Is it a coincidence that all four of the blogs I found to discuss this week are about stress? It seems like there’s a lot of it around; exam season is coming, schools are full of Covid and sickness bugs, and many of us are exhausted. Emma Kell’s piece about paying attention to ‘stress signals’ is a useful reminder to get in touch with the ways our minds and bodies tell us our stress is becoming unmanageable.
Stress, Kell says, can be visualised as a traffic light, with productive and motivating “green stress”, tricky but manageable amber stress, and “chronic, dangerous” red stress. The latter kind “threatens our health, our relationships, and our precious happiness”. Becoming familiar with the warning signs of approaching red stress (which are different for all of us) can help us take control of it.
While I find it helpful to be reminded to tune into my own signs of stress, I find that posts about mental health aimed at a general audience can miss some of the specificities of my own brain’s workings. Catrina Lowri’s post is a good illustration that not all stress manifests in the same way, or arises for the same reasons.
Here, she describes how many neurodivergent people have to adopt a “very heavy mask […] to survive in the neurotypical world”. The stress and exhaustion of wearing this mask, hiding the traits of a neurodivergent condition, can result in burnout and exhaustion. For neurodivergent people (and perhaps for everyone else too) it’s not simply a case of noting the signs of approaching stress, but restructuring our environments and interactions to minimise stress from the start.
Lowri suggests redesigning the way we teach social skills to neurodivergent young people, focusing less on outward signs of compliance and more on making interactions that are “useful and meaningful”.
This would presumably be a change welcomed by Steph, who describes how schools remain “unsuitable environments for many of our children”. By “our children” she means her own child ̶ who has a form of autism known as Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) ̶ but also many others.
Quoting a Twitter thread by Dr Chris Bagley (@hiddendepths), Steph reflects on the way schools can damage students’ mental health by forcing them into a “one-size-fits-all” system, with rigid behaviour policies and curricula and high stakes. This is not a case of any particular school or teacher damaging a child’s mental health intentionally, but rather a system that does not have mental health embedded within it as a priority ̶ for anyone.
If our school system is causing unmanageable stress for both staff and students, who is it working for? Cate Knight encourages reflection on this question in her post about boundary-setting. As she explains, avoiding overwork and over-commitment is easier said than done; it requires careful thought about our priorities. These are “not determined by the government, ingrained culture, school leadership or even HoDs. These are YOURS. What do YOU believe is important in education?”
Often, mental health in schools is presented as a zero-sum game: either we take care of students’ needs and exhaust teachers in the process, or we make things easier for staff by demanding rigid compliance from students. Either way, somebody’s mental health is harmed. Knight challenges this idea, reminding us that teacher and student mental health can often go hand-in-hand: “Young people are bombarded by trauma left, right and centre in this modern world. […] Honestly, they’d benefit far more from a teacher who is calmer, happier and less pressured. It means you aren’t inadvertently transferring your stress and pressure on to them!”
I agree with Knight that taking care of ourselves and managing our stress is closely linked with taking care of our students. But I can’t help but wonder whether a system where we need somany reminders to do so can really be changed from the inside.