“I’m so stressed out, I can’t believe how much homework we have,” or “that test was sooo hard” are refrains that we sometimes hear in our hallways. The question is whether this sort of stress is good or bad for kids? The answer is more complex than we might think. 

Good stress and bad stress

Life is stressful, and there is a significant amount of research that indicates that there is a range of stress that leads to peak performance and a threshold above which stress can be truly damaging over time. The student who is a bit anxious/stressed before taking the test has the possibility that s/he will perform better than the child that is too relaxed. In other words, a certain amount of arousal actually has been proven to help students learn and perform in test situations. (Alia J. Crum, Peter Salovey and Shawn Achor)

Too much arousal, on the other hand, can inhibit performance and lead to less success in the classroom or athletic field. “Stress doesn’t deserve its bad rap. Psychologists agree that while chronic or traumatic stress can be toxic, garden-variety stress—such as the kind that comes with taking a big test—is typically a normal and healthy part of life.” (Lisa Damour, “How to Help Teenagers Embrace Stress” New York Times, Sept. 19, 2018) 

When it crosses the line

Twenty-five percent of 13- to 18-year-olds have mild to moderate anxiety (Psychology Today) with eleven years of age being the median age of onset. Eleven years old! In some instances, the level of anxiety can be so severe that the child is paralyzed in everyday situations and unable to attend school. Most of the time, though, unmanaged stress takes the milder, but equally undesirable, form of limiting a student’s capacity to perform at his/her highest level or reducing enjoyment of learning and/or age-appropriate risk taking. Over time, this level of anxiety can impact a student’s trajectory and confidence. 

What can we do

How parents and school frame stress can make a difference, as can training in stress reduction strategies. Just as having a growth mindset, the belief that ability/intelligence is not fixed, but instead the product of repeated effort, has been proven to benefit young people; a positive framing of stress is correlated with more successful management and outcomes. In other words, if we teach students that stress is a “bad” thing, students will frame stress as something to be avoided.

Conversely, if we help young people understand the positive benefits of stress along with stress management strategies (breathing, exercise, visualization, and the like), student outcomes and abilities to manage discomfort can be extended. “Avoiding stress doesn’t work and is often not possible. To achieve and grow, we have to get outside our comfort zones and approach challenges,” reminds Jeremy P. Jamieson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester….” (Lisa Damour, “How to Help Teenagers Embrace Stress” New York Times, Sept. 19, 2018) 

Getting the balance right and supporting students

At Colorado Academy, we believe in having rigorous academic, athletic, and arts opportunities for our students, and a program that will teach critical thinking skills, problem solving, and how to collaborate effectively. We also want to make sure that we are providing a healthy learning environment, one in which for the most part kids have time to be kids after school, have dinner with their family, and the chance to read or play independently.

Finding this “Goldilocks” balance is not easy. I’m sure that from time to time we fall off on the side of having slightly too high or too low expectations. Our goal, though, is to enable students to develop organizational, study, and resiliency skills which will allow each to manage challenges and find success.