Why should schools spend time and funds on stress and wellbeing skills?

I sometimes come across people who take the view that we didn’t know about the biology or psychology of stress “in my day” and we managed. We didn’t have PSHE departments and we were fine. I also come across the attitude, “Oh, teenage stress! We didn’t have that in my day!” Or “Oh, schools are so soft nowadays.”

Really? We managed? Everyone achieved their potential and no one became ill with stress-related illness? Everyone was working at peak performance all the time?

Such an attitude does no one any favours. It ignores the really good science that we now have about what stress is and it fails to prepare young people properly for real life. Schools themselves know this, and most care deeply, but sometimes funding constraints or pressures to produce academic results mean that topics that are not tested in an exam are ignored. Government isn’t exactly rushing to support pupil mental health with funding or priority.

Here’s why schools need to care about building stress management and wellbeing skills in their students and why Government should support this:

  • Schools are supposed to be caring places, staffed by adults who care about the young people in their … care
  • Stress management skills are skills for life and skills for life are part of what any good school should be teaching – the earlier, the better and the easier. Stress-related illness leads to too much misery, under-performance at school and expensive time off work.
  • Stress affects performance directly – we need stress but we need to avoid its negative effects, otherwise we don’t do our best. And producing our best is what stress is for.

This matters. Resources directed to teaching stress management will pay off not just in intangible wellbeing but also in results. An over-stressed student doesn’t have the best chance of super-performance. You need the right amount of pressure, careful management of energy and focus, and correct food, sleep, exercise and relaxation. Then you have the best chance of great performance on the day.

Sportspeople and their coaches know this. They know that stress is necessary but must be controlled. They know that peak performance comes from getting everything right: not just the practice but the energy and physical and mental health. And they know there are clear ways to achieve this. (My Stress Well for Schools materials offer this teaching in a structured, complete way.)

My personal story is one of moving from ignorance and illness to wellbeing and success. I worked myself far too hard as a teenager and throughout my twenties and thirties. I thought the way to my best possible success was through sleeping less and working more, driving myself, beating myself up for imperfections, never taking breaks until I felt I deserved them. I ignored all the rather obvious signs of flagging energy; I under-ate and over-exercised; I over-worked and under-rested.

“You need to have frequent small rewards,” said a well-meaning but incorrect doctor once. He was right about “frequent” and “small” but completely wrong in the use of the word “reward”.

If we talk too much about “reward”, we reinforce the Calvinist, puritan work ethic, which is all very well until the worker collapses under the pressure. It’s perhaps all very well for super-laidback people who don’t have enough pressure or stress response, but for those people – the majority, if you give them credit – who do want to succeed and who will work hard and who do respond to stress by feeling alert and anxious, as they are supposed to, a more careful approach is needed if negative stress responses are not to take over, leading to panic instead of performance, anxiety instead of ambition, illness instead of fitness.

The Teenage Guide to Stress by Nicola Morgan, teaching stress managment skills to teenagers.So, that’s why schools need resources for teaching stress management. Funding for and focus on PSHE/PSE/Wellbeing departments pays dividends, in human terms and in results. With a good, solid, evidence-based programme for teaching students (and adults) good stress management and wellbeing skills, for life, you have the best chance of building students who really know how to look after themselves and are primed for success in whatever tests them, at school and in life.

Schools have often already built the time part into the day, with PSHE or similar lessons, tutor-time, or whatever, but what is being done in these times? Mindfulness is often called upon as a panacea but it doesn’t work for everyone and can (should) be expensive. But what else? It’s sometimes difficult for year heads or tutors to know what to do constructively.

It was to address this that I created my Stress Well for School resource, which allows any teacher, with no special training, to deliver a structured course (or dip in and out in a less structured way with the individual activities) to students at all stages of secondary school or the last year or two of primary.

To be able to control our own stress and wellbeing, we need to understand what stress is and then what it does in our body, positively and negatively; we need to know our symptoms. And then we need some good strategies for keeping the stress response appropriate, by regulating it with different activities to lower heart rate or provide escape from negative thoughts. The strategies are simple and pleasurable. It’s not difficult or unpleasant!

I’m happy to talk to any school, anywhere in the world, about stress management for students and adults. But my website has a mass of information that will help you so what with all the resources here and in my Stress Well for Schools materials, I could really just stay relaxed at home and manage my own wellbeing! I knew there was a reason I put so many hundreds of hours into these resources!

Do comment but please remember that this site is for all ages.