Faced with an epidemic of adolescent stress and unhappiness – around three children in every class suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder – helping the younger generation to cope with the daily pressures and challenges of life and to thrive in the face of them is more important than ever. While young people today are under unprecedented amounts of pressure to perform in every aspect of their lives, alarmingly, education is fast becoming a leading cause of adolescent stress, with a recent NSPCC study revealing a 200% rise in students seeking counselling for exam stress.
The recent media debate about Cheltenham Ladies College head Eve Jardine Young’s comment that she was going to abolish homework to reduce the stress and anxiety of her students, illustrates the challenge faced by teachers, parents and medical professionals to address this growing issue – and highlights that there are no easy or uniform solutions.
Stress is incredibly detrimental to students as it can lower their cognitive function, which is their ability to think, learn, respond and remember. A healthy cognition is needed if children are to learn and develop to their best of their potential.
Stress and anxiety can build up due to all kinds of events and circumstances in life, including a pressured home and school environment, relentless assessment through exams and testing, poor sleeping and eating patterns and constant screen time resulting in a lack of physical exercise.
So while it is doubtless important for children’s’ mental and physical wellbeing to have time away from school work to relax, and abolishing, or reducing, homework for stressed school-age children could certainly have its benefits, it cannot in itself be the answer as it does not account for all contributory factors. Rather than focus on one potential cause, it is more important for us to focus our efforts on strengthening children’s coping mechanisms and resilience and giving them the tools they need to tackle stress head on – whenever and however they encounter it.
Encourage healthy sleeping habits
Ensuring teenagers get enough sleep is a crucial part of helping to strengthen their stress coping abilities.
Lack of sleep increases the production of the stress hormones, which magnify the amount of stress felt and negatively affect cognition, specifically our decision making processes. This means we are less able to deal with challenges in our path. Teenagers need more sleep than both adults and children, and many are not getting the recommended eight to ten hours a night.
Schools could consider implementing later school start times to take into account the different needs teenagers have when it comes to sleep, as they are often tired later, which means they start functioning properly about two hours later than adults and children. Starting the school day later – an approach trialled by 100 UK schools last year in an attempt to boost GCSE results – could improve student wellbeing as well as academic performance.
Not only does exercise improve sleep, it is also one of the best stress busters out there. Like sleep, the health benefits of exercise are wide reaching – it boosts confidence and happiness and helps rid the body of stress.
An added bonus is that the stress-relieving properties of exercise apply to virtually any form of exercise, so sports lessons should allow teenagers to try out as many different types of activities until they find the one that they most enjoy. Once they’ve found a form of exercise they want to do consistently it will form a subtle and fun part of their stress-busting armour.
Exercise can also be a social activity and taking part will ensure that teenagers are spending time away from their desks and school work for a much needed regenerative break. Team sports are especially beneficial in keeping stress and depression at bay.
Encourage focus and set realistic goals
Today’s iPhone generation often struggle to focus on the task at hand, as they are constantly trying to multitask and respond to an array of stimulus from text and email messages through to maintaining their social media presence – all while trying to learn in the physical world. Encouraging children to focus on one task at a time means they can complete them more efficiently and effectively which can lead to increased self-satisfaction and reduce stress.
Unless they are being used as an educational tool, schools could consider strictly enforcing a policy of leaving electronic devices outside of the classroom to help students avoid distractions at least during their lessons.
Too often educational and parental pressures mean that the goals set for teenagers by their teachers, parents and themselves are not realistic and achievable, which can make students feel inadequate. On the other hand, helping students set realistic goals and supporting them in achieving these, can lead to a sense of fulfilment and give them the confidence they need to tackle those issues in their path without feeling overwhelmed and stressed.
Game for good
Cognition is synonymous with the way our mind operates. A healthy and balanced cognition positively influences mental health and provides more robust coping mechanisms when school pressures pile up.
Consider introducing cognitive training programmes in the classroom to provide students with a structured way to improve their cognitive health, including working memory, a key cognitive domain when it comes to stress resilience.
MyCognition’s scientifically-developed online cognitive assessment and training programmes, assess students’ cognitive health and adapts its training programmes to holistically tackle all aspects of their cognition. The training programmes are inclusive, the whole class can use them, and the game-play format keeps the students engaged and interested. A healthier cognition will allow students to cope more effectively with the large flows of information and many and varied number of tasks facing them as part of academic life.
Dr Raj Kumar is chief medical officer at cognitive health technology company MyCognition.