Understanding Stress

Stress has been a topic in the school leadership literature (at least the popular literature) as we begin to confront the increasing levels of stress in youngsters’ lives. I have encountered it in the conversation around “trauma-informed schools,” and in my professional reading of iGen and The Self-Driven Child. It is well the topic is making its way into teachers’ conversations an the books they read as it has been in the profesional literature for around a decade.

In the Self-Driven Child, William Stixrud and Ned Johnson differentiate three types of stress and its seems especially important for teachers, parents, and the children we care about recognize these in our lives:

Positives stress results from individuals taking safe, but significant risks and pushing  their limits of performance. Exercise is an example of positive physical stress, an we know the benefits is has for our bodies. In a similar way, the nervous feeling before performing or presenting is another example of positive stress. Students benefit from these temporary stressful events.

Tolerable stress is “more stressful.” Stixrud and Johnson give the example of a child whose parents are divorcing. As long as the parents are avoiding angry arguments in front of the child and as long as they are reassuring and supporting the child, then she will experience tolerable stress. This also is temporary and can help a child build resilience. Looking back on my children’s schooling, I can see how a school year with a particularly ineffective math teacher exposed my younger son to tolerable stress.

Toxic stress is a constant and high levels of stress that many children experience today. Toxic is the correct label for this type of stress also. After months or years of stress that never abates, the physical and mental health of students (and adults) can suffer because of this stress.

I highly recommend both iGen and The Self-Driven Child as resources to learn more about the phenomenon in our society.