Guest post from Katie Dorn with EmpowerU, an OnToCollege partner.

Social media has fueled debilitating stress for students, now amplified by COVID-19, shelter-in-place, and social unrest, creating a pandemic of student anxiety. The need for student resilience is more pressing than ever before.

Research published last week in EdWeek confirms that mounting levels of stress fuel student withdrawal and failure. With over 50% of students and educators reporting significant fear about the upcoming school year, we have entered a state of emergency that schools are desperately trying to address.

Stress has been building since March—and this growing fear and uncertainty about the school year is pushing many students and educators into an automatic fear response.  This yields increased heart rates, decreased focus, and rising levels of stress hormones, like cortisol, that sends us into “flight, fight, or forget-it” mode (argue or shutdown).  

When students go into flight, fight, or forget-it mode, it is difficult for them to focus and learn.  They often pretend that the work is not there, or they offer a defensive “I don’t care,”  because they are already on stress overload. So, what happens? They avoid with “comfort escapes” —think Netflix, gaming, or napping—that distract them from the work at hand or from uncomfortable feelings. This can develop into a vicious negative cycle that makes it difficult for educators to break through. What can schools do to support students this fall?  Here are four helpful, easy tips to maintain a calm environment in the upcoming school year:

Step 1: Connect First

Search Institute research indicates that a strong developmental relationship with a trusted teacher increases a student’s feelings of safety and security that are necessary to calm their stress, helping them focus and learn. Taking the time to message students or conference with them weekly (in person or remotely) can foster that critical psychological safety that is vital to students feeling connected and focused in class.

Step 2: Model Calm

It’s normal that during a school day, you will be triggered by a student or an event that raises your own stress level. The best way to teach students good coping strategies is to model them. Pause and notice your own stress levels rising (increased heart rate, sweaty palms, tight chest). Take three deep breaths and take a minute to regroup, then re-engage with the class only when you are out of your emotional brain and in your logical, calm brain. See this list for calming reactive strategies that can help. 

Step 3: Process Difficult Emotions

Unprocessed, negative thoughts and emotions can fester and build over time, increasing stress hormones. It is helpful for students to feel safe to name what they are feeling as part of the process of re-engaging after a shutdown. Practice active listening with your students. Pause before you reply and use validating language like “Tell me more about that, “ or “What makes you feel supported?” This journal can be helpful to students to process their emotions. 

Step 4: Focus on Effective SEL Solutions That Build Student Resilience

A 2019 McKinsey report stated, ”The most critical component of student success is building a resilient state-of-mind.” But most students lack “resiliency” skills that would enable them to move out of anxiety into a productive state of mind that is required to perform well. We know this, but what programs actually work?

Up until now, there have been two SEL (social and emotional learning) models, both of which are limited in producing systemic change in student anxiety. 1) Curriculum models that deliver uniform, non-personalized content that students must do on their own, digest, and then determine how to use that information to do better in life and school.  2) Therapy models that help students identify and ideally resolve emotional obstacles, but they are left to practice and hone taught strategies outside of sessions and often lack the ability to translate their experience into doing better in school and life.  

But now there is a new option!

OnToCollege has partnered with EmpowerU, a turn-key SEL solution with a highly personalized approach that has helped hundreds of students transcend from anxiety to confidence, yielding better school performance (grades and attendance) and improved emotional well-being. This powerful virtual solution aligns embedded 1:1 coaching with critical skill-building lessons to create the vital student connection of content to context that other solutions lack. This is critical for student resilience and transformation to a calm state-of-mind in which they can focus and learn. Because EmpowerU’s robust course content is aligned with national health and wellness standards, most schools offer elective wellness credit for students.

EmpowerU also offers an educator version that can be taken to manage individual staff stress levels as well as to arm teachers with tools to better support their anxious students. For more information on the student or educator version of EmpowerU, contact Betsy Bahn at betsy@ontocollege.com.