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The Case for SEL: How Academic Stress Affects Student Mental Health

You’re likely already aware that students today are facing heightened mental health issues, including staggering rates of anxiety and depression. A number of factors contribute to adverse mental health for K-12 students, including things such as cyberbullying and peer pressure, but perhaps one of the most prevalent is academic stress. Spanning all age groups and socioeconomic statuses, no student is immune to the pressure of academic performance.

Academic Pressure Affects Students of All Ages & Situations

Academic stress is often associated with high school students as they prepare for college, but the reality is that younger students experience it as well. Students of all ages have to juggle the pressure to perform well academically with extracurriculars, homework, and standardized testing. And this is true for students in all socioeconomic situations, as well. In fact, a recent study on advancing health equity among American children performed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that students in “high-achieving schools,” who commonly come from affluent families, are equally at risk of developing behavioral and mental problems as those living in foster care or poverty, those with incarcerated parents, and recent immigrants. This is essential knowledge for school psychologists, counselors, and administrators in order for them to provide proper mental health support for all of these at-risk individuals.

Common Causes of School-Related Stress

Knowing the most common causes of school-related stress can help you provide distinct mental health support for different students’ unique needs. Researchers have identified the following as the most common contributors to school-related stress:

  • Demanding academic content and excessive homework
  • High-stakes tests
  • Pressure from parents and to gain acceptance to prestigious universities
  • Developmentally inappropriate classrooms
  • Peer relationships
  • Lack of preparation
  • Academic kindergartens
  • Overbooked schedules
  • Pressure to maintain high grades and fear of failure
  • Conflicts with teachers
  • Transitioning to secondary school
  • Poor diet and lack of sleep

While these are common causes of school-related stress, it’s important to note that every individual responds to stressors in different ways. The American Academy of Pediatrics cites development, experience, and a child’s individual temperament as factors that contribute to a child’s stress response. Age can play a role in stress response, as well; consider how something like a mid-year teacher change would be more stressful for a first-grader than a high school student. While there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to mental health support for students, building skills like social-emotional learning (SEL) can help students of all ages and backgrounds handle stress better.

Consequences of Chronic Stress

Without the right mental health support in place, stress can become chronic, leading to a number of adverse outcomes for students such as:

  • Physical illness
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Insufficient sleep
  • Irritability or volatility
  • Decrease in academic performance
  • Social withdrawal
  • Experimentation with drugs and alcohol
  • Cheating

Often, these outcomes can create a vicious cycle for students who are already dealing with school-related stressors. For example, decreased academic performance as a result of school-related stress can worsen anxiety, leading to even worse academic outcomes. Insufficient sleep, anxiety, and irritability can also exacerbate the pressures of performing well on high-stakes tests and college interviews. And students often feel this pressure at home just as much as internally or in school. Consider the college admissions scandal termed Operation Varsity Blues, in which 33 parents paid more than $25 million in bribes to get their kids into top-tier universities—showing the extent of the lengths some parents will take to meet society’s high academic standards for kids.

The Fallout of COVID-19

Unfortunately, school-related stressors have only been worsened by the COVID-19 crisis. Educators across the globe are concerned about learning loss as a result of the pandemic, and rightly so. As students return to in-person learning, they’re having to reckon with this learning loss, leading to added pressure to “catch up” academically.

The COVID-19 crisis has also exacerbated many of the common causes of school-related stress noted above. For example, some educators assigned excessive homework during virtual learning in order to “make up” for time spent out of the classroom, or they understandably struggled to teach virtual lessons effectively as they grappled with the pandemic themselves. Despite the realities of the pandemic, students were not exempt from the pressure to maintain high grades, even while dealing with things like limited access to digital devices and internet, sick family members, and poor diet without access to school meals.

How to Equip Students to Better Handle Stress

While schools can certainly take action to reduce causes of school-related stress at the source—revising testing and homework policies, shifting focus from grades to learning/understanding, and promoting physically healthy behaviors, for example—the reality is that school-related stressors can never be 100% eliminated. As such, every student needs to be taught tools to help them navigate stress as well as other challenges. And one of the most effective tools available is building social-emotional learning (SEL) skills.

How Does SEL Help Relieve Academic Stress?

As a framework that helps students manage their emotions, improve their self-awareness, and develop positive self-identities, social-emotional learning is instrumental in reducing academic stress. It’s an essential skill that teaches students how to navigate causes of school-related stress, like peer relationships, changes to environment, and pressure to perform.

Fortunately, there are simple ways to implement social-emotional learning curriculum in schools. In addition to school psychologists utilizing SEL strategies during counseling, SEL curriculum can also be implemented district-wide. SEL curriculum provides tangible lessons for students to grow their social-emotional learning skills, resulting in better academic, emotional, and social outcomes. And Navigate360’s research-backed, grade-specific SEL curriculum—Suite360—is delivered digitally, meeting students where they are for maximum learning and understanding.

Click here to learn more about our SEL curriculum, or schedule a consultation to have your questions answered and get the ball rolling on providing the essential social-emotional learning support students need to navigate their stressors—school-related and otherwise.

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