Stress in School: It’s a Bigger Issue Than You Think

Learning is seriously affected by peer conflicts. Here are the tools every parent and teacher should have to help improve school culture.

Teachers need to be equipped to help kids with more than the ABCs. (Photo: Nikolay Titov)

Each week parenting expert Annie Fox will share her wit and wisdom for teaching kids to be good people and strong learners.


For kids who don’t have the tools or training to respond to conflict in responsible ways, friendship issues can be very stressful. A stress response (in a child or adult) will hijack the rational brain and shove us into “fight or flight” mode. Simply put, when kids don’t feel safe and accepted by other students, they’re not likely to think clearly about their behavior or anything else.

Think about that for a moment. Most peer conflicts happen in school where students need all their higher level thinking skills to succeed. But when they’re constantly worried about how they’ll be treated in class, in the halls, and on the bus, how can they possibly focus on anything academic?

Research shows that they can’t, at least not very effectively. 

More: So Your Child’s Being Bullied. What Can You Do About It?

School bullying has gotten a lot of deserved attention in the past decade, but the problem is bigger than this or that incident. Those are the trees. The question in this troubled forest is: How do we remedy a school climate that permits and (consequently) promotes disrespectful behavior?

Recently I made a house call to a Brownie troop having “social climate” issues. Young kids aren’t known for their nuanced approach, but I was struck by the two extremes in which most of the girls were stuck. On one end were the kids who didn’t know how to compromise. On the other were those who had real challenges in standing up for themselves when a friend’s behavior crossed the line. Because of the limitations of both approaches, the group had become an unsafe place.

Over the course of our time together, the girls talked about how it feels when friends don’t act like friends. We shared personal experiences. We brainstormed. I read them a story called Are You My Friend? We did some role-play to practice standing up for ourselves when we feel disrespected. Before I left, each Brownie gave me a handwritten question about friendship. Here’s one…

Question: I have a friend that won't talk to me. What do I do?

Answer: I’ll bet you’re wondering what’s going on. It would be good to find out so that you and she can get to the bottom of it. You can’t make her talk, but you can give her some space. Maybe she needs to calm down before she can let you know what’s on her mind. Meanwhile, spend time with other friends. And please do not to talk about your friend behind her back. That can be very hurtful and not at all helpful. Hopefully you and your friend will be able to talk soon and move forward with the friendship. If you need some help straightening things out, talk to your troop leader. She’s very cool.

This question was relatively easy to answer. Often kids write to me about vicious rumors or being teased or mercilessly harassed. This is heavy stuff for kids (or adults). Friendship issues cause so much anxiety and hurt in grades K-12. And because most parents and teachers do not consistently and strategically work on conflict resolution and help build a child's emotional intelligence, kids are left to navigate peer relationships with an empty toolkit. This is why they continue stomping on each other's feelings (online and off) with little regard for the hurt they cause.

This is a pressing issue in America right now. Parents and teachers, here are a few tips that will help improve the school culture.

1.  Make time to listen. Many kids assume that adults “don’t care,” so they’re less likely to turn to us for help. When targeted kids don’t speak up, they aren’t getting the compassion, support, and character education lessons they need to nurture and protect their self-esteem.

2.  Transform “snitching” into “social courage.” Bystanders are change agents, but only if they are motivated to take action. Many schools unwittingly promote a culture of silence. When that culture rules, insensitivity and cruelty flourish. Educate all students in the concept of social responsibility. Yes, this school belongs to all of us.

3.  Address the needs of aggressive kids. Perpetrators are also children in need and they deserve character education lessons to help them manage destructive emotions (jealousy, rejection, rage, fear, etc.) in healthier ways. When we don’t teach all kids to be good people, some will learn that aggression is acceptable. It is not.

4.  Teach Forgiveness. Those who have been hurt need a chance to talk about how the perpetrators made them feel. Perpetrators need an opportunity to apologize and make amends. Bystanders who allowed the abuse to go unchallenged need an opportunity to talk about their inaction. Encourage students to make amends and work together on agreements that will lead to positive change so that when the next peer conflict arises, our students will have the tools needed to respond humanely and the conviction to use them.

When students, educators, and staff work together, schools can be transformed into safer places where academic and positive social lessons are learned.

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