School stress: everyone has it, no one wants it. How do we exit from it?

Kirsten Schreiber

There is pressure at all levels: on pupils, teachers, parents, and family life suffers on an almost daily basis. Stress is a burden, makes us ill, deprives us of energy, particularly when interpersonal relations play a role, when expectations and judgements are at play, when we are dealing with people who are important to us. It is not just paediatricians who are sounding the alarm, for therapists, too, the subject is one of the top reasons for treatment. But are we really at the mercy of school stress? 

The will to change things instead of resignation

The participants in any event were willing to change something in this situation and embarked on that path with teachers, doctors, therapists, social workers, parents and pupils. The organisers considered it important to bring representatives from various school forms and educational levels to the table. The exchange of views and development of ideas on an equal footing between Waldorf schools, academic high schools and schools in disadvantaged areas was successful. The potential for change is clear: the best “vitamin” against stress is good relationships. In schools this relates not just to the teacher-pupil relationship but to everyone involved. A good relationship means that everyone feels that they are seen and understood. All too often everyone talks past one another, makes demands, and a system of evaluation is maintained that focuses largely on deficits.

The childhood researcher and book author Michael Hüter (Kindheit 6.7) spoke about the reasons why our school system has become what it is today. He put it in a nutshell: don’t wait for something to change “from the top down” but let’s start with small-scale changes ourselves and together with others.

The personal development of the young person should play the most important role today. Does the education system do justice to this requirement? How does our society shape the young person when we look at the subject of stress? What damage are we causing?

Angelika Traßl, Waldorf teacher from Heidenheim, reported in her lecture about the inflationary way she sees the concept of stress spreading in everyday life: the mother who is stressed as she drops off her children at school in the morning, the colleague in the staff room who is stressed by the noise level in their class, and the class 2 pupil who declares that she was so stressed yesterday afternoon. The feeling of stress is associated with pressure of time, overstimulation, multitasking and the acceleration of everyday life. But don’t we also flirt with being stressed?

Change on a small scale means, to begin with, holding up a mirror to ourselves and asking ourselves critical questions.

Stress is socially attractive

Be honest: when everyone around us is complaining about stress, would we not develop a guilty conscience if we were not stressed as well? Everyone around us is in a tizzy, groans and sweats, complains about stress symptoms, while we sit serenely in the middle of it all, are calmness itself, devoting ourselves to a small mindfulness exercise and stretching out with the words: “Oh, I feel fine.”

Who would dare to do that and put their social standing at risk? A person who is stressed is important, is busy, is needed, achieves a lot, is justified in demanding consideration and understanding, and always has a good reason when they don’t have time for something. Yet not having time for something merely means having different priorities. But how would it sound to say: “I can’t come to the parents’ evening today, I’ve got different priorities…” A person who isn’t exhausted at the end of the day hasn’t worked hard enough and a person who isn’t exhausted has no entitlement to relaxation. Anyone who thinks that learning from role models is restricted to the first seven-year period is wrong!

What can school set against stress?

If we really want to change something and exit from this cross-generational vicious circle, we have to begin by setting an example and communicating that it is not stress that is attractive but resilience and mindfulness, and positively shape relationships. Stress and excess demands should be banished from schools.

That includes banishing obvious things like bullying and forms of emotional violence from the everyday life of the school, says the psychologist Serena von Trott. In a time in which physical violence is taboo, the traumatising effect of emotional violence should not be swept under the carpet. And that might include the withdrawal of attention and love, or derogatory judgements and humiliation.

Emotional violence often works in a concealed way and is as bad as physical violence in every way. Both have in common that the emotional burden and feeling of anxiety keep the body in a constant state of alarm, releasing higher levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin. We are familiar with the effects on health.

The stimulating panel discussions were primarily about realistic proposals. Voluntary homework was unanimously demanded by all the professions. As was a later start to the school day of nine o-clock which not only countered pupils’ illness-causing chronic lack of sleep but generally ensured less stress and greater concentration and staying power.

The observation that during the whole period of schooling the joy in learning diminished because of the duty to learn even led to compulsory school attendance being critically questioned. After all, intrinsically motivated learning is more sustained than learning motivated by external (extrinsic) factors. Everyone was concerned that teachers should remain healthy and motivated, combined with the wish for supervision – a provision that is taken for granted in other educational fields of activity as a measure to support mental hygiene and quality assurance.

Networks on these topics were set up and initial arrangements made to move from intention to action because there are things that can quite definitely be set in motion.

About the author: Kirsten Schreiber is a social education worker, a couple and family therapist as well as a member of the management of the Havelhöhe Family Forum, Berlin, which regularly holds prevention courses and provides specialist qualifications on “multimodal family-centred stress management®”.

Next date: 28 June – 4 July 2020.