How to Help Students Beat Stress and Welcome Pressure
By: Tim Elmore
Jana Davidson teaches seventh-grade science and tenth-grade biology. Every day, she observes students entering her classroom feeling stressed out. Many of them feel overwhelmed. Anxiety has been normalized thanks to social media and a pandemic.
When I asked Ms. Davidson how she helps her students manage their stress, she told me she assumes the best way is to take the pressure to excel off of them. They have so many stressors in their lives already, why add to them by pressuring them to perform better?
It makes sense, until you see the research.
The Benefit of Pressure
Both children and adults can let stress get them down. But there is a difference between stress and pressure. Dane Jensen is the author of The Power of Pressure. He says that stress can be harmful but that pressure is not. In fact, it could actually the solution for many stressed out students.
We’ve all heard the analogy of a diamond emerging from a coal mine. Coal is one of man’s earliest sources of energy. This is why coal is often extracted and burned to generate heat. But that’s not the only option. A lump of coal can also be transformed into a diamond—with the right amount of pressure. So, what does it take to turn coal into a diamond? Four things: the carbon inside the lump, intense heat, intense pressure, and a long time. In fact, the longer the coal can endure under pressure, the more likely a diamond is to become the outcome. This is true about humans as well, both you and your students.
Remember, pressure isn’t the problem. It is the solution. The key is knowing how to manage the pressure we feel. All pressurized experiences include three elements:
- Importance – The stakes feel high because the outcome is valuable to you.
- Uncertainty – There is no guarantee of this outcome, and it could go either way.
- Volume – This is the intensity and amount of input coming at you which you must process.
Stress is slightly different. It may feel the same, but it’s not. Pressure is often lumped together with stress. The difference is the ability and responsibility you possess to do something. An example of stress is yelling at the TV when your favorite team is playing. No matter what you do, it doesn’t help or hinder the game. Pressure is when you’re playing in that game. Your performance makes a difference in the outcome. It’s all about your ability and responsibility. The pressure of performance can bring out the best in us because the outcome is within our influence. I would argue that pressure is the best way to call out what’s inside of us or our students. We all need the right amount of it to perform at our bests.
Applying This to Our Students
Pressure can feel like a push or a shove. It doesn’t feel good to be shoved by someone in a crowd. It feels intrusive and violating. What if we could help students see that they can be pushed forward, not just down? Imagine that they’re in line to get into an amusement park and someone bumped into them, pushing them down. The input feels negative, but what if when they got back up, they realized they were pushed closer to the entrance of the park? They’re actually in a better place. Can we help students focus on the outcome, not the input? The input feels bad, but the outcome puts them in a better place.
Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that we slip into denial about the challenges we face. All I am saying is that we should determine whether those challenges turn out to be merely stressful or if the pressure eventually produces a diamond. Does the carbon in the coal remain the same, or does it get transformed in the process? If you do nothing about the challenging circumstances you face, stress can be the result.
Dane Jensen posed a question to more than a thousand people: “What’s the most amount of pressure you’ve ever experienced?” Their answers ranged from elite skating competitions to periods of job uncertainty. One person brought up swimming back to shore after being swept out to sea. For several students, a final exam came to mind. So, what enables people to rise to these occasions instead of buckle under the pressure?
It all depends on the power we perceive we possess to do something about the situation.
Helping Students to Get the Most Out of Pressure
This begs the question, how do we do this? How do we leverage pressure to cultivate that diamond inside of us or our students? Below are steps to manage our situation.
- Embrace a realistic view of what’s really at stake—no more and no less.
Don’t create trouble by making mountains out of molehills. Be realistic about the stakes.
- Help students focus on what they can control and not on what they cannot.
If something’s out of your control, trust the process. If it’s controllable, take responsibility.
- Eliminate sources of pressure or stress that distract students from what’s important.
Get rid of anything that clouds your focus or prevents you from concentrating on your goal.
- Enable them to determine one step they can take toward their goals.
In choosing one step toward a goal, the pressure can shove us in the right direction.
- Envision the positive outcomes and growth that could come from this pressure.
Close your eyes and see the results you desire; imagine the pressure working for you.
- Talk about Post Traumatic Growth and tell stories of those who’ve experienced it.
Trauma doesn’t have to produce PTSD. Growth (PTG) occurs when we process the benefits that arise from trauma.
- Clarify why this pressure point outcome is important too.
Know your why. Be clear on why the outcome’s valuable. Leverage it to push you forward.
Remember most human beings (young or old) need pressure to perform at their best. Our job is to ensure that pressure pushes us in the right direction. There’s a diamond inside of all of us.