Almost the end of the semester. For high school students, the run-up to the holidays is likely to be stressful, thanks to those dreaded final exams. Guest blogger Mike Etzkorn, a math teacher who leads McCutcheon High School’s Maverick Launch program, explains why the short-term stress brought on by finals can actually benefit students–and offers some tips to help students through this and other stressful experiences. Welcome, Mike, to In an American Classroom.
‘Tis the season to be jolly; however, for so many of our students and children, ‘Tis the season to be stressed. Finals week is almost upon us and with it comes stress for students. The American Psychological Association conducts an annual survey of high school students relating to stress and has demonstrated that high school students are more stressed out now than ever before. As of late, a tremendous amount of time, effort, and energy has been expended within our educational system toward helping students learn how to cope and de-stress. These efforts are necessary and beneficial, but we also need to look at the difference between acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) stress.
Acute stress can actually have many benefits. Richard Shelton, MD, vice chair for research in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Alabama Birmingham, says that “low-level stressors stimulate the production of brain chemicals called neurotrophins, and strengthen the connections between neurons in the brain.” Acute stress can temporarily improve memory and motivate productive behavior. Dr. Shelton also says learning to deal with stressful situations can make future ones easier to manage, thus teaching resiliency and grit. It’s the idea behind Navy SEAL training, he reports as well.
I like to call this concept raising our stress threshold. The analogy I use with my students is that stress is like a muscle. Weightlifters will “max out” when lifting, which means they take their muscles to the top edge of their limit, causing their muscles to fail. This is a very painful and uncomfortable experience. Their muscles burn, shake, and ultimately can’t handle any more weight. After a recovery period, the next time they lift, they are able to raise their maximum weight. Acute stress is exactly like maxing out when weight lifting. When we experience acute stress, we are maxing out our stress threshold. This is an uncomfortable experience, but once we have pushed through the temporary stressor, we are able to tolerate more stress the next time.
When I reflect on my own educational experiences, I can recall numerous all-nighters or tear-filled nights, experiencing my own personal stress threshold max. My first experience with acute stress occurred during my freshman year history class with Mr. Crismer. Each quarter, we were assigned a nine-to-eleven-page research paper on a randomly assigned historical figure. We were required to have three sources, and in the days before the internet, we had to dive into the old-fashioned library catalog cards. If we were unlucky enough to get one of the more obscure historical figures, it sometimes took three different libraries to find those three sources. We were given two weeks to complete the assignment, and all the work had to be completed outside of class time. Freshman year was the first time I pulled an all-nighter to complete an academic assignment, and it certainly was not the last. Through my first acute stress experience, I learned how to power through the stress to accomplish my goal. This particular stressor (my paper) presented itself over a two-week period, with an end in sight, concluding with the completion of the project.
Learning how to utilize acute stress to boost grit is a lesson every student needs to learn. Academic stressors, which are acute in nature but deployed in a safe, controlled environment, are beneficial and should not be removed or eliminated. Instead, they should be utilized to teach our students the resiliency that is needed to succeed beyond the classroom.
Although the task of writing a history paper seemed insurmountable when I was a freshman, we all know that life has challenges that are far more overwhelming. The lessons I learned in resiliency during my high school years helped me fight through a literal battle for my life: cancer. At age 24, I was diagnosed with chemoresistant metastatic cancer. I spent nine months enduring surgery, traditional chemo, more surgeries, and high dose second line chemo. This nine-month experience not only took its toll on me physically but also mentally. Without my past stress experiences raising my stress threshold, I would not have been able to handle the challenges that presented themselves during that fight.
As a parent of three adult children, I look back at whether or not I did enough to prepare my children for the stress of adult life. I always had to ask myself: Did I push my children enough? Did I push them too hard? Did I help them navigate the stressors of adolescence so that their stress threshold was raised enough for them to have the grit necessary to succeed in life? Were the tear-filled all-nighters worth it? Did the “No, you cannot quit the team, you will finish what you started. Suck it up buttercup!” speech teach them to fight through adversity? Even though the experiences were painful for them, and painful for me to watch, was it worth it? As educators and parents, it is our responsibility not to remove the stressors from our students’ lives, but to help our students raise their stress threshold in a safe and controlled environment. So as we progress into finals week, let’s utilize this time to help prepare our students for what is to come after they leave the safety of education.
Ways to help your student through the stress associated with Final Exams:
- Remind them that their stress is temporary.
- Encourage them to put forth their best effort. “If you do your best, you can walk away holding your head up high no matter the result.”
- Help your student maintain a healthy balance between work and de-stress time.
- Be supportive and encouraging, remind them that you are proud of how hard they are working.
- Remind your student that healthy eating and sleeping habits are just as important as studying.
- Urge your student to ask for help when they need it, share with them a time when you had to ask for help.