Have you noticed the number of stressed students you’re interacting with on a daily basis this school year? It’s no secret that the last few years have been particularly tough whether you’re a teacher, a student, a parent, or pretty much anyone.
When students started back to school in the fall, some had been out of a regular routine for nearly a year and a half. Sometimes they were learning in person, sometimes they were learning from home, sometimes they could be either place depending on their health, the health of their families, or their school’s policy.
One of the outcomes of this is obviously increased stress, which is why it’s important to bring rest into your classroom rhythm. Even at the high school level, this is critical for the well-being and learning of your students.
Three Benefits of Rest For Your Stressed Students
Rest Reduces Stress
If your students are stressed, they are not in the optimal place for learning, so providing them a chance to have “brain breaks” or even a catch-up day, will reduce their stress and allow for better learning.
Research shows that chronic stress can lead to long-term effects like anxiety, depression, and sleeplessness. What if instead of piling onto the stress of students’ already difficult lives, we looked for opportunities to alleviate stress by being intentional about the rest and rhythm they experience in our classrooms?
By allowing for breaks you’ll not only allow students to be less stressed for your class period, but likely the rest of the day.
Rest Allows For Divergent Thinking and Creativity
A 2012 study from researchers at MIT and USC found that the mind is not idle when we are taking breaks. They found the opposite--that the brain is highly active during “rest.” During breaks, our brains are “hard at work processing memories and helping us make sense of what we experience” (Terada).
What’s even more fascinating for an ELA teacher is that this study found that taking breaks helps with reading comprehension and developing divergent thinking skills. Read more on their research here: Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education.
Some big companies have started to understand this and are allowing their “creatives” more opportunities to rest while at work by providing free-throw basketball areas and other games at the office. Most schools haven’t caught up with the research on this, but you can still allow for your students to take breaks in your classroom knowing that they will be more creative and process more fully when they are not stressed out.
Breaks Increase Memory
Whether your students are taking break in your class or sleeping better at night, their memory will benefit. A study from the University of South Florida tested students over several weeks and found that cramming for tests might increase short-term memory, but it is worse for long-term memory (aka true learning and retention).
It makes sense, right? The brain needs time to reflect, process, and make sense of the new information that it is taking in. If it is crammed in when students are in a stressful state, it’s just not really going to sink in.
Rest Decreases Disruptive Behavior
Different people deal with stress differently. Some of your students will internalize it, and it will affect their eating or sleep. This is the type of student I was, but I also developed an ulcer at four years old.
Other students will act out. They may not have the words to explain their stress and frustration, so instead, they’ll be defiant in class. By allowing your students a chance for a break between major assignments or even a stretch break in class, you will reduce the angst in your students and increase positive behavior.
Three Ways To Bring Rest Into Your Classroom To Better Serve Your Stressed Students
Give Students A Catch-Up Day
When I first started teaching, I hated this concept because I felt like it was a “wasted day.” It wasn’t until much later that I began to understand that students are still learning on a catch up day. Most students' lives are packed, and allowing them a catch up day gives them an opportunity to do work more fully than they might be able to do without a day like this.
When I started giving these days, sure some students used them to “goof off.” But most of the students truly appreciated them. And honestly, it doesn’t matter if your students are goofing off as long as they’re not disturbing anyone else too much. If they are, give them an extra credit assignment or require they complete a missed assignment.
I've often wondered what would happen if I were observed on one of these days. I never have been, but, if I ever were to have a drop-by observation on a catch-up day, I would simply explain my reasoning. I'd explain that we had just finished a massive project, or students were in the middle of preparing for midterms, or whatever, and I wanted them to have a day to chose what they’d work on. Students are still reading/writing/thinking on catch-up days. They are just doing what they chose to do, instead of doing a specific assignment at the same time as all their peers.
There’s plenty of research at the bottom of this blog if you are ever called out on this that would back you up.
Play ELA-Related Games
There are so many ELA-Related games that allow for engagement in your classroom without sacrificing a thing. Some of my favorites are:
These games work with every level of high school student from 9th-12th grade. They also allow students a chance to work with language, build relationships with their peers, and take a mental break.
I recently discovered the game Storymatic, and it is amazing for the ELA classroom. There are several ways you can use it, but essentially the cards give you parameters for characters and conflict. Students draw 4 cards to get started.
The only rules:
✅The main character has to change over the course of the story
✅The main character can’t die
Give students a set amount of time to write, and see what they come up with. If they get stuck, have them draw another conflict card.
You could do this as a bell-ringer (and come back to it on multiple days) or it could easily last an entire period. You could allow individuals to work on it, or group students and make it a “circle story” activity.
Try having a “game day,” before or after state-mandated tests, after a big research assignment or major project, or right before a holiday break.
Listen To A Podcast
You can use podcasts to go deep into literary concepts, but you can also use them to provide some balance when studying difficult texts.
For instance, last year I taught a class of seniors the book Tortilla Curtain. It’s a heavy book both in terms of the amount of reading and the themes in the text. It’s emotionally tough, and the reading level was challenging for this group of students.
So, every few days we would take a break from discussing the book and listen to the podcast Scattered, which dealt with similar themes but had a lot more humor. Plus, students got to listen instead of read. They were still actively listening and discussing, but it took one challenging component out by allowing them a break from reading. Check out my full unit plan for Scattered here (it is an AMAZING podcast).
There are a lot of other podcasts that you can use as one-off lessons when students need a break. One of my favorites is the podcast Imagined Life. You can even take it further than a one-off lesson and spend a week or two listening to podcasts intentionally. I’ve put together a unit plan for how to do this with Imagined Life which you can check out here.
Color and Doodle
The benefits of coloring and doodling for older students and teens are amazing! If you want to read about it, check out this article: Benefits of Coloring for Kids, Teens, and Adults
You can allow students to color and doodle during study halls, after they finish a quiz or test, when their peers are still working on something that they have finished, and really any time they need a short break.
I first discovered how stress-relieving coloring could be when I sat down with my 5-year-old one day to color. I was amazed at how calm I felt afterward. So I decided to make my own coloring sheets for high school students with quotes from great authors. You can check those out here: Coloring For Teens with Quotes From Authors.
I love to bring in a little grammar here (you knew you weren’t going to read a whole blog post without a grammar idea, right?).
You can give students a blank coloring sheet and ask them to find one sentence in their independent reading book that stands out to them. Write the sentence and then spend the rest of class period coloring their sheet. Be ready to explain why they picked that sentence. This is meaningful and allows for a rest.
Let Your Stressed Students Take Breaks and Rest
Bring meaningful breaks into your classroom with catch-up days, brain breaks, game days, podcast units, and coloring so that your stressed students can relieve tension and ultimately learn better.
Association for Psychological Science. "Back To School: Cramming Doesn't Work In The Long Term." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 September 2007. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/08/070829122934.htm>.
Immordino-Yang, Mary Helen, et al. “Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education.” Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol. 7, no. 4, July 2012, pp. 352–364, doi:10.1177/1745691612447308.