School stress is common, but you can learn how to manage it and reduce its impact with a few simple strategies.
School stress affects most children at some point. Whether it’s a peer issue on the playground or final exam prep, when one trigger is removed another one might crop up.
For most people in life, stress is almost inevitable.
But not knowing how to deal with stress and pressure in school can make it harder for some students to focus. Stress can interfere with a student’s readiness to learn, which may cause them to fall behind — potentially increasing stress levels even more.
However, school stress doesn’t have to get in the way of student success. The first step is often identifying its existence and causes.
Not everyone experiences stress and anxiety the same way. While some children get headaches, others might feel nausea.
Stress in kids can manifest as physical symptoms as well as behaviors. Signs of stress may also be obvious or subtle.
Some that are easy to identify include irritability and anxious behavior. Other signs aren’t as apparent, such as muscle pain.
Investigating medical causes for recurring pain in your child is always a good idea, but sometimes, that pain can be a response to stress. Muscle pain, for example, is
Physical signs of stress in kids can include:
- muscle pain
- stomach pain
Behavioral stress responses in children might look like:
- social withdrawal
- reduced motivation
- less self-control
- impaired focus and concentration
Experiencing stress can be confusing and uncomfortable for kids. Some children — especially adolescents and teens — might show unhealthy coping strategies, which can also be indicators of stress, such as:
- avoidance behavior
- sleeping too much
- smoking or vaping
- substance use
- eating too much or too little
- excess social media use
Signs of stress might not always be obvious at home. Teachers and school counselors might inform parents about stress-related behavior in their kids, which can look like:
- oppositional conduct
- absences from class
- task avoidance
- class disruptions
- peer conflict
- emotional volatility
- leaving the class without permission
Behaviors are often only a small part of a larger picture. When it comes to understanding signs of stress, it can be important to see the whole child.
For example, social withdrawal isn’t always a reflection of stress. A child who prefers to keep to themselves might simply be introverted or possibly have autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Many scenarios can cause school stress. Common school stressors can include:
- work level
- peer pressure
- managing teacher expectations
What bothers one person might not affect someone else. The student who is stressed about giving a speech might be a confident test taker. One student might worry about math, while another dreads gym class.
For some young people, the simple act of arriving late to class can cause extreme anxiety.
Less noticeable causes
Sometimes, sources of stress can be obvious to both students and parents. An upcoming test is one such example.
Other times, it’s not as obvious. How can work that’s too easy be stressful? Boredom can be a cause of stress for a gifted or advanced student who doesn’t feel challenged.
Instructional pace differences can cause stress. For some students, the pace is too fast. For others, it’s too slow, which can make it difficult to maintain focus.
Sensory overload can also cause stress. Fluorescent lights, chattering voices, and movement everywhere can increase the cognitive load of a student who’s already challenged by an assignment.
Chronic versus acute stress
School stress can be chronic or acute. Chronic stress is persistent and ongoing, like the worry about getting into the college of one’s choice. Acute stress is intense but short-lived, such as being embarrassed in front of peers.
Causes outside of school
Many students experience stress outside of school, too. Some kids’ lives are filled with chronic and acute stressors, both in and out of classrooms.
Some causes of stress outside of school might include:
- over-scheduling extracurriculars, like sports and clubs
- social mishaps
- household stressors
- managing parent expectations
Over-scheduling combined with early school day start times leads to another source of school stress: sleep deprivation.
According to the analysis, 57.8% of students in grades 6-8 get fewer than 9 hours of sleep, while 72.7% of students in grades 9-12 get fewer than 8 hours of sleep.
Guidance on school-aged children’s sleep needs from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) recommends:
- 3-5 years of age: 10-13 hours per 24 hours
- 6-12 years of age: 9-12 hours per 24 hours
- 13-18 years of age: 8-10 hours per 24 hours
This means that sleep deprivation may cause some students to be stressed before the school day even begins.
Learning effective coping strategies can make it easier for students and parents to manage the pressure of school.
Teaching kids self-care by helping them practice health- and wellness-focused habits can help offset the effects of stress.
Some foundational forms of self-care include:
- eating healthy foods
- getting regular exercise
- resting and maintaining a regular sleep schedule
Self-care can also include spending time in natural settings.
- green spaces
Positive social connections are also an important part of mental wellness. It can be easy for homework and school activities to take over a schedule, so it can be important to make time for family and friends.
Relaxation strategies are powerful stress-management tools. Children of all ages can learn skills to ease anxiety at any point in the day, like:
Whether it’s in the moments before a test or the aftermath of a peer conflict, relaxation strategies can help students maintain control of stress to prevent it from escalating.
Over-scheduling and school activities can sometimes take over daily life. Parents can help by teaching their children about school-life balance.
Offering and supporting “brain breaks,” like creative hobbies and unstructured play, can help kids decompress.
4. Growth mindset
Sometimes, it’s the thoughts a student thinks that might cause them the most stress. Practicing stress-reduction thinking can help.
Making peace with a less-than-perfect mark and recognizing that everyone has different strengths are examples of this mindset. Other helpful thoughts include:
- “mistakes are how we learn”
- “it’s okay if I don’t finish first every time”
- “I just haven’t learned this yet”
- “hard work is like a workout for my brain”
5. Organizational strategies
Schoolwork can be overwhelming, particularly when more than one project is due or multiple tests are scheduled within the same time frame. Procrastination can be part of being human, but this often makes stress worse.
Consider breaking down big assignments into smaller sections to be completed individually. This is called “chunking” and can help by making large projects seem less daunting.
A homework schedule can give students a plan for working on assignment chunks. It may also make studying for tests in advance easier, rather than last-minute cramming.
Chunking and using tools like an agenda for scheduling homework are just two of the many ways students can organize themselves to make their academic load less stressful.
Knowing when to get help and how to ask for it is a valuable life skill. Help is often nearby, whether it’s your:
- peer mentor
Sometimes, even just reaching out to classmates who might be having the same experience can make handling stress easier.
If school stress becomes too much to handle on your own, reaching out to a therapist can be helpful. A therapist can often help you pinpoint triggers for stress and teach you effective coping strategies.
School stress can be common for students at any age. But for children and teens, experiencing pressure and stress can be confusing and uncomfortable.
There are many aspects of school life that can be stressful, and kids don’t always know how to cope with these feelings.
Stress is an individual experience. Some students might enjoy academic challenges, while others feel overwhelmed. What bothers one person may not be a source of stress for another.
School stress can cause physical symptoms, like headache and nausea, as well as behavioral signs, like mood changes and sleep disruption.
There are many ways to manage school stress, including:
- better organization
- reaching out to others for help
If you feel like you or your child may benefit from therapy, check out Psych Central’s guide to seeking mental health support.
Stress is often a part of life for everyone, but learning how to manage it early can give you a head start for the future.