and strategies.
  • Try to learn from the less helpful responses – what could you do differently next time?

5. Look after yourself!

  • Pace yourself and try to do one thing e.g. eat, rest, see friends etc. without doing other things at the same time.
  • Use LISTS to aid memory and prioritise.
  • Take breaks when the pressure builds up.
  • Use breathing, relaxation and exercise and keep to a healthy diet and lifestyle.
  • Give yourself treats and rewards.
  • Try to reframe negative self-talk and respect yourself.
  • Try to enjoy life and your relationships!

Planning ahead – a ‘6 stepped’ approach

Another ‘key’ strategy is that of planning ahead. This ‘6 stepped’ approach can become a life-long skill and will support young people in coping effectively with both current and future stressors. Pupils are encouraged to make use of the following script:

  1. Imagine this situation/event in detail and focus specifically on how you are most likely to feel. Go through this while doing slow breathing and stretching exercises.
  2. Prepare for the situation/event. For example, if you are likely to get upset or aggressive due to another person’s unkind comments then prepare for ways of dealing with these to avoid feeling upset. If you have an exam coming up and there is one particular topic that you’re unsure of, seek help – ask teachers, ask friends or do more research and reading.
  3. Be aware of all the possibilities and make your mind up to be calm and relaxed in each one.
  4. Make contingency plans – if you do this then the situation/event will immediately seem less threatening than it was before. For example, if you are being asked to do a presentation to a group of people and you feel unsure of your script, have it written down on memory cards so you can literally read from these should you ‘dry up’.
  5. Relax – make time to do some relaxation before the situation/event. For example, you could go for a run, soak in a bath or do some stretching exercises.
  6. Unwind – plan to relax and reward yourself after the stressful situation/event. You deserve it!

Some useful references

  • Butler, G. & Hope, T. (1995) Manage Your Mind Oxford: University Press
  • Cox, T. (1981) Stress (2nd ed) London: MacMillan
  • Jacobson, E. (1983) Progressive Relaxation (2nd Edition) University of Chicago Press
  • Markham, U. (1990) Helping Children Cope with Stress Sheldon Press
  • McConnon, S. & McConnon, M. (1992) Stress – A Personal Skills Course for Young People Thomas Nelson
  • McNamara, S. (2005) Helping young people to beat stress: A Practical Guide London: Continuum
  • Miles, S.H. (1992) Helping Pupils to Cope with Stress Framework Press
  • Rae, T. (2000) Confidence, Assertiveness, Self-Esteem Lucky Duck Publishing
  • Rae, T. (2001) Strictly Stress Effective Stress Management Bristol: Lucky Duck Publishing
  • Rae, T. (2010) Managing Stress: A comprehensive programme to support young people London: Optimus Education


Last Updated: 
04 Nov 2020