How schools can tackle student stress and anxiety?

Education is the key to sustainable economic development and developing an effective workforce. Over the past decade, governments around the world are tailoring education policies to get better academic outcomes and become more competitive in international rankings of global standardized tests like PISA (Program of International Student Assessment). Schools around the world are in the race for academic excellence, putting pressure on teachers and students to achieve the desired rankings.

Across the globe, different countries have adopted different methods to be ahead in the competition. On one end of the spectrum we have South East Asian countries like Singapore and Hong Kong which have excellent school policies, regular standardized tests and have been ranked at the top for producing future skills ready students. Singapore has been consistently scoring at the top of PISA rankings from many years. Yet there is a downside to this narrow focused approach on academic excellence and competitiveness which can be seen in the rising number of cases of student anxiety and depression. In 2016, 22 school students took their lives in Singapore due to school stress. Psychologists are concerned over the increased lack of social, behavioral and motor skills in school children. In fact, psychiatrists use the terms ‘high school senior symptoms’ or ‘entrance examination symptoms’ to indicate emotional health problems among students in these countries. The problem lies not just in focus on pure academic excellence rather than learning, but also to large extent on parental pressure, fear of failure and test anxiety.

In the middle of the spectrum, are countries like Brazil, India and China which are facing challenges in education sector due to large populations, poorly implemented education policies and ineffective teaching environment. The stress levels of students are very high due to stiff competition, lesser employment opportunities, parental pressure and fear of failure. In India, every 1 hour a student commits suicide. 12% of students between 4-16 years show behavioral issues, depression and other stress related disorders.

On the other end of the spectrum are countries like Finland and New Zealand, who have a relaxed environment focusing on learning and overall development of children, yet still rank in top 10 of PISA ranking.

It is imperative that schools find ways to tackle the stress and anxiety disorders among students. If not tackled, the ongoing stress can severely impact their emotional health and cause low confidence and burnout.

Some of the best practices picked from across the globe to create a stress free learning environment:

  • Reduced class sizes: A balanced student teacher ratio will ensure ample attention to each child.
  • Reduced standardized tests: The Finnish model of having very less homework and only one standardized test at the end of high school still yields high academic scores. Instead, continuous assessment ensures that teachers are aware of areas of improvement for each child and help them through it.
  • Digitized classrooms: A blend of a digitized classroom with traditional teaching methods has been shown to improve learning outcomes in students. In a digital classroom, teachers no longer feed information to students, instead they activate and guide students. Students are no longer targets of instruction but active agents in learning processes. The learning is more deep and rewarding.
  • Student focused Pedagogy: In schools across Australia and Finland, there is a shift from pedagogy based on teaching process to that based on students learning process with focus on building competencies like critical thinking, creativity and real life problem solving. Teachers place student needs at the center of program planning and delivery. They use inquiry and evidence based teaching strategies and empower students to become reflective, questioning and self-monitoring learners.
  • Phenomenon-based learning: Instead of focusing on an individual school subject, the learning focuses on studying a phenomena comprehensively from various viewpoints, integrating different subjects and themes. An example would be human body as a phenomenon where students learn by combining topics across biology, psychology and health education.
  • Teacher Happiness: A effective stress free environment will be one where teachers are motivated and have higher autonomy to experiment with different pedagogies, blend technology with traditional methods and try newer teaching styles like outdoor classes. A continuing Professional education platform will ensure a skilled teaching force and higher retention in the teaching profession.
  • Physical and Emotional Wellness: Running meditation and wellness programs and encouraging non competitive sports will provide an outlet for the young people to remain physically and emotionally sound.
  • Nutrition: A healthy nutritious lunch to students in school premises goes a long way in ensuring maximum attendance and keeping them healthy.If schools do not have the facility to provide meals, introduce a system to reward students who get healthy packed boxes from home. Even a 15 minutes unstructured break where student needs to consume a fruit or vegetable everyday will instill great food habits in children.
  • Involve the parents: Promote knowledge of emotional health and academic stress among parents and teach coping strategies to parents and children.

A well balanced curriculum taught by skilled educators in a stress free learning environment that promotes student and teacher well-being is the key to achieving an effective education system that will create a generation of future ready students with great social and behavioral skills, and mold them into better human beings.

-Madhavi Agnihotri

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