A certain level of stress is normal. And positive stress responses from events such as changing schools and meeting new friends can actually help students learn and grow. But when exposed to repeated stressful events without the tools to manage feelings, stress can become emotionally and physically toxic. This guide explains the symptoms of stress in students from elementary school through college and provides strategies teachers and parents can use to help.
Unlike adults, who can communicate about how stress impacts their lives, children and teens may not recognize or even have the words to describe how they’re feeling. Students are experiencing stress at growing rates, with a 2014 American Psychological Association study finding teens in the U.S. are even more stressed than adults.
However, parents and teachers can watch for short-term behaviors and physical symptoms that manifest when stress becomes a problem. Since age plays a major role in how stress affects us, here are some common causes and symptoms for students in elementary school, middle school, high school and college to help identify when there may be a concern.
While most kids don’t enjoy taking tests, it can cause extreme stress in some children. Those with extreme test anxiety may end up completely shutting down during exams, which can directly impact a student’s grades.
Getting up in front of the class is scary for students worried they’ll do something embarrassing and become the fodder for peer gossip.
In addition to the dread of being picked last when the class divides into teams, kids often must prove they’ve met fitness standards (curl-ups, push-ups, etc.) in front of the group each semester.
Whether it’s for being tardy, eating an unusual-looking lunch or not knowing the answer when called on, being the center of attention can be stressful for young children.
School lockdowns, fire drills, tornado drills … kids are reminded about potential dangers on a regular basis.
Vague aches and pains
Changes in appetite
Refusing to go to school
The amount of homework students receive in middle school is markedly higher than elementary school, with an average of over 3 hours of homework per night for students with 5 classes according to one study.
For middle schoolers involved in activities outside of school (sports, dancing, playing an instrument, and other enrichment) finding downtime can difficult.
Even before middle school begins students are starting to care more about what their peers think including drugs and alcohol.
Social media has created a 24-hour-a-day platform for peer pressure and bullying, a problem that didn’t exist for their parents.
In middle school, kids who can’t afford the hottest brands of clothing, backpacks or smartphone can feel left out.
Frequent stomach aches and/or headaches
Changes in appetite
Fatigue and increased desire to sleep
Retreating to bedroom
“Checking out” from responsibilities
Lying to teachers/parents
Pressure to be in a romantic relationship picks up in high school and cause stress for students, especially for those questioning their sexuality.
High school teens, especially those who don’t have an established peer group, worry about making friends and avoiding bullying.
Keeping grades up to get into college becomes increasingly difficult as classes become more challenging.
It takes considerable time and effort to decide which colleges to apply to, complete applications, visit schools, go on interviews, etc.
Parents often put pressure on their high schoolers to excel and get into a good college at the same time teens are trying to establish independence.
Frequent physical aches and pains
Skipping meals or overeating
Isolating from friends and family
Ignoring chores/school work
Not doing things that used to be fun
Quick to anger
Lying to teachers/parents
Withdrawal from friends
Keeping up with classes can be hard, especially for students juggling large course louds and part- or full-time jobs.
Because learning to balance social activities and academic responsibilities takes time, mistakes are often made along the way.
It’s easy to skimp on sleep when there is so much competing for your time.
For college students living on campus, homesickness and loneliness are common.
Whether working part-time, full-time, or living on financial aid, learning to manage money is an issue in college.
By senior year, students feel pressure to secure a job for after graduation.
Stomach and digestive issues
Headaches and other aches/pains
When sadness and depression become unmanageable it can be a sign of a mood disorder, which affect 1 in 5 children. While experts can identify many reasons why mood disorders occur in children, such as parents getting divorced, loss of a loved one and emotional trauma, stress can be a trigger. In addition, coping with stress can exacerbate symptoms, increasing the pressures associated with having a mood disorder. Here are some examples of mood disorders related to stress and links to more information.
Primary symptoms of continued sadness and hopelessness that interfere with the ability to function and last longer than two weeks. Other symptoms of depression may include irritability, changes in sleep, loss of appetite and mood swings.
Excessive worry and fear that interfere with normal activities. Children and young adults with GAD commonly feel anxiety over past or future events involving family, peers and school which can also present as physical symptoms.
Sudden, unexpected episodes of intense anxiety. People who suffer from panic disorder may feel shortness of breath, sweating and heart palpitations as well as an overall feeling of loss of control.
Sleep disorders occur when abnormal sleep patterns interrupt emotional, mental and physical health. Stress and anxiety can cause sleep disorders such as Excessive Sleepiness, Insomnia and Sleep Apnea, among others.
