Student Well-Being

Schools Can Help Students With End-of-the-Year Stress. Here Are 4 Strategies

By Caitlynn Peetz — May 22, 2023 6 min read
Image of a school hallway with students moving.
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The end of the school year is generally regarded as a time to celebrate—students, teachers, and parents alike made it through another year of lessons, homework, and academic growth.

But for many students, it’s a period of high stress as they study for and take high-stakes exams. For others, it’s a period of imminent change, whether they’re making the jump from middle to high school or graduating, which can be both exciting and scary. For some students, the upcoming summer break can seem lonely, without built-in opportunities to connect as often with friends.

The close of this school year comes at a time when schools are wrestling with students’ increased mental health needs, exacerbated by the pandemic.

In 2021, 42 percent of high school students said they experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the past year, according to a report released in February by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is a 14 percent increase from 2019 and a 47 percent increase from 2011. Girls and children who identify as LGBTQ+ were more likely to report feeling sad or hopeless.

The state of students’ mental health has been a focal point of the academic year, with schools and districts focusing increased efforts on expanding wellness programs and hiring mental health professionals. President Joe Biden even called special attention to the youth mental health crisis during his State of the Unionaddress in March.

While there’s much long-term work to do to improve students’ mental health supports, there are smaller things educators can do now to help students finish the year strong.

“I really think there is action being taken on the school level to address the challenges kids are facing, but it’s complicated and it’s hard,” said Tony Walker, senior vice president of academic programs for The JED Foundation, a national nonprofit that focuses on suicide prevention and improving youth mental health. “Both the big systemic changes and the smaller, daily actions are important.”

In interviews with EdWeek, Walker as well as a middle school counselor and a high school senior who’s established herself as a mental health advocate, laid out some small, but impactful, things schools and districts can do in the coming weeks to support students and help them navigate what can be a stressful time.

Lean into traditions—or make new ones

Change is hard, even if it’s good change, so embracing or creating traditions can help students navigate and feel prepared for transitions, said Megan Bledsoe, a middle school counselor in Vancouver, Washington, and the 2020 Washington state school counselor of the year. It can also give students something to look forward to.

Those could include end-of-year celebrations, 8th grade promotion ceremonies, or just fun talent shows.

“These fun annual events help students push through to the end of the year while giving them needed rites of passage to walk through on their journey to adulthood,” Bledsoe said.

Events that include families, like open houses, can help students and their parents feel comfortable preparing for transitions between school levels.

We have to focus on prevention, and not just suicide prevention, but preventing distress in the first place, and having programs that help you connect with peers is a very important measure.

Set up peer support groups

Teens are more likely to talk to each other than with an adult about their concerns, stressors, and challenges.

Setting up dedicated times and spaces where students can gather to talk, share their experiences, and decompress is a low-lift way to facilitate those connections during busy periods and throughout the academic year, said Crystal Widado, a senior in Glendora, Calif., and the winner ofJED’s Student Voice of Mental Healthaward in 2022 for her mental health advocacy efforts, including running social media for a student mental health advocacy group and serving as writing director for a nonprofit that focuses on teen mental health.

Peer support opportunities can be offered in groups with specific topics, one on one, or in online forums.

“We could sit here and talk all day about how important counselors are for one-on-one interventions but … there’s more to it,” Widado said. “We have to focus on prevention, and not just suicide prevention, but preventing distress in the first place, and having programs that help you connect with peers is a very important measure.”

Crystal Widado

Offer frequent breaks and help students learn how to manage difficult emotions

There may be a lot to do to wrap up the school year, but students are human,and they need breaks to stay fresh and focused, Walker and Widado said.

That’s not to say downtime should be completely unstructured breaks that students end up using scrolling through social media or watching TV. Instead, teachers could incorporate more five-minute breaks to move a bit—dance along to a song, or do a short exercise—or practice breathing exercises and muscle relaxation techniques.

It can be a confusing time for students, especially teens approaching graduation, because not everyone will feel the same about the milestone, Widado said. Some may be excited, while others might be filled with dread and fear. Many will feel different day to day. It can feel isolating when friends don’t understand or share your point of view, Widado said, so it’s important students are reminded that it’s OK to feel whatever they’re feeling.

Teaching students grounding techniques, like deep breathing, can be helpful, Widado said, as can encouraging them to simply slow down and “be present.”

“I think that ability to feel gratitude for the present moment and just kind of soak in everything that’s happening instead of worrying that it’s going to be the final time we’re doing something is helpful,” Widado said. “I think finding a balance between all of those emotions is kind of what’s been helping me the most.”

Go back to basics

Sometimes, the smallest efforts can go a long way.

Bledsoe and Walker said schools should encourage students to drink plenty of water, get enough sleep, and eat well.

Offering healthy snacks and nutritious breakfasts and lunches can help students feel energized and focused as they tackle tests and other end-of-year stressors.

If a student is feeling overwhelmed, it can be helpful to give them a hand in getting organized, according to JED. Encourage them to make a list of what needs to be done and deadlines for each item, and rank them in order of importance. That can make a long list of tasks feel less daunting, the foundation says. Then, having students cross completed tasks off the list can give them a sense of accomplishment.

Teachers can also incorporate a few quick check-ins to their lessons that don’t take much time, Walker said. Taking an extra minute to say “hello” to each student as they walk in can make them feel seen and appreciated. Teachers can also take a few minutes to ask students how they’re feeling—maybe asking them to rank their mood on a scale of 1 to 10. If a student ranks their mood low, the teacher could later refer that student to a counselor for additional support. It’s a sign that may have been missed without an intentional check-in, Walker said.

Tony Walker

Teachers should also try to end their lessons on a positive note or with encouragement, Walker said, especially if it was a difficult lesson or they know a student is struggling.

“Making sure that teachers are connecting with students at the end, and making sure that they feel validated and appreciated and hopeful like, ‘Hey, even if today’s lesson was hard, we’ll come back tomorrow and we’ll answer any remaining questions that you have and figure it out together,’ is really important to ensuring that students feel hopeful about their futures,” he said.

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