How to de-stress your school

Julie Leoni

Julie Leoni is a psychology, counselling, yoga and meditation teacher whose PhD investigated the links between emotions, gender and deviance in schools. She has written three books on well-being and coaches pupils and staff. She regularly writes for Psychologies Magazine and offers free resources on stress, domestic abuse, meditation and well-being at

Julie was recently interviewed on Radio Shropshire to discuss her latest article The psychology behind how schools need to re-open. The interview can be found here

Website: Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Pupils are stressed. The Chief Medical Officer’s Report of 2012 found that:

  • Self-harm rates have increased sharply over the past decade.
  • Peak onset of mental ill health is 8 to 15 years.
  • 10% of children have a mental health issue.

With this in mind, consider:

  • Take a minute to list all the students who you know are stressed right now.
  • What do you currently do to support them?
  • What more could you do?

Teacher Stress

  • How many staff do you have off on long term stress at the moment?
  • How many of your staff are stressed?
  • How do you become aware of staff stress?

The NASUWT recently carried out research on teacher stress. Did you know that:

  • 3.5% of school staff take a stress-related absence every year, taking on average 26.9 working days (over twice the length of an average staff absence).
  • 67% of teachers said their job was having an adverse effect on their mental health and with 84% reporting a negative impact on physical health.

Our schools are stressed.

What is stress?

While eustress is positive stress, the kind of stress which you feel before a presentation or a performance, most stress is unhelpful and a result of distress.

Stress is the body’s response to a perceived or actual threat when our amygdala takes over and we go into fight, flight or freeze survival mode. Our amygdala overrides our neocortex which is the part of your brain which you use for rational thought and reflection. The neocortex is the part of the brain that teachers need in order to teach and that students need in order to learn.

What do you know about stress in your school?

Stress is caused when the perceived demands on us outweigh our perceived ability to meet those demands. Perceived threats seem never ending; the pressure to mark and plan, student issues and the pressure to perform.

  • What are the causes of stress in your school?
  • Consider all stakeholders: staff, pupils, parents, leaders, teaching assistants, support and administration staff.
  • Ask yourself how you know this. Is it based on a hunch or observing behaviours? Is this a good enough way of gathering information about stress levels in your school?

By the time stress is noticeable to other people, it is already too high. The sooner a school can identify what is causing stress, the sooner it can intervene to alleviate it.

  • How can you gather reliable information from all stakeholders regarding their stress levels?

What are some of the common causes of work-based stress?

The Health and Safety Executive has identified six factors that can lead to work related stress. Staff and pupils need to feel:

  1. That the demands made of them are manageable and that they can cope with them.
  2. That they have some control over those demands.
  3. That they have support to meet those demands.
  4. That they have good relationships and are not feeling bullied.
  5. That their role is clear, that everyone understands their role so that there are no conflicting aspects to the role.
  6. That when change happens they are consulted and engaged in a meaningful and frequent way.

How well do you do this at your school? Are there any areas for improvement? What could you do differently?

Whole School Ease

To create a school of ease, there needs to be a whole school, strategic approach to making your school a stress-free environment. Ease is the opposite of stress.

  • How committed are you to making your school a stress-free school on a scale of 1-10?
  • What does a stress-free school look like for you and your team?
  • How can you share that vision?
  • Who will lead on it? (NB. The person who leads on this has to be a role model ie someone who manages stress and works with ease for most of their time. This person will champion ease rather than stress).
  • Who are the ease-ful staff you already have in school and how can you value and empower them to share their approach?
  • Where can you make the smallest change and yet have the biggest impact on the stress levels of your school?

Whole school strategies for creating ease

By lowering staff stress, schools can instantly have an impact on pupils because the emotional contagion moves from one of spreading stress to spreading ease. The activities below can also be experienced by staff, so that they feel confident to take them into their tutor groups or classes and use them with children.

There are three kinds of stressors, ie the things which cause stress:

  1. Stressors you can’t control or avoid.
  2. Stressors you can’t avoid, but you can adapt or change.
  3. Stressors you can avoid.

The more control we feel we have, the less stress we feel, as we feel less threatened. Therefore, helping staff and pupils identify which of the three categories their stressor fits into allows them to take control of things they can do differently, and to accept and work with the stressors they have to face.

CPD Activity 1 (20 minutes) - Controlling Your Controllables

  • Using post-it notes ask staff (in groups) to write one cause of stress on one post-it note.
  • Then ask them to sort these post-its into three piles: avoid / adapt / face.
  • Ask them to put the ‘avoid’ pile in the bin.
  • Then ask them to how to focus on the ‘adapt’ pile and ask them to think of more easeful ways to approach the cause of stress. Encourage them to be as creative as possible.
  • Then ask staff to think about how they can adapt this task to use with their classes.

