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Student Stress: Causes, Symptoms, and How You Can Help

Jun 11, 2018 by

More and more students are suffering from anxiety, stress, and depression. Whether it’s from academic pressure, issues at home, or other underlying medical conditions, teachers need to be more aware, receptive, and proactive when it comes to identifying and addressing stress and anxiety in students of all ages. There are several warning signs of stress among students and ways for teachers to help kids cope.

Warning Signs

The best way to identify stress and anxiety in students is to be aware of the warning signs. These can sometimes manifest themselves in very obvious ways but sometimes, the signs are more subtle.

Change in Appetite

If you notice that a student is skipping snack time or not finishing their lunch, this could be a sign of stress. Often times, anxiety in children causes physical symptoms such as stomach aches and headaches. It’s important to keep in mind that short-term stress usually suppresses a child’s appetite, whereas long-term stress increases cortisol levels and can actually lead to an increased appetite or “stress eating” and weight gain.


Emotions run high when children are feeling stressed and anxious. These emotions can sometimes be overwhelming for kids and exhibited in a variety of ways. One of which is the child becoming irritable, easily irritated, moody, and/or impatient. Is a student acting out of character? Are they being rude or disruptive in class? This may be more than just a behavioral problem. These outbursts and uncharacteristic behavior may be due to underlying stress. Children don’t always know how to handle the strong emotions that accompany stress, which can result in acting out. Before handling a situation with discipline, try finding out the root cause of the child’s behavior.

Excessive Worry and Paranoia

There is a certain, healthy level of worry associated with attending school. Students often ask themselves common questions like, “Will I make friends?” “Will I like my teacher?” and “Will I pass this test?” But when those thoughts become all-consuming or irrational, it’s a sign that a child is experiencing excessive worry and even paranoia associated with school.

In younger children this can be exhibited by fear of being away from a parent or loved one. A younger child may cry or show signs of separation anxiety. Attending a large, public school may be new and frightening to them. Older students often worry about things like academic success or failure and making friends or being bullied. A certain amount of worry is completely normal and healthy. It’s what drives children to succeed and venture outside of their comfort zone. But when these thoughts interfere with a student’s everyday activities, they need to be addressed.

Drop in Grades

This is a common sign of stress in older students. If they are feeling overwhelmed or frustrated with school work, they may experience feelings of defeat and giving up. If the work becomes too hard or they’re too embarrassed to ask for help, you may see a drop in their grades. This can also happen if a student enrolls in classes or coursework that is beyond their current skill level. Some students will do this in an effort to impress classmates or make their parents proud. Once the workload becomes too heavy, they may become stressed and not be able to keep up.

Emotional Outbursts

Crying is the most common way young children and students exhibit stress. When a young student feels overwhelmed, they may react by crying or having an apparent temper tantrum. These tears can have several emotional causes linked to stress including fear, frustration, sadness, and irritability.


This stress symptom can exhibit itself in both older and younger children. Stressed student sometimes pull away from friends, family, and activities. If you notice a once outgoing child becoming more isolated or disinterested in playing their favorite games, sports, or socializing with friends, this could be a warning sign that there’s an internal struggle going on. They may lack the ambition or desire to socially interact due to stress.

What You Can Do


Communication is key in any relationship and the same holds true for the teacher-student dynamic. Communicating with your student and his/her parents is important when it comes to understanding the triggers for stress. When children are in either preschool or elementary school, it’s both easier and more appropriate to communicate with the parent in regard to signs of stress and anxiety. Understanding the homelife dynamic is an important factor when identifying the root cause of stress. Things like a death in the family, divorce, a new sibling, or other major life changes can impact a child without them even realizing it. They may feel pressure to succeed, become homesick, or just feel an overwhelming sense of sadness. It’s important for parents to keep teachers in the loop when it comes to external factors that could be causing a student’s behavior.

Once a child is a bit older, teachers can try communicating with them directly in appropriate ways. This is as simple as asking the students what’s wrong or if something is bothering them. Teachers can also refer students to the guidance counselor.

Give Them Tools

Depending on the child’s situation, triggers, and the cause of stress, there are certain tools and coping mechanisms you can offer students to help handle and ease their anxiety. If a child reacts to stress by getting irritated or frustrated, perhaps a stress ball, fidget spinner or other calming manipulative will help ease their mind and emotions. Sometimes, a walk outside the classroom or getting some fresh air can do the trick. For those students suffering from sadness or isolation due to stress, maybe keeping a journal where they can freely express themselves will help. You can also encourage other students to include the isolated child in their activities or games. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are other ways to help calm a student’s nerves, their breathing, and help them relax during times of extreme stress.

Be Available

Perhaps the best way to help a student suffering from stress is simply to be available and approachable. Let the students know that you are a safe place for them to turn in times of need. If you appear easy to talk to, warm, and welcoming, chances are students will open up to you. Try to remain patient and calm when dealing with a student’s anxiety. It’s sometimes hard when you feel they’re not responding to your tactics or are exhibiting behavioral issues that may require disciplinary action. When in doubt, consult with the school counselor or refer the child’s parents to their pediatrician for further evaluation and suggestions.

Teachers are sometimes the first ones to notice when a child is exhibiting conditions related to stress or anxiety. Be an advocate for that child and extend a helping hand.

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