Halstrom Blog Post

How Stress Affects Learning for High School Students

How Stress Affects Learning for High School Students

By Kristine Tye, M.A. License Marriage and Family Therapist

High school brings many opportunities to feel both joy and frustration. Stress affects learning for high school students and can have both an immediate and long-term negative impact.

Not all stress is clearly visible. A high school student who seems to have it all together may be struggling internally. Additionally, a teen who seems lazy or careless is likely to be experiencing high levels of stress, and is likely trying to avoid or distract himself from those feelings.

These four common stressful mindsets often get in the way for teens who would otherwise be excellent and efficient learners. Fortunately, there are ways to create positive learning mindsets for your high school student.

Stressful Mindset #1: “I always aim to do things the “right” way.”

Many students learned to do well by trying to adhere very precisely to every rule and guideline. Teachers, parents and peers may mistakenly praise a teen for practicing a level of perfectionism that is actually detrimental to a student’s advanced learning process.

This mindset impedes learning because a student may be more concerned about crossing all the “t”s than fully comprehending new concepts or engaging creatively in projects.

Learning Mindset #1: “I always aim to find the best way for me.”

Although it’s valuable for your teen to know what it is expected of him, standard education often puts an emphasis on doing things the way that they “should” be done. Students may be left confused, frustrated, or discouraged. Alternatively, students with this learning mindset find creative ways of addressing a task or problem.

A student finding his or her own way does not mean skirting around rules or limits or avoiding hard work; in fact, it can often add a greater challenge for a student, but in a way that ignites a desire to learn. Alternatives to the standard approach also include schools with one to one instruction, which offer a more engaging learning environment that can not only reduce stress and overwhelm but engage a student in finding new ways to learn.

Stressful mindset #2: “I have no time for creativity or rest.”

When the pressure is on, is fun or relaxation the first thing removed from the schedule? It may seem like there is less time to be spent on activities that don’t seem to produce visible results, but the time your teen spends playing a game, spending time with a friend or mentor, or simply resting are all vital to his or her learning process.

Some fun activities may need to be limited during a busy time, but it can become a habit to push to the next goal without taking time to appreciate the work or to recharge for the next task.This mindset damages your teen’s learning experience because it leaves him or her exhausted, perhaps feeling that no amount of work is ever enough to “earn” rest or enjoyment.

Learning Mindset #2: “I make time for engaging in creative activity and restful experiences.”

Encourage your teen to balance time for work, creativity and rest. Help him or her set an intention to find ways to enjoy the work that he or she does by taking time to be creative. Invite him or her to celebrate small accomplishments with something restful or fun.

Soon “breaks” from work will no longer be procrastination, avoiding work, or just a time to worry about the next task. Instead they will be restful and enjoyable, helping your teen strengthen his or her ability to learn and create more effectively during the times when he or she needs to work hard.

Stressful mindset #3: “I compare myself to others to achieve more.”

While this may appear to be an effective motivator, this mindset distracts a teen from appreciating his or her own accomplishments and sets him or her up for unnecessary pain and confusion. Parents sometimes use comparisons between siblings to try to encourage them to do well, but it often backfires before long.

This mindset makes it difficult to learn because it’s a huge distraction from what your teen truly needs to focus on in order to learn and grow. If your teen aims to identify a goal, identify his current situation, and plan steps to move toward that goal, comparison to others will only distract from lessons to be learned along the way.

Learning mindset #3: “I compare only to myself (my own actions, goals and values).”

Your teen will learn and develop in a healthy way if she identifies her own values and goals and gauges her actions based on those. One of the most empowering things you can do for your teen when she is frustrated is to direct her back to her personal goals rather than comparing her to others.

If your teen learns to focus on his or her own goals, soon he or she will feel more equipped to learn alongside others in school and in life without being distracted by comparisons.

Stressful mindset #4: “I try to motivate myself with feelings like guilt, fear or worry.”

In the short term, taking action out of fear of criticism or failure can get a job done well enough. However, not only is there a high cost because of the stress level this mindset causes, it also contributes to a cycle of procrastination. Students with this mindset often postpone work and create a habit of building up negative pressure and using a burst of energy to complete a task at the last minute.

This type of stress affects learning because your high school student will end up completing many tasks the quick and easy way. Much of the new information will not go into long term memory, and your teen won’t benefit from anything that he might actually find interesting about the learning or creating process.

Learning Mindset #4: “I motivate myself by celebrating small successes with internal rewards.”

Younger children are occasionally motivated by external rewards such as a sticker or a trip to the zoo, but middle school and high school age students are much better off formulating an internal reward system that will guide them through moral decisions in preparation for adulthood.

Celebrating each step helps your teen build upon accomplishments, rather than constantly feeling pressured to overcome a potential failure. This mindset will help your teen learn because she will start to see how much is possible when she acknowledges and builds upon each small step.

Bonus learning mindset tip:

Identify something in your teen’s life now that inspires, motivates, or relaxes him or her. These activities are the key to stress reduction and learning mindset. Find ways to incorporate these things into more areas of your teen’s life.

What else will you do to help your teen build a positive learning mindset?

Kristine is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in anxiety treatment, teen mental health, and supporting families through life transitions. She helps adults, adolescents, and children to find relief from stress and achieve personal growth and healthy relationships. Get Kristine’s free in-depth article on how to communicate with your teen: www.kristinetherapyla.com/teen-communication