Young people with social anxiety disorder experience an overwhelming fear of social situations. They also have difficulty when performing in front of others or being the center of attention at school or during sports activities.
PTSD can occur after a stressful or traumatic event. While the symptoms (anxiety, intrusive thoughts, difficulty functioning) are normal reactions to trauma, PTSD occurs when they negatively affect the ability to function. A less severe form of PTSD is Acute Stress Disorder, which is also triggered by a stressful event but is short-term.
Repeated drug use changes the way the brain functions. Young adults who suffer from anxiety and depression may use drugs to cope.
Because children and teens spend most of the day in classrooms, teachers can play a powerful role in limiting stress. One way to “displace nervous energy,” according to mental health professional Stefanie Juliano, is to allow students to use standing desks, sit on exercise balls or even work on the floor. She also suggests creating a quiet, serene corner by adding a beanbag chair, relaxing pictures and positive sayings.
Below are some additional ideas teachers can use to limit stress in the classroom:
Teachers can work together as a team to avoid piling on too much homework on the same nights or scheduling tests on the same day.
No matter how old students are they can benefit from moving around the room, working at “stations,” taking stretching breaks, etc.
Studies show music helps people relax and focus. Classical music is great for the classroom and can serve as a model for students when they study at home.
In the lower grades, desks can get messy quickly but in older grades lockers can get out of control too. Taking time out to throw away old papers and sharpen pencils can help students feel more in control.
Talking about issues bothering students doesn’t have to take up a lot of instructional time. Even five minutes going over concerns, writing them on the board and addressing them later can help students put them aside.
Jessica Tappana, a mental health therapist who works with students of various ages, calls things that stress them out “cling-ons.” Here are three strategies she teaches to students that teachers can use for wiping these stressors away:
Beginning at the top of the head use your hands to gently brush down the face and front of the body, flicking away the negative energy (not onto the person next to you!). Then repeat for the back of the body, arms and sides. When finished, shake your hands and stomp your feet!
Place a small paper shredder, paper, pens and a trash bin by the classroom door. Ask students to write a word or sentence that represents something causing them stress and then have them shred it! The problem won’t disappear, but the activity encourages them to leave stress outside the classroom.
Sometimes when we are stressed, it feels like we are floating above the earth so it’s important to ground your feet and reconnect. Stand tall and bend your knees a bit and imagine your body is a tree trunk. Pretend that there are roots growing out of your feet and picture them growing into the earth. Then imagine your arms are branches and reach out and stretch into the sunshine!
When children suffer from stress, it affects the entire family. Because parents are used to being able to fix problems, not knowing how to intervene can be frustrating and even add to stress in the home. Fortunately, parents can take action by instituting the following tips to reduce symptoms of toxic stress.
Psychologists say teens need time to decompress and develop naturally through non-goal related activities. Lessons, sports teams and other activities may be helpful when it’s time to apply to college, but should be scheduled around what works best for each child in moderation.
In addition to improving physical and emotional health, sleep reduces student inattention, and aids student learning and memory skills. When kids don’t get enough sleep, they are at a greater risk of depression, suicidal thoughts and self-harm. So how much sleep is enough? The American Academy of Pediatrics advises children ages 6-12 get a minimum of 9-12 hours of sleep per night, with 8-10 hours recommended for teens.
Parents can help by encouraging children and teens to shut off screens at least an hour before bedtime and by limiting access to screens within their child’s bedroom.
Children develop a taste for healthy food when they are exposed to it early on. Family meals should include a variety of fruits and vegetables and foods made from whole grains and protein according to U.S. guidelines. Parents should also limit processed foods and those containing sugar which may be linked to sleep problems and depression.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans by the CDC recommends at least one hour of exercise per day for children and adolescents to strengthen cardio fitness and keep depression and anxiety at bay. Surprisingly, just 1 in 3 children get physical exercise each day. Parents should encourage younger children to exercise by turning off screens and sending them outside to play. Teens may need more structured activity like organized sports.
Getting enough sleep, eating nutritious foods and exercising are all important for good mental health. The best way to teach children these self-care strategies is for parents to follow them too!
Most people get nervous before taking a test. In fact, feeling nervous motivates us to study so we can pass! But for some students, it goes beyond feeling nervous to the point that it causes them to freeze up and be unable to perform well. In this section, we discuss the definition and symptoms of test anxiety and how students can prevent it from getting out of control.
