Things Teachers Can Do to Make School Less Stressful for Kids

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There have been a lot of recent suicides and a lot of talk about how much stress children are under and also how difficult it is for poor children in school. The stress crosses all boundaries, school has become an oppressive nightmare that is harming even privileged children. There are a lot of reasons for this, a bad economy, income inequality, Ed reform, testing. These are all things teachers can’t control but there are things that teachers and parents can do at the local level to make things better. Academic accomplishments are nice and all but are unlikely to result from stressing kids out, it has been scientifically stress actually hampers performance. Besides that cynical reason, I’m imploring you to care about the amount of stress kids are under because kids are people and what we are doing is oppressive and hurtful to them, especially when there are so many things teachers can do in their own classroom to make lives better for students. I made a point of making sure to design my classroom around student health and despite all the “concerns” about whether or not my kids could perform, my kids actually did extremely well on standardized tests and their final projects. They were doing primary source documents everyday as sophomores and I taught high school sophomores, most of whom were poor and Hispanic, to do research at a very average public school. So you can have rigor and good health at the same time. A lot of these problems stem from asking kids to be the same, not everyone needs to go to Stanford. In fact, very few people do, if we paid everyone a reasonable living wage and didn’t demean anyone for the work for they do there wouldn’t be so much pressure on kids to fit one very narrow image of success. There are kids literally dying because of this, so here’s some things we can do immediately to curb some of this and parents have the RIGHT to demand these things for their children and teachers have the RIGHT to implement them and advocate for them.

1) Be Careful About Assigning Homework

Unless the work is for practice or an independent project or reading it has no value. And most of the time the practice has no value either because you have no idea who actually did the homework. Independent projects are ok to assign for outside class time IF you’ve provided the appropriate structure and some class time to complete it. I got all the way to Vietnam last year, without assigning homework to my sophomores, while using primary source documents and with a month left to spare for their research projects. And by the time they got to their research projects they could do them independently while I was out suffering from injuries for the last month of school. The reason I was able to do this is because I very carefully paced the year out for them to do that, and I didn’t just pace content, I also paced skills out as well for things like essay writing, even though most history teachers leave that to the English teachers. So there is probably no good reason for you to assign homework, especially if you are working in a low income area where the kids don’t have the home life to do it anyway and if you are working in a rich area you don’t even know whether it was the parents or the students who did the work. Cheating is rampant, so all homework does is punish your honest kids and your disadvantaged kids. If you teach math or English, 15-30 min of practice or reading should suffice, IF you feel you must assign stuff outside class time. It’s not the kids’ problem that you can’t plan well enough to cover things in class, if you are struggling to cover things then either the standards are wrong or you need to plan differently but you don’t have the right to punish the kids over it.

2) Think Carefully About Your Deadlines

Before picking a deadline think about what your limits are and move back from there. If the kids are struggling to get it done in time, consider the possibility that you weren’t being realistic and move it back. Does your deadline fall on another deadline like when applications are due for college? Does it fall in the middle of other stressful times in their classes? If you can get them together, the grade level team can get together and make sure they aren’t over scheduling mastery assignments. Even teachers sometimes get to say, “hey this wasn’t a realistic deadline” to their bosses. As professionals we move deadlines all the time and we expect our bosses not to completely bury us if there is a hard deadline with another thing that can be put off, there is no reason to hold children to arbitrary dates we made up.

3) Accept Late Work
If you don’t accept late work you are simply punishing those students who lack support at home or who need extra time for your own convenience. And I’ve been in a lot of jobs now and I’ve never seen a boss say, “no, I won’t take the work you did because it’s an hour late!” Kids aren’t at school by choice and they aren’t adults so they should at least be afforded the same compassion we expect to be afforded. No one failed my class last year. One of the big reasons was that I took late work.

4) Don’t Grade Attendance
Grading kids for attendance is cruel, it punishes those who lack family support and the ill. I had a chronic condition growing up and missed a lot of days of school and you know what? I made it through Stanford with a 3.5 GPA. That happened in part because my high school teachers had the good sense to accommodate me but I’ve seen lots of teachers punish kids for attendance. I had an especially bright young man in my classes last year who was struggling with a serious chronic illness, so he and I developed a plan to make the work up while he was hospitalized. I got yelled at by my boss because my class was the only one he was passing; this was a college-bound senior. That is wrong and it shouldn’t have happened and in the end, he got his work in. I’ve seen kids infect other kids because they came into school sick to protect their grades. I’ve watched kids choke back tears after finding out a close relative died because they didn’t feel they could take the time to mourn because they thought they had to be at school. We don’t have to do that to children.

