Stress Responses: Teaching Resilience for Trauma and Everyday Crises
Many of the challenging behaviors we see in classrooms stem from stress or trauma in our students’ lives. Explicitly teaching our students about stress responses and resilience can help them better recognize their emotions, cope with stress, and reach out for help before they act out. Social-emotional learning tools can have a profound and long-term impact on our students and the classroom. Here’s how to get started.
The first step toward building a critical awareness is teaching students about the ways that stress can manifest in emotions, behaviors, and physical symptoms. According to the American Psychological Association, “Your body’s stress warning signs tell you that something isn’t right. Much like the glowing orange ‘check engine’ light on your car’s dashboard, if you neglect the alerts sent out by your body, you could have a major engine malfunction.” In the classroom, we witness “engine malfunctions” often. However, if we teach students to become aware of the ways stress can present itself, they become better at managing it.
As educators, we see students reacting to stress in negative ways like these every day:
- acting out/short temper
- aggressive behavior/fighting
- inability to focus in class
- getting sick often
- stomach aches
- giving up on assignments in frustration
- crying/yelling in anger
- shutting down
Often when students exhibit these behaviors, they don’t realize that the behaviors are actually symptomatic of underlying stresses. If we teach students the warning signs of stress, we make them mindful of what’s really happening when they feel these emotions or engage in these behaviors. Remember, kids and young adults aren’t always able to accurately label their emotions. Educators can do a lot of good through building emotional intelligence.
Ideas for teaching about stress: Create a cut out of a person and have students label the ways stress can affect the body. Have a circle talk and show students the list above, asking them to describe times they’ve felt these emotions and how stress may have been a factor. Have students make a mindmap of what makes them feel stressed.
Once students know the signs of stress, they can begin to practice mindfulness. Research shows that mindfulness helps students with attention, emotional regulation, compassion, and calming. When a student is feeling stressed, mindfulness teaches them how to pause and thoughtfully gauge their mood. They learn to self-assess and purposefully decide how to cope with their emotions. Perhaps the student is hungry, confused, tired, or in need of some deep breaths. Instead of lashing out, the student learns to pause, recognize, and cope.
Read more about mindfulness in Mindfulness Activities for the Elementary Classroom.
Teaching students about building resilience empowers learners to understand that emotional regulation is primarily a self-driven endeavor. In Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, she shares that the unexpected death of her husband left her scrambling to find stable ground. She writes, “When life pulls you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface and breathe again.” That’s the idea behind resilience. It’s not a denial of emotional weight, nor does it mean that we must always deal with our woes independently. Rather, resilience is the notion that through awareness, mindfulness, and practice, we can arm ourselves with coping skills to better survive life’s challenges.
Some ideas for teaching resilience: Give students examples of life challenges and ask them to brainstorm pieces of advice they would give to someone experiencing that challenge. Or, ask students to identify some life challenges (big and small) and then create emotional action plans for coping with those situations.
Another important component of building resiliency is teaching students to identify their emotional triggers. What frustrates them? What stresses them out? What makes them sad? Sociologist and life coach Martha Beck explains, “Emotional triggering is, at root, a survival response. Our brains create powerful associations between things that have hurt us and whatever was going on when we got hurt. Once you’ve been hit by lightning, even though you know that the odds of it happening again are astronomically low, the touch of a single raindrop may send you running for cover.” Exercises where students explore the things that produce negative emotions can build an awareness of situations that require more mindfulness. An important distinction to pass along to young learners is that triggers explain emotional responses, but they do not necessarily excuse them. One can’t merely excuse troubling behavior by saying, “Oh well, I was triggered.” That’s where mindfulness comes in, and the skill of asking for help when emotions become overwhelming.
Some ideas for teaching about triggers: Have students identify a list of times when they felt mad, frustrated, stressed, or sad. Discuss what students believe triggered their negative emotions. Have students create emotional trigger action plans that incorporate mindfulness techniques: “When I Feel…I Can…” Be sure to provide avenues for counseling or emotional support for times when students need assistance. Another option is to create a safe space in your classroom so students can learn to cope with different triggers and emotions in healthy ways.
Asking for help
In cases of trauma or when life becomes generally overwhelming, students need to know there is help. Again, resiliency doesn’t mean we have to go it alone. Part of healthy resilience is recognizing when we need help and reaching out for it. Teachers should continually make students aware of the options available for counseling and encourage them to reach out when needed.
Providing our students with emotional tools builds their capacity for healthy relationships, more focused learning, and greater happiness. Building resilience and mindfulness in students develops empathy and compassion, and it frees students from emotional roadblocks so they can learn more readily. Mindfulness makes changes in the brain that relate to less reactivity, letting students engage more deeply in their learning. Kids don’t need to stumble clumsily through emotional minefields. Let’s give them a map.
Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation, and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.