Inevitably, there are stressors which cannot be avoided or changed, and so different approaches can be used to tackle stress. Staff and students will already have their own strategies for managing stress. This activity is designed to allow people to share coping skills and evaluate their impact.

CPD Activity 2 - Healthy and Useful Stress Busting Strategies (20 minutes)

  1. Get staff into groups around a big piece of papers.
  2. Ask staff to brainstorm all the things they do to relax or wind down.
  3. Now ask them to cross out the things that they think are unhealthy or unhelpful (they need to agree it as a group).
  4. In so doing they need to agree the criteria for deciding on what is healthy and helpful and what isn’t.
  5. Once they have come up with their group’s mind map of healthy, helpful stress management strategies, they each need to commit to trying a new one.
  6. Staff then discuss how they can use this activity with students and when they will use it.

Meditation and mindfulness are simple, free ways of managing our stress by focusing on the present moment rather than worrying about the future or regretting the past. Here are 2 simple techniques which you can with staff and students alike. These activities are best led by someone who feels comfortable and confident with the subject(s). If there is no one in school who would be happy to lead the following activities there are lots of good meditation videos on YouTube, so search for one which best suits your staff.

CPD Activities 3 and 4 – 7/11 Breathing and Mindfulness (10 minutes each)

7/11 breathing mimics our calm down breathing after a threat.

  1. Ask staff (or the class) to shut their eyes after they have turned their chair to face the front (this reduces the risk of people opening their eyes and making each other laugh).
  2. Explain that they need to count from 1 to 7 and then, at the same rate, from 1 to 11.
  3. As they count from 1-7 they will breathe in, and as they count from 1-11 they will breathe out.     
  4. They should count at the same rate on the in breath and the outbreath.     
  5. Tell them that if they run out of breath on the outbreath, they should speed up their counting for the in and out breath.
  6. It doesn’t matter how slowly they count. The crucial thing is that they count at the same pace on the in and the out breath.     
  7. Ask them to try it together for a minute or so.
  8. Then ask them to share how it made them feel.

Mindfulness addresses the fact that stress is caused by regretting the past and worrying about the future, but when we come into the present moment, we can slow down. The moment is usually fine. The quickest way to access the present moment is through our body, so this exercise brings us into the present moment through the body.

Again, ask the staff or class to turn their chair to the front and close their eyes.
Then ask them to focus on where they body comes in touch with the environment.     
Ask them to notice each of the following sensations one at a time (the leader should allow at least 30 seconds before moving on to the next sensation):

  1. The sensation of their feet on the floor.
  2. Their back against the chair.
  3. Their clothes against their skin.

  • The sounds in the room.
  • The sounds outside the room.
  • The taste in their mouth.
  • The cold or warmth on their skin.
  • The smells in their nostrils.
  • Their heart beating.
  • Their breath rising and falling.

At the end of this activity, give the group time to share their experiences and then ask them what they are committed to practicing. Ask staff how and when they will use this with pupils. Finally, cognitive approaches can help us reduce stress by simply changing how we are thinking about things. When we think differently about our stressors we can make them seem less of a threat and so are less likely to activate the amygdala.

CPD Activity 5 – Change Your Perspective (20 minutes)

Sometimes we can shift our thinking by taking a different perspective.

  1. Ask staff to bring to mind the main thing that is causing them stress at the moment (not just in school).
  2. Ask them the following questions and get them to jot down the answers individually.

  • How will this feel tonight?
  • This time next week?
  • In a month?
  • In a year?
  • In five years time?

  1. Ask them to reflect and share if they wish.
  2. Now ask them to focus on their second most stressful thing, ask them these questions about the stressor, and give them time to jot down answers before moving on to the next question:

  • How would your parents see this?
  • How would a young child see it?
  • How would an 80 year old see it?
  • How would Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Emily Pankhurst or Mother Teresa have seen this?
  • How would a refugee see this?
  • How would someone who was dying see this? 

  1. Again, at the end of this ask them to reflect on how it changes their thinking.
  2. Then ask them how they could adapt this to use with pupils.

Nowadays, there are very few real threats for most of us. We have more power to live a life of ease than we think. Creating an easeful school environment not only prevents staff and pupil sickness and absence, but it also improves learning and, most importantly provides the next generation with valuable skills for life and well-being.

How do you combat stress in your school? Let us know below.

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