Stress seems to be as omnipresent for our students as it is for their parents. The pressure to perform, compete and outpace their peers can feel overwhelming at times.
This pressure presents itself most when exams arise or students are called on in class. Stress hormones flood their body as the pressure mounts, making it difficult to think clearly and recall information. We’ve all heard “I studied and knew the material, so I don’t know what happened. I just blanked. I got too nervous.”
While learning the material is important, at least for the next exam (even if it may not ever be applicable in real life), learning how to control and refocus the stress and anxiety precipitated by those exams is one of the greatest skills they can learn. This is a skill set that will grow with and serve them throughout life.
Without getting into neuro diversities that may be at play here, there are ways we can support our students with mindsets and strategies that will help them not only digest the material but also bring awareness to critical thoughts and limiting beliefs, and control their stress level enough to metabolize, comprehend and recall information in those critical moments.
- Fear mindset to growth mindset: Grades, mistakes and even failures are information. They are experiences you can learn from. A grade is telling you something. How well the studying you did translated into your performance. How much your fear of failing (getting a “B” even) took over and affected your performance. This information allows students to change their behavior if needed and grow into their next best version. It’s all about how to reframe, learn from and grow from “failures” — not avoid them.
- Vertical to horizontal trajectory: Most of us think of life like the old board game Chutes + Ladders. It’s a competition; progress is made climbing ladders and backsliding is done on the chutes. What if we taught our students to think of life horizontally. We are on a track for a period of time until we reach a train station. The station presents itself when we’ve gone as far as we can on our current track. Just because grade numbers increase doesn’t mean we are getting higher up the ladder. It can mean we’re getting farther away from where we were when we started. This is where rejection becomes redirection. You found your way to a station and onto a new track versus sliding down a chute and erasing all the progress you’ve made. Life is no longer a competition and race. Staying on your track, finding a sustainable pace and being open to the opportunities at each new station presents a new mindset that can reduce the pressure to outperform their peers at every turn and all costs.
- Expect and accept visualization: Have your student visualize themselves taking the exam, recalling the information and feeling very nervous. Trying to remove the nervousness in the visualization adds more pressure when it’s test time. Assume the nerves will come and get them used to the feeling. They are safe, it’s normal and they can calm themselves and refocus. Saying to themselves, “Of course I’m nervous. It’s an exam. And it’s important to me. This is totally normal. AND I’m safe. I’m prepared. I know this. I GOT THIS.”
- Express your fear: Taking just five minutes to give their fear a voice can be powerful. When they let it go unprocessed, it can progress from a tropical storm into a hurricane. Emotions are energy and need to be released. Talking and writing about them are great options. Ask your student, “What are you afraid of?” Then tell your student to ask their fear — like it’s a separate part of them — “What are you afraid of?” They can write it and then read it back. Maybe the answer is the same, but typically there is more under the surface that this exercise can expose. Once it comes to light, have your student surround that part of themselves with love and thank it for trying to protect them from failure, disappointment and rejection. This fear is not a weak part, but a protective part. Tell it, “I’ve got this. I’m prepared. You don’t have to be afraid. And even if this one doesn’t go well, it’s just going to make us stronger for the next one.” When we allow our underlying fears to control us, they create our reality. When we acknowledge and care for our fearful parts, we take back control and become the creator.
Teaching our students how to manage their thoughts and emotions can always ride shotgun to their primary education and help them travel even farther — horizontally, of course.
Resources: Marblehead Counseling Center at MarbleheadCounseling.org and for stressed parents who are attorneys, don’t forget Lawyer Assistance Resources | Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers MA (lclma.org) for free, confidential counseling services.
Wendy Tamis Robbins is an anxiety expert, bestselling author of “The Box: An Invitation to Freedom From Anxiety” and founder of CAVE Club, a wellness community exclusively for professional women. She works globally as a mental health and wellness coach, speaker and advocate.