Stress is a reality of everyday life for students in middle and high school. As young teens learn how to navigate increased demands on their time—newly intense workloads and schedules, after-school clubs and jobs—they’re simultaneously experiencing explosive physical and cognitive growth. It’s a complex developmental phase during which routine experiences like meeting a term paper deadline or being unexpectedly called on in class can feel like a cooling breeze—or a flash flood.
In teenagers, the brain is still maturing, and communication between the areas of the brain that generate and then manage impulses and emotions is not yet fully developed, explains Pamela Noble, a psychologist and research associate at the National Institute of Mental Health. This means the teenage brain is “extra-sensitive to the things going on in [its] environment, both good and bad,” says Noble. Learning how to cope with stress is a critical skill—especially in adolescence—and teens happen to be uniquely primed to “begin developing healthy behaviors so they become a habit for life.”
Educators can help students learn how to navigate everyday stress by encouraging cognitive flexibility, a critical component of executive functioning skills, says K–8 school counselor and therapist Phyllis Fagell.
“There are skills that you can learn that are transferable,” says Fagell. “Cognitive flexibility—the ability to challenge your thoughts or to think about other possibilities regardless of what's going on in your life—is going to give a kid the sense that they are back in the driver’s seat, which is going to make them feel less helpless. That's going to help them navigate any stress, no matter what it is.”
Here are six metacognitive questions—inspired by an Instagram post by Nawal Mustafa, a PhD candidate in clinical neuropsychology at the University of Windsor in Canada—to help your students tackle everyday stressors. Students don’t need to answer all six in every instance, and they can select the ones that are most helpful or most appropriate to the problem they’re facing, eventually developing the ability to do this independently.
1. Wait—what is the source of this feeling?
When they feel overwhelmed, students may have a hard time pinpointing the source of their stress. This question focuses them on a fundamental first step: What is causing me to feel anxious?
“If you don’t know why you’re stressed, you can’t target the right solution,” says Fagell, who likes to share a feelings wheel to help students identify what’s behind how they’re feeling. “Step one is to help them focus on why they’re feeling the way they’re feeling and maybe even help them come up with a word for the feeling itself. Is there something going on at home? Are they feeling insecure about themselves academically? Are they afraid to take a risk socially?”
Though kids may get practice in elementary school identifying emotions and where they come from, this may be a skill that older students still need help with. Once they identify the source of their stress, they can start thinking about solutions, explains Fagell.
2. And how is this stress affecting me?
Encourage students to pause and reflect so they can assess the impact of the stress they’re feeling. This can provide a bird’s-eye view of their behavior and help them figure out possible next steps.
A stressed-out student who feels unprepared for a math test might realize, upon reflection, that they’re procrastinating studying—even avoiding it—because they feel unsure about new material in the unit. This realization might prompt them to seek help, review notes, or find some other way to improve their grasp of the material.
Quick focused-attention practices and brain breaks can help students slow down before acting—as opposed to impulsively reacting, or overreacting—says Lori Desautels, an assistant professor at Butler University’s College of Education. Activities like these help “calm the brain’s stress response and stimulate sustained attention and emotional regulation,” explains Desautels. “A regulated and calm brain is a brain that is ready to deeply learn.”
3. Do I need to ask for help? Who can I talk to about this?
Guidance from a trusted adult is often helpful at this stage, but embarrassment or shame can prevent students from reaching out for support, especially if they are shy or introverted. “They fear that asking for help signals weakness or failure in their character, though adults could tell them that asking for help is instead a sign of maturity and strength,” writes educator Jennifer Sullivan.
She suggests providing students with conversation starters that make approaching a caregiver, school counselor, coach, teacher, or friend for help less daunting:
- I’m struggling with _____. Can we talk about it later?
- I’m not sure what I need. Can you please talk with me?
- Can you give me advice about _____?
4. What advice would I give to a friend with this problem?
A shift in perspective allows students to take a step back, evaluate a situation from an outsider’s point of view, and identify solutions they might not have seen before. Neuroscientist and professor of psychology Ethan Kross refers to the technique as distanced self-talk.
“We know that it’s a lot easier for people to give advice to others than it is to take that advice ourselves,” Kross explains, as reported by Liz Greene for Nautilus. “What we’ve learned is that language provides us with a tool for coaching ourselves through our problems like we were talking to another person.”
Asking students to assess a problem from someone else’s perspective prompts them to create some psychological distance, which helps them generate more constructive solutions for how to deal with their stress. Once solutions are given, they are more likely to take the advice themselves.
5. What can I control and what can’t I control?
Students might simply spend a few moments considering these questions, or they can go deeper. Fagell has her middle schoolers draw a venn diagram—the left circle is marked “things I can control,” the right circle is marked “things I can’t control,” and the overlap is marked “things that matter.” As students fill it in, they distinguish if variables within their control and outside of their control align with the goal of relieving their stress.
A student who identifies an upcoming science test as a source of stress, for example, would identify this as a variable they cannot control because the test is mandatory. The student can, however, control how much time they spend studying, or if they ask the teacher for help going over topics they don’t understand. What matters to the student most might be getting a good grade, which goes in the center space of the venn diagram.
6. What is one small step I can take to feel better?
Students may struggle to set reasonable, attainable goals and often have unrealistic expectations about how quickly they can meet those goals. It can help to first identify the end point and then help students break down the steps to get there.
When she works with stressed-out students, Fagell scaffolds the process by using a ladder metaphor: Each rung of the ladder is a different step to get to the final goal. Students must determine what each step is, then ask themselves how to get from one rung to the next.
“After we break this process down into rungs on the ladder, then I add another rung in between each existing one,” she explains. “Let’s flesh out that process even more so that they’re not set up for disappointment and they can really see that it takes time to get to the next step.”