6 practical tips for supporting wellbeing in the classroom

Students smiling, and taking a break in Bangkok, Thailand.

We all know that our wellbeing can have a significant impact on every aspect of our lives.

When we feel happy and healthy, we function better – we sleep better, think better, perform better, and make better decisions. But when we’re stressed or anxious, the opposite is true, and this can prevent us from achieving our goals.

This is how it is for our students too. The stresses, strains, and mental challenges they experience in different areas of their lives can get in the way of them learning effectively and fulfilling their potential.

So what can we do in the classroom to support our students’ wellbeing, and to ensure they’re learning and performing to the best of their ability?

The Stress Bucket – an effective tool for managing stress

A useful strategy to help your students manage their stress levels is to tell them to think of stress as a bucket. The more worries and anxieties they have, the more their ‘stress bucket’ fills up.

But what if their bucket starts to overflow? This is where events and situations can become overwhelming, causing feelings of panic, anxiety and stress, which can, in turn, lead to negative behaviours such as panic attacks, angry outbursts or becoming withdrawn.

So we need to teach our students how to put ‘taps’ in their buckets, which can let the stress out and prevent their bucket from overflowing; these taps are coping strategies which support their mental health and wellbeing.

Here are 6 ideas that you could try with your class to help them empty their stress buckets:

This is a great way to relieve anxiety and tension – maybe show a funny video at the start of a lesson or before students are about to do something stressful like take a test or give a presentation.

Give students regular opportunities to check in on how they’re feeling, particularly before a stressful event such as an exam. You can do this by asking them to close their eyes for 30 seconds and to focus on what their body is doing at that very moment. Do they have butterflies? Is their heart racing? Maybe they feel shaky or sick.

Ask them how their mind feels – is it like a chimp (jumping about all over the place) or a sloth (nice and relaxed)? Then give them the opportunity to share these observations with you and the rest of the class. This will help them to understand that what they’re experiencing is perfectly normal, and will reassure them that these feelings are shared by many others.

We know that resilience to stress is improved in young people when they have at least one trusted adult relationship. So offering one-to-one support can really make that young person feel valued and well supported.

Ask your students to try ‘Square breathing’ – they breathe in for four, hold for four, breathe out for four, and then hold for four. This immediately lowers the heart rate and calms the body’s nervous system, bringing with it a sense of relaxation.

If some students don’t like focusing on their breathing, they can do ‘finger breathing’ instead – as they breathe in and out, they trace their finger around the outside edge of their other hand, and then back again.

Interrupt lessons with short breaks in which students share with the rest of the class an enjoyable experience, like a recent holiday. Reliving these positive experiences can help students to feel calmer and less stressed.

Some interesting research that was conducted by Alison Wood Brooks at the Harvard Business School showed that the physiological changes and physical sensations we experience when we’re anxious are exactly the same as when we’re excited.

The studies revealed that repeating the mantra ‘I’m excited, I’m excited, I’m excited’ before a stressful event or anxiety-inducing situation, can be more effective than simply trying to calm ourselves down. It’s known as cognitive reframing – by approaching something that worries us with a different mindset, we can perceive it in a more positive way.

This strategy doesn’t work for everyone, but why not try it with your class and see if they feel any different?

Everyone’s stress bucket is different – some of your students will have large buckets that fill up slowly, but others with smaller buckets may find they get overwhelmed with stress much more quickly. In addition, what causes people’s buckets to overflow will vary. But hopefully these 6 tips will help you to support the mental health and wellbeing of all your students in the classroom.

If you’d like to learn more about how to embed a culture of wellbeing in your school, classroom and home life, and become a wellbeing role model for your students, sign up for the online teacher training programme: Oxford Wellbeing in Secondary Schools.

This short, self-paced course will guide you through the current research-based theory that underpins effective wellbeing in schools, and will provide you with easy-to-implement strategies for success. We’re delighted to offer a 10% discount for OxfordAQA teachers for a limited time!* Simply enter the promotional code OxfordAQA23 when you check out.

This blog was inspired by a recent OxfordAQA webinar run by Louise Aukland, an Oxford University Researcher and Engagement Specialist, and Oxford International Curriculum Advisor. Catch-up on the webinar recording here

*By using the promo code provided, you agree to be bound by these terms and conditions. This promo code is valid only until 20 July 2023. It cannot be combined with other offers or promotions and has no cash value. The promo code can only be applied to eligible online courses determined by Oxford University Press. Oxford University Press reserves the right to modify or cancel this offer at any time without prior notice. Any misuse, unauthorized distribution, or reproduction of the promo code is prohibited and may result in the cancellation of the discount. By redeeming the promo code, you acknowledge and accept these terms and conditions.