Students with test anxiety become so anxious that it causes a physical response. They may feel their heart beating fast, begin to sweat and become nauseous. Unfortunately, the more they are preoccupied with the anxious feelings, the more anxious they become, creating a seemingly never-ending cycle. In other words, it’s the worrying about worrying that gets in the way.
The main symptom of test anxiety is an accelerated heart rate. However, there are additional physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms that can occur. For instance, students may feel light-headed, have digestive problems and sweat profusely. It’s also common to become angry and scared and feel disappointed in yourself. All these symptoms make it impossible to concentrate.
Therapist Jessica Tappana explains that knowing how to breathe is an important part of fighting test anxiety. “Breathing helps us to ground and center and feel present. The increased oxygen flow to the brain will help students think more clearly.”
Getting a good night sleep and eating a balanced meal in the morning is mandatory, adds mental health professional Stefanie Juliano. College students should avoid substances such as alcohol before a test.
Juliano stresses that knowing your triggers will help. “If you feel yourself tensing, getting a headache, feeling your back hurt, or so on, take a quick break either standing (if able) or seated and continue to breathe. Older students can also investigate alternative practices prior to major tests, such as acupuncture, essential oils, massage or chiropractic care.”
Learning how to recognize signs of stress and practicing ways to address these symptoms are important steps on the path to good mental health. Here are some activities from our mental health experts that parents and educators can teach children and teens to get them started.
Children respond well to visual manifestations of stress. Ask them to draw their feelings of stress on a piece of paper. They can use crayons, markers, colored pencils or even paint. Then ask them to crumple up the paper or tear it into pieces. As they get up to throw the paper away, explain to them that they are also throwing away the negative feelings and stressors.
Breathing exercises are good practice for learning how the body responds when we breathe correctly. Ask children to take a deep breath through the nose and then slowly, slowly, slowly breathe out as though they are blowing bubbles, dandelions or candles on a birthday cake. Remind them to pay attention to how their stomach and chest move in and out.
This activity models how to feel safe even when feeling stressed. Instruct children to image they are in a big bubble that surrounds them completely. Inside the bubble are all the people and things that make them feel safe like family members, friends, pets and stuffed animals. Let them sit for a few minutes as you prompt them to listen to how their bodies feel in a safe space that they can go to in their minds when they are feeling stressed.
This activity requires complete silence, so children should be instructed that there is no talking at all. Use a lightweight ball such as a nerf ball to ensure nobody gets hurt. Tell the children to throw the ball to each other but that they can’t throw it to the same person who threw it to them. If they miss, they must sit down. This activity can relieve stress and calm down an anxious classroom.
Teach older children how to stretch correctly to relieve tension and help their bodies relax. It can be done at any time of day for a quick break.
Neck: Put your hands behind your back, grasping your right wrist with your left hand. Use your left hand to gently straighten your right arm, pulling it slightly. Lower your left ear toward your shoulder and hold for 30 seconds. Switch to the other side. Repeat with your left wrist and right hand.
Back: Lie on the floor stretching your arms above your head and pointing your toes. Bend your right leg to your chest with your hands behind your knee and hold for 30 seconds. Repeat with the left leg.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a useful tool for teens to relax, especially at night when having trouble falling asleep. They can sit or lay on the floor. Instruct them to relax each part of the body, starting with their toes and working up until they get to their heads. Take time to address each part in detail. Instruct them to repeat what you say in their heads, “I’m relaxing my toes, relaxing the top of my foot, bottom of my foot, etc.”
Because breathing becomes erratic when we are stressed, it’s helpful to practice breathing from the diaphragm which is the natural method. Lie down, place a hand on your chest and a hand on abs. Breathe in through nose and out through mouth.
Classical music slows your pulse and heart rate, lowers your blood pressure and decreases stress hormones. Make it a habit to play classical music in the classroom and at home to reduce stress and prevent distractions. Free classical music is available on Spotify and YouTube.
Visual imagery involves using the imagination to create soothing feelings. Using free guided imagery scripts like those available from Healthy Place PSU at Plymouth State University, teaches students how to use visual imagery to feel calm and centered.
There are many benefits associated with mindfulness including lowered heart rate, decreased stress hormone levels, and better physical and emotional health. Instruct students to sit on floor with their legs crossed. Posture should be straight but relaxed. Have students place their hands on their legs. They should become aware of their breathing, letting their thoughts go. It’s alright if a thought comes, in which case they should acknowledge it and let it go while continuing to breathe in and out.