Ride the Stress Curve

Recently there has been a far greater understanding and acceptance of mental health issues which is very welcome.  Certainly, in the last few years I have dealt with many students who have mental health problems and thankfully they have often had the support of appropriate professionals.  Schools are taking the problem more seriously and often employ counsellors to help young people who are experiencing problems that are less serious.

There are genuine difficulties that all our learners have to cope with.  As the learners get older, their workload increases.  Certainly, the amount of work that a Key Stage 3 child has to cope with is very different from the workload of an A Level student.  Not only that, many A Level students are juggling a busy social life and a part time job in addition to their studies.  Many learners find exams difficult to deal with, and this starts in primary school.  There is scope to help the vast majority of our learners who find these, and other aspects of school life difficult.  There is a lot of room to build resilient learners.

Our learners need to understand stress far better.  I have written about this before.  There are a few basic ideas that learners should understand.  People need a certain level of stress before they will work effectively and efficiently.  If that level of stress is not present then tasks will often be done poorly, or not at all.  Up to a certain level, increasing stress leads to increased performance and at the optimum level, people will be performing tasks effectively and will be feeling really alive.  If stress continues to increase much beyond this level then tasks will be done less effectively and people will be feeling anxious and ‘under stress’.  It is when people get into this area when problems arise.  Most teachers are good at manipulating their learners’ workloads so that they do not tip over into this over stressed mode.  However, many learners are not very adept at managing their own workloads.  Many of them leave their work to the last minute and when they have several deadlines close together for different subjects they run into problems.

Region 1:  Too little stress for efficient and effective performance.  There is little reason to perform so tasks are often put off or done half-heartedly.
Region 2: Optimum stress.  Performance is at its best.  There is reason to work and the work is manageable.
Region 3: Too much stress.  Either there is too much work to do or the work is too hard; or there may be outside factors that are interfering with work.

It is clear that most learners do not have much understanding of stress and just think of stress as bad and to be avoided.  Young people would benefit from having a higher level of stress literacy.  If they develop this literacy then they will be far more able to monitor and influence their own stress levels, aiming to keep their stress level close to the optimum level.

Many learners will only do a task when the deadline is imminent.  This is not that surprising as, to a certain extent, we all work like this.  If all tasks came one at a time with deadlines coming at evenly spaced intervals, this would not be a problem.  Unfortunately, as we all know, deadlines often come close together.  This is when students often get into difficulties and they will tell one teacher that they couldn’t do the work because they were doing another teacher’s work.  This of course is down to poor organisation.  Some students manage these situations on their own but many of our young people need explicit help with this.  They need to be shown how to look at the amount of work they need to do and to plan out when the are going to work on it in order to hit their deadlines.  The most obvious time when this happens is when learners are preparing for public exams.  When I have asked new Year 12 students to analyse their revision for their GCSEs, most of them say that their revision was last minute and disorganised, and this is from students who have succeeded and gained a good set of GCSE results.  Our learners need to be shown explicitly how to plan for workload pinch points and use their stress literacy to see how this can impact on their performance.

If learners are to plan effectively they need to know what work they have to do and when the deadlines are going to be.  Teachers have a key role here in making their expectations clear and flagging up deadlines in good time.  This planning is best done before a pinch point is imminent, in other words during a lower stress phase.  This in itself can cause problems because learners’ motivation will be lower during this lower stress phase.  However, if the learners are aware of the stress curve then they will be more likely to plan at an appropriate time.

Sometimes learners can be overwhelmed by the amount of work that needs to be done – and this will only get worse with linear A Levels when student swill have to revise two years work for at least three subjects.  When learners contemplate how much work that they have to do they can suffer from paralysis and, even though they have a great deal to do, do nothing at all.  This in turn increases their stress level and can very quickly tip them into the over-stressed state so that whatever they do is not done well.  Above all though, students need to make a start.  They need to concentrate on doing the first task in front of them and put everything else to one side.  This is what successful performers in all fields do: musicians call it being in the groove, and sportsmen call it being in the zone.  This is also the main thrust of mindfulness, which I have written about before.  Learners should give the task that they are doing their full attention so that it is achieved effectively and efficiently.  Once the first task is achieved then it will give learners the confidence that the next task can be achieved and their full attention should be transferred to that task.  This can quickly build a virtuous circle of achievement.  By concentrating only on the task in hand, students have more chance of getting their level of stress into that optimum zone of peak performance.  Obviously, this is easier to do if the learner has already produced a detailed plan.

I firmly believe that we can build more resilient learners if the link between stress level and performance is made explicit and revisited regularly to build understanding.  They need to see that there will be times when their workload will be very high and that planning their way through their various tasks will help keep their stress levels in control.  Finally, they need to learn to concentrate on the task that they are doing right now; they need to be rooted in the moment and in the task that they are doing.  These strategies should enable more students to maintain their stress levels in the optimum zone for more of the time, which should make their experience of school and exams easier to deal with.  It should lead to improved results.

If your learners can learn to manipulate their stress so that it is at the optimum level then they will perform effectively and efficiently; they will be riding the stress curve.

Ride the Stress Curve