January 2020

Stress Busters

By Barbara Truluck
Having struggled with chronic worry and anxiety, I understand the difficulty students can face in the classroom. I focus my practice as a school counselor on stress and anxiety management and have certifications and training in this area. I often discuss with teachers and parents that many of our students are high-achieving but driven by details in a desperate attempt to calm racing thoughts, worry and fears that control the mind and body. 

Treating students with severe levels of anxiety and stress, of course, requires therapy and services outside the school counselor’s realm. However, for students suffering from lower levels of stress, anxiety and generalized worry, a small-group approach can help them deal with their concerns and focus on their schoolwork. 

Managing Student Stress 
A few years ago, we noticed a considerable increase in our middle school students reporting they were “stressed out” and having trouble regulating their emotions at school. Students increasingly asked to go to the clinic with stomachaches, headaches and other stress-related symptoms. We also saw more students coming to the school counseling office for help with panic attacks, meltdowns and stressful situations. When school data showed absenteeism and school avoidance had become an issue, we knew it was time for a multitiered approach to help our middle school students learn coping skills, stress management strategies and resiliency building. 

In our Tier 1 school counseling core curriculum lessons, we teach growth mindset and study skills schoolwide to help all students build resiliency. Data from our first quarter showed that we also needed a Tier 2 approach. Named “Stress Busters,” this small-group intervention helps students who need more support and coping strategies. 

I couldn’t find a psychoeducational program that fit my students, so I developed my own five-session program using proven, research-based strategies. Group participants were identified by teachers, parents and self-reports, and frequent visitors to the clinic and school counseling office. I wrote and received a grant for yoga mats, journals, relaxation music, art materials and aromatherapy supplies.

Target ASCA Mindsets & Behaviors were:
  • M 1. Belief in development of whole self, including a healthy balance of mental, social/emotional and physical well-being
  • B-SMS 7. Demonstrate effective coping skills when faced with a problem
  • B-SMS 10. Demonstrate ability to manage transitions and ability to adapt to changing situations and responsibilities
The group goal isn’t to eliminate stress and anxiety but to help students manage it. During the first session, I administer Cohen’s Perceived Stress Scale to the students to collect pre-test perception data. Then we establish our group norms of confidentiality, support and respect. I begin each session in the same way because a sense of routine helps students feel more in control. We then sit in a circle for share time to discuss stressors at school, at home and with friends. After share time, we stand and do a series of deep-breathing and stretching exercises. The breathing exercises slow heart rate, bring oxygen to the brain and cells and promote a relaxation response. 

Coping Techniques 
I teach a different coping technique or strategy for students to practice until our next session. Students receive a journal, and between group sessions, keep a record of triggers/stressors and which coping technique they used in each situation. The “worry journal” is a technique for the chronic worriers. Students write down a list of all worries, then separate them into columns of “What I Can Control” and “What I Cannot Control.” I tell students they can give themselves permission to worry about the column of “What I Can Control” for 15 minutes every day after school. After the 15 minutes are up, they are to take a mental break and aren’t allowed to worry about the list until after school the next day. Students say this has helped them by limiting worry time and still validating that they can worry within limits. 

During group time, students also learn cognitive behavior therapy techniques including replacing ruminating negative thoughts with positive thoughts or statements they write in their journal and repeat out loud: “I am confident,” “I am safe,” “I am ok,” “I can relax,” “I am brave” and “I’ve got this.” By repeating these positive statements in stressful situations, students can break the stress cycle of negative self-talk. 

We also engage in visualization and mindfulness activities with a stroll around the school building. I teach students about health and nutrition, the importance of a good night’s sleep and drinking water to stay hydrated throughout the day, which helps balance mental health and well-being. We play a game with coping skills cards, and the students receive a chart of 100 Coping Techniques for Students to carry with them in their schoolwork binder. 

Students learn a squeeze and breathe technique for de-escalating anxiety attacks, and I give them a pocket-sized stress ball to carry with them. Art therapy activities include making glitter calm-down bottles, dreamcatchers and vision boards of happy thoughts. 

Each group session ends with quiet time, lying on yoga mats listening to relaxing instrumental music. Although I created these sessions for my middle school students, all of the activities can be adapted easily for elementary or high school.

Stress Busters Results
Stress Busters groups meet for five intensive sessions during the second quarter, and then I check in with group members during third and fourth quarters. Data from the pre- and post-survey showed 90 percent of participants had decreased stress levels, and overall absences improved by 80 percent. 

Hearing students support each other during our group sessions and seeing their relief when they realize they aren’t alone in dealing with anxiety is always rewarding. And helping students return to calm helps them return to class faster. Students also learn how to use strategies to remain in class and remove the stress and anxiety cycle barrier to learning. 

Results for this intervention were so positive the first year that I’ve continued to run Stress Busters groups every year thereafter. Students who have been through the three years of Stress Busters say that learning ways to get through times of high anxiety has helped them be healthier and happier both in and out of the classroom. As students learn to effectively manage stress, they build resiliency and make stress management a way of life. 

I have learned through the years how important it is to empathize and not minimize what students are feeling. By providing students with practical solutions to overcome and calm the worried brain, we can teach them how to rewire their thoughts by acting with their smarts and not fears. 

Barbara Truluck is a school counselor at Palmer Middle School in Kennesaw, Ga. She can be reached at barbara.truluck@cobbk12.org.

 
Stress Busters Small-Group Sessions
 
Session 1
Stress scale perception survey (pre-test) 
Discuss group norms 
Circle share: Stressors with transition to each grade
Breathing and stretching exercises
What is stress? Good stress vs. bad stress
Vision board, positive thoughts, talents 
Quiet your mind, relaxing music on yoga mats

Session 2
Review group norms 
Circle share: Stressors with homework 
Breathing and stretching exercises 
Make a daily schedule (free time, study time, friends, family, TV time) 
Worry/stress diary 
Gratitude journals
Visual imagery 
Quiet your mind, relaxing music on yoga mats

Session 3
Review group norms 
Circle share: Journal 
Breathing and stretching exercises
Coping skills practice: “Oh no” cards 
What can I control? What can’t I control? 
Trash activity: Throw away negative thoughts 
Positive self-talk 
Dreamcatchers art activity 
Quiet your mind, relaxing music on yoga mats

Session 4
Review group norms 
Circle share: Journal 
Breathing and stretching exercises 
Mindfulness activity: Walk and talk
Calming jars art activity 
Quiet your mind, relaxing music on yoga mats

Session 5
Review group norms 
Circle share: Journal 
Breathing and stretching exercises 
Coping skills handout 
Reducing test anxiety handout
Eat healthy and stay well
Stress scale perception survey (post-test) 
Quiet your mind, relaxing music on yoga mats