How to Conquer Common Back-to-School Stressors

Start the year on a high note by using these tips to tackle these 5 taxing classroom scenarios.

Young teacher sitting at a table with her elementary students

by NEA Member Benefits

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Sure, starting a new school year can be exciting—a classroom full of fresh faces, an opportunity to create new lesson plans and a chance to improve upon last year’s mishaps—but it can also be fraught with stress, anxiety and catastrophic forecasting.

“Change can be stressful, that’s one reason why many people are resistant to it,” says Juda Carter, MA, professor in the School of Education at California State University in Fullerton and co-author of Keep It Positive: A New Approach to Successful Parenting (a book based on classroom research). “But being open to new practices can help you do your job more effectively. It’s also an opportunity to model behavior for our students, to show them how we can adapt to new changes.” 

From re-setting your body’s sleep schedule after a summer of lazy mornings to facing a new crop of students, we asked the experts and educators themselves how to navigate the new year’s most taxing scenarios.

1. Re-set your body’s clock gently. Don’t use bedtime as a time to stress about the week’s lesson plans. Instead, schedule time during the day to focus on work and family concerns. The challenge is to recognize when you’re thinking about how you’re going to handle a certain student in class or how to conduct that meeting with your supervisor, and then shift your attention to something calming and visual, says Douglas Moul, M.D., staff physician in the Sleep Disorders Center at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Cleveland, Ohio. Picture yourself on a beach, for example, or in the serenity of a forest. This, along with other healthy sleep techniques can help ease you into the new school year.

2. Get to know your new group of students quickly. “Some teachers like to ask students to share a few facts about themselves with a partner and to have the partner tell the rest of the class what they’ve learned,” says Caroline Adams Miller, MAPP, professional coach and author of Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide. You can also go in unexpected directions to uncover students’ passions by asking them questions like, “If you could be a superhero with any superhuman power, what power would you choose to have and why?” Another example: “If you could wake up in any time period, when would it be and who would you want to observe or spend time with?” These types of questions can elicit laugher, which can help you and your students feel more comfortable. Icebreakers like these not only help you associate names with faces, they also encourage participation.

Another technique: Don’t be afraid to break out the camera. “Taking pictures of students is a great way to quickly learn names,” says Chun.

3. Squash any rumors. Already heard stories from your peers about a child who is particularly difficult or troubled? Erase those messages from your psyche. “If you’ve already formed an opinion about who the child is, they’ll live up to that bad expectation,” says Carter. A better approach: “Look for things to love about that student and praise him for those positive qualities.” You can also empower students by informing them that they all have clean slates at the beginning of each year. This can encourage them to start fresh and not live up to last year’s reputations.

4. Spruce up your space. Whether you’re decorating a classroom or decluttering an office, organizing your space to maximize efficiency is a critical step to starting off the year on a high note. To minimize stress, create checklists for supplies, papers, teaching aids and often forgotten items, suggests Miller, and come up with systems that will help you save time so you can focus on instruction rather than completing more mundane tasks. Once you have those systems in place, it’s easier for parent volunteers and older children to help out with tasks like organizing paperwork and filing.

5. Dismantle mental roadblocks. Did last year’s students leave you scarred from their antics? Whether last year was a breeze or your toughest yet, Carter recommends taking time out to analyze what you did well and what you’d like to do differently. Ask yourself what positive events have occurred as a result of the rough patch. And if you can’t seem to stop re-experiencing traumatic events, Jamie Howard, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and director of the stress and resilience program at the Child Mind Institute, recommends talking about your memories in a way that helps restore your worldview. “So, in the case of Hurricane Sandy, it might be something like, ‘the storm came and we weren’t prepared for it. It was an awful time, but we’ve almost rebuilt from it, and we have strategies in place to protect ourselves in the event of another storm.’” This technique can be used with any stressful event that causes recurring anxiety.

Back-to-School deals are here!

NEA Members—Stock up on classroom essentials and all of your back-to-school needs with these special offers.