Anxiety in the classrooms, how does stress affect students?

In recent times there has been an intense debate over the optimal level of pressure to which students should be exposed.

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In recent times there has been an intense debate over the optimal level of pressure to which students should be exposed. While on the one hand, some defend the traditional requirement and homework and exams, on the other schools without homework have also emerged, parents who prefer less traditional and more practical methods for their children, alternatives to exams and generally greater attention to students’ moods.

One doubt at the centre of the debate: are the studies causing stress to young people? Is this greater than it was in the past or are we exaggerating it? Let’s look at the studies to find out what is really behind the discussion over anxiety in the classroom.

The truth is that many children today never stop: you could say that between homework, the increasing number of subjects, extracurricular and support classes… the youngsters are overloaded.

This is indicated by some studies, such as one of the World Health Organization, in which data from 36 different countries have been compared to determine that academic pressure has increased since the year 2000 and that this can affect students’ health, self-esteem and confidence (much more than 17 years ago). The same report points out that young people are very dependent on the support of their parents, which from another point of view could also be seen as an opportunity.

What stresses youngsters?

During the years of study, the classrooms and everything that surrounds their education become the centre of the life of these young people. They spend most of their time at school, many eat there and have friends in the same environment. But school is not only important from the point of view of their social life, it is also the first place where they receive classifications according to their abilities and this is decisive. Competitiveness is healthy and natural and can be good, but sometimes it can turn into fear and even a source of stress.

Students feel a lot of pressure to perform well at school, to pass and have their homework done on time. They want to prove their worth. To this self-imposed pressure is sometimes added that which they receive from their parents and teachers, often indirectly and unconsciously: teachers want their students to be the best and parents even more so.

Anxiety problems are not the exclusive realm of adults, they can affect people of all ages and in children, like in adults, the response to tests or a high workload depends more on each individual: while some find it a motivating challenge that helps them improve their performance, others are subjected to a stress they cannot handle.

How to identify a situation of anxiety in the classroom

It is best to stay tuned and, especially during periods such as exams, when stress is very high and the pressure is at its peak, some symptoms have to be watched out for that may help detect it:

Negative thoughts: exaggerated ideas about the effect that a bad grade will have, such as believing that a fail will prevent the chance of getting work or will mean repeating year. Fear of not knowing how to do the exam, of disappointing parents or the fact that everyone in the class knows more than you. These are negative emotions that can lead to irritability or loss of sleep.

Physical symptoms: tense muscles, tremors or small tics and conditions that arise from tension, such as palpitations in the eyes. Cramp, stomach pain, excessive sweating, and even mental blockage or headache may also occur.

Disruptive behaviours: lack of attention or excessive distractions can be another symptom that can even occur during the exam, making it more complicated for the student to understand and process the questions and, therefore, negatively affecting their final performance.

It is estimated that this anxiety may affect 15% or 25% of students at school age and, according to some, can influence them even in everyday situations beyond the exams and, in the worst cases, create negative effects such as fear of being evaluated in situations like a job interview, the presentation of a project or pinning down a deal. This would occur in extreme cases of reduced self-esteem and loss of motivation, which are surpassed by fear and anxiety.

What can be done?

In recent years, society has become more aware of the problem and studies and research have been done and, above all, solutions have been sought. Many of these works positively conclude that a certain level of moderate anxiety can even improve productivity, by promoting healthy competitiveness and the desire to excel. However, if the stress is very high, stays in time and leads to failures, it can be dangerous. Therefore it is important to know strategies that help parents and children to face and overcome it.

Reinforce self-confidence: children who believe they can be successful trust in their possibilities. This is something that should be promoted at home, giving the exams the importance they actually have, making sure that they are not decisive in the students’ self-esteem and that the important thing is that they do the best they can. A very effective formula to achieve this is to make a list of things that have already been achieved to remind the student what they are capable of. Other options are to give them positive feedback when they have earned it, to help them set realistic goals or educate them in the concept of “try again” so that they do not fall apart when there is a blip, a disappointment or a failure.

Close relationship between teachers and students: teachers should take the time to familiarise students with the exam formats, so that they are not faced with something they do not understand when the time comes. Practise with them, know those who are most stressed and motivate them with positive processes. A small conversation before the test can help them gain confidence and calm down.

Encourage them with more enriching and entertaining activities that require their active participation, such as group projects or joint exams. This is another idea with which some teachers are experimenting to see what students know about the subject in a more relaxed and fun environment. This will make the student feel more comfortable, and enable them to demonstrate their knowledge in a more effective and applied way.

Plan leisure hours: many hours of study do not always mean better grades. In this and so many other things, the result of the effort can be undermined. Actually, sometimes anxiety appears precisely because young people do not learn to rest and relax to reactivate the brain. In order to feel good and perform properly, work has to be interspersed with leisure activities that allow them to disconnect and discharge tension. Ideally, a break of 30 minutes for each hour studied, so that children can pin what they learned in their brain, but this recommendation can vary for each child and also changes over time: as students grow they are able to concentrate for longer.

Do relaxing exercises: if the student’s stress indexes are very high and cannot be controlled with techniques like those above, the solution may be to go to a professional to teach them specific relaxation techniques.

Although it is important that young people learn to manage anxiety and stress for themselves, we must not forget the role that adults play: it is they who should give them the necessary tools to learn to deal with their nerves, to make them see that their life does not depend on a single test.

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