5) Consider Extending Accommodations to All Children Regardless of their Status

If a child has an IEP or a 504, then those are legally binding documents and you are required by law to give the students those accommodations. < I would like to assume people know but I’ve seen so many people fail to accommodate that it would be a foolish assumption. Those accommodations exist so that kids can be successful and I feel that we should treat all children like they all have IEPs, which means Individualized Education Plan, because each kid is unique. I gather a lot of data on my students and treat them accordingly. So if I can extend a deadline for a kid with an IEP, I can extend it for a kid who is sick or in foster care or working. If I feel it’s educationally sound to provide more scaffolds or more assistance or a shorter assignment to a kid with a 504 then I see no reason to not give that to every kid who would benefit from it. And if a kid is bored, I give them more challenging work. If you explain to the kids that you do this and you do this because you believe in equity and you apply this to everyone you will NEVER hear whining about fairness. And for the record, I have never seen a kid use a scaffold, like sentence frames, if they didn’t need it and making them all use it when they don’t all need it because you don’t want to have to do the work of differentiating is wrong. If you do this they learn to trust you and will tell you when they need extra help and they won’t try to play you because that line of trust has been established.

6) Don’t Grade Everything and Think Carefully About What You Grade for

It was my policy that class work and home work, which are not “mastery” assignments was graded on a pass fail basis. I would read it to check for understanding and inform my teaching and give points to whoever did the assignment. In my sophomore class mastery assignments were worth 70 percent of the grade, and “work to support mastery” was 30 percent, in my senior class that was an 85/15 split. So you could pass my class solely based on whether or not you had mastered the material. I didn’t grade for participation, I graded things on a pass fail basis. And you know what? The kids still worked their butts off every single day in my class, because they knew that everything we did had a purpose and was building to something larger. Chaos didn’t ensue, no one was slacking and because I didn’t give homework to the sophomores and minimal homework to the seniors, I didn’t have frequently missing assignments. And the sophomores did all of their mastery assignments in class too so I never had any missing mastery assignments. I also graded group work on a pass-fail basis to avoid the common pitfalls and the stress that frequently results from group work. I believe in group work, it has value and kids need to be trained to do it. I don’t do it everyday but a lot of teachers cut it out entirely because they don’t want to deal with kids being upset that their grade is impacted by someone else’s performance or because there are kids goofing off. So I assign it but don’t grade it and the kids got along better, everyone got to contribute and there was a lot less complaining and a more supportive atmosphere. The only people the kids should be competing with are themselves if you can avoid competition. They should be working to better their writing and their skills and worrying about their individual performance. But I was ruthless in my grading of their mastery assignments, all of which were writing assignments. The kids said I was the hardest grader for papers they had ever had but that I was fair and they were happy to have the challenge.

Some competition between groups is ok, for fun and glory, but not grades. My seniors ran a campaign between two classes last year and they got really into it, and it wasn’t perfect but a lot good came out of it. If I could go back and do it differently I would have taken even more competition out because it just created a hostile environment. Some student populations liked it more than others so I kept competition in for big simulations and group things, like the campaign my kids ran in the sophomore classes or when my kids came up with their own country but it still wasn’t graded. The mastery assignment was and it was what mattered because their grade should reflect their master over the material.

7) Think Carefully About the Schedule

Any teacher that has been to PD knows how difficult it is to sit in a desk, in a room for 8 hours without breaks and snacks. The behavior of most teachers during PD is appalling, they talk over each other, stare at their phone, work on other things. They complain endlessly when they don’t get breaks or can’t check their phone or don’t have food. Basically all of things we expect the kids not to do. The schedule for kids is brutal during the day and you should consider things like their hunger levels, or what time class is, or whether or it’s 1st or 5th period or how long they’ve been doing the same kind of work or stuck in desks when designing your schedule for the day and then add in some things to mitigate the problems that might arise from that, I frequently changed the order or the method of things between periods of the same course. I would even change it based on the personality of the class or their specific interests. And it made it such that we got a lot more done and everyone was happier, even in my “difficult” class that had a lot of kids who were “bad” in other classes.

8) Add a Revision Policy
Let kids make up assignments. In writing this allows them to continuously improve their work and on everything else it allows them to review the material until they are certain and you are certain they have mastery over it. This allows you to differentiate by giving low performers more time to grasp the material and giving your high performers some semblance of control over their grade and a break if they have an off day.

All of this really comes down to remembering that our students are people and empathizing with them. Treat them kindly and like they are human beings and they will respond accordingly and you don’t even have to change anything else.

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