The Head, Bart Wielenga

Not All Stress is Bad Stress (Part 2)

“It is not stress that kills us, but our reaction to it.” – Hans Selye

It is easy to assume that stress is invariably bad. The evidence suggests that this is not the case. Much research into the effect of stress on development has shown that moderate levels of stress are an essential part of growth. Teaching children how to handle stress is something that we are learning about all the time at Blundell’s. What is clear to us is that each child is different and each has their own threshold for handling stress. Some pupils are naturally able to cope with an awful lot of factors which we recognise as being stress-inducing yet others seem to lack that same resilience. Part of learning how to handle stress is helping each pupil recognise their own limitations, their own triggers and their own opportunities for growth. As adults, we as teachers and parents, can help our children to become more self-aware when it comes to coping with stress.

So what exactly are the benefits of moderate stress?

  1. Stress can help to focus our attention and raise our levels of concentration. Preparing for an exam or for a music recital causes us to feel a degree of stress and anxiety – because the performance matters to us – and that helps to focus our attention and effort more efficiently. Research has even shown that moderate stress can aid productivity and short term memory.
  2. Learning to cope with moderate stress equips us to become more tolerant of stress in the future. Pupils who have felt a bit of stress know that they can cope and the next time they find themselves in a situation that is stressful they will know that they can handle it. A group of pupils navigating the Moors as part of their Ten Tors training may get lost and experience real anxiety but once they recover their bearings that experience will benefit them the next time they find themselves disoriented in the mist and rain. Knowing that they coped last time will reassure them that they can cope again.
  3. Moderate stress can help us to become less risk averse and more willing to make changes. It helps us to be a bit braver. Avoiding making decisions can be the result of fearing stress and anxiety. Young people who have the experience and confidence to cope with stress are more likely to make brave decisions in the knowledge that they can handle the stress that is often associated with change.
  4. Moderate stress helps us to learn about ourselves, how we react and handle different situations. Self-awareness is key to children becoming good learners and effective adults. Being tested by stress causes young people to learn about how they react and why they react as they do. It may even help them to acquire new skills in response to the stress that they experienced. A pupil who found the exam period stressful because they were disorganised may actually decide to get their notes in order well in advance of the next round of exams.

In this week’s blog I have focused on the benefits of moderate stress. Chronic stress is the type of stress that is negative. It feels relentless and out of control. That kind of stress can be harmful and as adults we do our best to protect children from that. Realistically, there will be times when chronic stress is unavoidable and in those circumstances we need to work together to support children as best we can. At times life is messy and the timing of events can collide to make circumstances unbearably stressful and that is when we need to step in to offer relief and support. Knowing where that threshold between healthy and harmful stress is, is not always that clear cut and requires our judgement. As a school we want to work with you to give children the best support we can.

“Oaks grow strong in contrary winds and diamonds are made under pressure.” – Peter Marshall

A young person’s attitude towards and perception of stress is critical to how they handle it. Some pupils have a naturally optimistic take on stress and see it as an opportunity for growth and learning. Others only see stress as being uncomfortable and distressing. That perspective need not be fixed and one of our tasks as educators is to help children see the opportunities for growth and learning in even the most stressful of circumstances. Next week I will discuss a few ways in which I believe we can help pupils to have a positive and can-do attitude towards stress.