In our modern age of anxiety, many of us are so stressed out that it’s hard to maintain focus on important goals. This isn’t just in our imaginations, or because of increased sensitivities that in an earlier era we would have simply ignored or overcome. Data from the Center for Disease Control show sharp increases in stress-related disorders and diseases over the past few decades, and the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project found that the physical stress load we carry is sharply higher over a similar time period. Even more worrisome in that report is that this stress epidemic appears to be increasing with each new generation.
Teachers and educational leaders in particular feel the stress coming from all directions – teachers are stressed, students are stressed, staff is stressed, and parents are stressed. Added to the mix are demands for compliance with multiple directives and heightened accountability from numerous sources. Dealing effectively with this system-wide stress is critical, and it helps to first understand how it works.
Early Life Adversity Impacts Mental and Physical Health: A “Vicious Cycle”
We’ve known for some time that toxic stress arising from early life adversity poses a high risk for mental as well as physical health, and recent evidence shows that these risks are long lasting. Excess stress in early life – even in the womb – can “get under the skin” to affect how the brain is wired as well as how genes are expressed. “Stress dysregulation” (SDR) is a common consequence of early adversity. It shows up in most students with a clinical mental health diagnosis, but many students even without a diagnosis exhibit behaviors – such as hair trigger anger, inability to self-regulate or calm themselves, sudden withdrawal from learning and social interaction – that affect not only themselves but everyone in their orbit. It acts as a silent disruptor in the classroom and in school life generally.
New research findings also show that stress is contagious at a physiological level (Palumbo et al., 2017). More students are arriving at school with SDR and with difficulties in coping, making it hard to build a positive learning environment. The source of this dynamic is more obvious in schools that serve a high proportion of students from families facing major economic and social challenges, but it is also observed in schools that serve students from advantaged families with highly competitive expectations, as Denise Pope documented in Doing School.
This “vicious cycle” of disruption connects the phenomena of more stressed-out students, accelerating stress contagion at school, and increased societal demands and anxieties. This cycle poses a difficult but often unrecognized challenge for teachers and educational leaders. We don’t yet know all the social and cultural forces that contribute to this stress epidemic, although increasing inequality and decreasing social mobility surely play a role in provoking the anxiety that is at the heart of the matter. But even if educational leaders can’t directly change the larger social dynamic, they can work at the classroom, school, and system level to counteract its effects.
A Culture of Resilience at School
In doing background research for my recent book Born Anxious, I had a conversation with the principal of an alternative secondary school for high-risk students, many of whom display this SDR pattern. His approach struck a chord: building a culture of resilience throughout the school. This notion draws on extensive research on individual resilience, explained in Ann Masten’s Ordinary Magic, and extends those findings to considering how any educational organization can build support for resilience to counteract the negative effects of excess stress for everyone. Here are the key elements:
Social connections. The single most effective route to providing a more resilient developmental pathway for students with a history of adversity is through positive social connections. Schools can provide a crucially unique setting to support resilience, offering an opportunity for students to connect with teachers, coaches, and mentors who exhibit caring and concern for students, communicating to them that they do matter to important adults in their lives. In addition, schools can create a context for meaningful engagement and participation in a larger community in which positive social connections can flourish (Eccles & Roeser, 2013).
The principal I spoke with described an exemplary scenario. One particularly troubled student, with an extensive history of early and continuing adversity, seemingly could not be reached when he arrived. A teacher kept probing to find any point of connection, and would not give up. Eventually, finding an interest in popular music that was meaningful to the student, the teacher began making innovative links, both to the curriculum and to broader social issues. Taking the time for this kind of “super-nurturing” doesn’t happen in a vacuum – it requires a culture of resilience as well as committed teachers. This student became one of the school’s best “turn-around” successes.
Neither of these – involved teachers and an engaged community – is automatic. Both depend predominantly on educational leadership within the organization to promote a culture of resilience. And a key part of that culture is that it needs to include not only students but also the whole organization, which in turn requires a collegial, collaborative leadership model, such as the one described by Michael Fullan in The Six Secrets of Change. This emphasis on positive social connections also highlights the reality that effectively counteracting the ravages of excess stress is critical not only for students, but also for teachers, staff, and education leaders themselves.
Attention to the physical. A third major approach to supporting resilience and counteracting toxic stress is to attend to the physical domain. Although not always seen as central to the educational mission, there are crucial supports as well as risks that can be identified and implemented. Physical exercise is a readily available, highly effective method of stress reduction, and one that can be promoted in school settings as part of the school day and/or through extra-curricular opportunities that are available to all, not just to elite high school athletes.
A second major physical contributor to personal resilience is sufficient sleep. Sleep deficits are a major risk factor for a range of mental and physical health problems, as well as depleting the ability to cope with stress. The challenges to learning arising from early start times, especially for teens, have been increasingly recognized, but their impact on mental health and the ability to cope with stress are equally important.
The dangers of short-term “remedies” for feeling overstressed and being unable to cope with demands are also essential: comfort food and psychoactive substances can provide instant relief but are highly likely to lead to long-term problems. Education that highlights and explains these risks can be effective, along with the provision of healthy nutritionoptions during the school day.
It’s important to emphasize that these supports for resilience and for counteracting excess stress are just as important for teachers, staff, and leaders as they are for students. The pathways to teacher burnout and student burnout travel the same route, and benefit from the same protective factors: social connection; mindfulness; and taking care of the physical dimension. A bonus to this approach is that they can benefit everyone, even those not at risk from toxic stress or mental health challenges.
Building a Culture of Resilience for Mental Health, Learning, and Positive Development
Drawing on what we know about how supporting resilience, it is clear that a leadership style that integrates collaboration, social connection, and mindful attention to current challenges offers the best opportunity for moving toward and sustaining a culture of resilience. Articulating this approach as an explicit goal, and bringing all the stakeholders – including parents – on board creates the basis for sustainable progress toward building a culture of resilience.
The impact of the stress epidemic and of increasing SDR among students is felt in all areas of the school experience. It clearly interferes with learning, not only for the students who struggle with staying in the game while feeling highly stressed, but for teachers and the rest of class who need to cope with the resulting disruptions.
When it begins to manifest as diagnosable mental health issues, which will be true at some point for about 25% of students (Merikangas et al., 2010), providing an appropriate blend of services becomes paramount. The need for a comprehensive approach is acute, pulling together a shift toward a culture of resilience but also providing a range of prevention and intervention services. A helpful organizational framework is to think of such services as existing along a continuum from universal services helpful for everyone (mindfulness, coping strategies), to targeted services for at-risk students, to direct clinical or educational services for students with an existing diagnosis. Although these are often not exclusively school-based, they are more effective when there is close coordination between schools and community-based mental health providers.
A hopeful direction for teachers and educational leaders at all levels is that a better awareness of the sources of the stress epidemic will enable a broader and more effective approach to dealing with it. Rather than adding a new stressor, the path toward a culture of resilience has the potential to be helpful in coping with these increasing challenges, both personally and for organizations. This can benefit all students as well as school professionals, and function as a major support for positive youth development.