The Need to Address Student Stress During the Pandemic

Stress is something all people experience. Stress can have a positive effect, such as helping an individual remain alert or motivated, or a negative effect, like feeling fatigued, overworked, or even depressed. Too much stress for students, in particular, may affect their health and educational experiences. In 2019 Challenge Success surveyed approximately 20,000 students from rigorous, college-focused schools. These students reported that the major sources of stress they experienced stemmed from “grades, tests, quizzes, finals, or other assessments,” “overall workload and homework,” and “college and their future.” Since the pandemic, school closures nationwide may have contributed to additional stressors for students — such as food insecurity, access to technology and materials needed to succeed in remote learning, and a lack of an escape from hardships students might deal with at home. As a result of this shift in students’ worries coupled with stay-at-home orders that limit access to exercise, social activities, leisure, or other coping mechanisms, we hear from many schools that their utmost priority is to help students feel connected and cared for during this time of crisis. 

At Challenge Success, we consider creating a climate of care where students feel supported by adults and connected with peers to be a critical first step in helping students manage stress. Initiating change in this way takes into account some of the fundamental needs of students. If a student’s mind is preoccupied with fitting in at school or feeling lonely, this makes it more difficult for a student to thrive. For instance, in a recent fishbowl conversation Challenge Success hosted virtually, we dug deeper into some high school students’ recent experiences with remote learning since the pandemic. The students spoke to the efficacy of daily check-ins, reading for pleasure, school-supported sleep campaigns, and how exploring new interests helped promote mental, physical, and emotional health. They also discussed difficulties from missing a physical connection with others, changes to grading systems, a lack of interactivity and flexibility, and busywork. Nevertheless, no matter what the source of stress is, emphasizing care through connection and belonging remains a key factor in helping students get through this pandemic. 

When students feel like school leaders hear and listen to their suggestions and that their mental health is the school’s priority, they perceive that there is more support in keeping their heads above water during a crisis like this. For instance, in an “I wish” campaign — a workshop where students communicate one thing they wish their parents, teachers, or communities knew about their academic experience — recently hosted by Challenge Success, students discussed what they wanted others to know about their experience with remote schooling. A sample of what the students said includes:

  • I wish my parents knew that school wasn’t easier just because it was online.
  • I wish my parents knew I am not just dealing with academic or social stress. I’m dealing with family stress too.
  • I wish my parents knew how stressful it was to be a student during Covid-19.
  • I wish our teachers knew how much our mental health is impacted by our home environment and that mental health matters.
  • I wish our teachers knew that I am not trying to slack off, and it’s not that I don’t care about the class because I really do love learning, but I just have to put my mental health above everything else right now. Being in isolation is so so bad for my depression and anxiety, so it’s not that I do not care, it’s that I do not have the mental energy to do it.
  • I wish my teachers knew that helping my struggling family is far more important than completing 20 online assignments.
  • I wish my teachers knew that their work meant a lot to me.
  • I wish my teachers knew that my workload isn’t any less just because we’re not in school.
  • I wish for us to get through this change together.

These quotes from the “I wish” campaign illustrate the need to listen to and validate student voice as schools, teachers, and parents help students navigate the new normal of remote learning. In the “Students Speak” workshop, other students suggested improvements their schools can implement to support them during this time of social isolation, including asking for more freedom and flexibility around assignments, more time or breaks for PDF (playtime, downtime, and family time), more interactive lessons, regular check-ins with teachers, opportunities like bring your pet to Zoom day, and facilitated socials to familiarize themselves with teachers and classmates as the new school year launches, among other requests. At Challenge Success, we advocate for listening to student suggestions such as these.

We also have additional strategies that schools might consider for the upcoming semester. On a strategic level, consider fostering a positive peer environment for students to get to know each other so they don’t remain in silos, prioritizing transferable social-emotional skills (like self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making) to help students engage in self-care, and incorporating problem or project-based learning practices to keep students engaged in school. In practice, this can look like encouraging PDF, rethinking student assessments and grading, or incorporating hands-on projects. We have a curated list of helpful resources specifically for remote learning as well as resources, activities, and real-life examples of changes that Challenge Success schools have and are implementing. There are also other organizations and professionals curating resources, offering their advice, or directly serving students in need to help ease some of their anxieties. For example, Lynn Lyons (a psychotherapist with expertise in managing anxieties and disorders) has been hosting some excellent Facebook Live conversations discussing methods for coping with stress. Beyond Differences, a long-standing proponent of belonging and inclusion in school, has been giving tips on how to stay connected virtually. Mindful Life Project — an organization dedicated to supporting the mental and emotional wellness of students, teachers, staff, leaders, and families, through mindfulness meditation — has launched a mobile app and hosts virtual mindfulness sessions to help people feel more in control of their thoughts and feelings. In summary, when students have someone to go to when they need to express themselves, and when teachers are focused on prioritizing students’ well-being, students are better equipped at staying afloat during these difficult times.

Justin Rodriguez is a Research Assistant for Challenge Success. He supports the research team by managing incoming data from student and parent surveys. He is the founder of 1Gen, a first-generation college student group. Justin is interested in advocating for data-driven policies and decisions to improve education – especially for students most in need.