Adding simple stress-management activities in the classroom can help students improve mental health

Stress-management activities to improve student mental health

Stress and anxiety can have debilitating effects on a student’s ability to focus. That’s why implementing social-emotional learning and stress-management activities in the classroom are good ways to help them stay centered — and the best part is, these activities don’t have to be complicated. 

By using simple, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) activities, you can help students build important stress-management skills. Non-clinical DBT combines concepts like mindfulness and acceptance with specific strategies and exercises to help individuals cope in stressful situations. As an educator, you know kids can be especially hard on themselves when frustrated, so redirecting their attention with DBT activities, even for just a few minutes, can help them destress and learn how to manage challenging situations. 

In her work with children and families, Lisa Dunham, a licensed clinical social worker and mental health professional, uses DBT activities on a daily basis. And, when looking for new techniques to use with her clients, she finds the DBT® Skills in Schools manual particularly useful. 

“What I like about this book from a teacher’s perspective is if you want to be able to open a book and find a lesson for the day, it has that,” she explains.

Following are helpful tips and examples of DBT activities Dunham encourages teachers to use in the classroom.

1. Offer sensory breaks in a calming corner

A calming corner is a great place for students to engage in stress-management activities when they feel overwhelmed or when they just need a sensory break. These quiet spaces offer a place for students to identify and manage their emotions using sensory tools, such as a weighted cuddly companion, and external-stimuli-reducing tools such as noise-canceling headphones, light-reducing filters, or a blackout tent

Calming corners offer a place for students to identify and manage their emotions using sensory tools and external-stimuli-reducing tools.

If you don’t already have a calming corner in your classroom, it’s easy to get started with kits that include specific items designed to meet your students’ sensory and SEL needs. In particular, the Nasco Quiet Bag SEL Kit is a cost-effective option that can be offered to every student. The kit includes headphones, soft toys to squeeze, and tactile manipulatives to help students keep their minds focused.

2. Help students focus with mindfulness activities

It’s easy for students to become stressed when their brains are going in too many different directions. Mindfulness is about bringing thoughts back to the center, staying in the moment, and paying attention to one thing at a time. You can help students learn more about mindfulness with engaging games and activities like:

Mindfulness is about bringing thoughts back to the center, staying in the moment, and paying attention to one thing at a time.

Dunham also suggests finding stress-management activities that allow students to focus on a particular sound, place, or moment in time.

Mindfulness Activity 1: Using sound  

  • Use a small bell or a CD player with volume control to play a sound.
  • Ask students to close their eyes (if they’re comfortable with that) and place their palms on their desk.
  • Have students focus on the sounds around them and ask them to raise their hand when they hear a sound coming from the bell or CD player.
  • Next, slowly lower the volume and ask them to put their hands down when they no longer hear the sound.

Mindfulness Activity 2: Draw your own happy place

Ask students to sit quietly and draw a place that makes them feel happy and safe. This helps them focus on that place, and less on everything else around them.

Mindfulness Activity 3: Going all in

Ask students to imagine themselves at their favorite concert or sporting event. Have them write, draw, or explain what they saw or felt when they were 100 percent in that moment.

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Maximize your funding for mental health and SEL

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3. Practice distress-tolerance activities for high-stress moments

When frustration is overflowing and tension is at an all-time high, it’s important to have methods that can help a student bring their stress level back down to a more manageable level. 

When frustration is overflowing and tension is at an all-time high, it’s important to have methods to help students properly manage stress.

For moments like these, Dunham recommends using TIPP (Temperature, Intense exercise, Paced breathing, and Progressive muscle relaxation), which can be useful in situations when overwhelming emotions might be at an eight, nine or 10. These skills offer the ability to redirect anger and frustration and make room for clearer thinking and effective problem solving.

Temperature activities

To help an overwhelmed student calm down quickly, ask them to hold their breath and imagine putting their face in a bowl of ice-cold water. Or, if you have access to an ice pack, place it on the back of the neck or below the eyes. Exposure to cold helps slow breathing and regulate the heart rate. 

Intense exercise activities

Ask the frustrated student to engage in intense exercise for a short period of time, such as jumping jacks, walking at a fast pace, or running. Exercise naturally releases endorphins which helps regulate emotions and eliminate anxious energy.

Paced breathing activities

If a student is upset, ask them to breathe deeply and slowly while paying attention to their inhalation and exhalation. You can also ask them to practice starfish or square breathing techniques to breathe more slowly.

Progressive muscle relaxation activity

If a student is upset, ask them to breathe deeply and slowly while tensing muscles in the body by making a fist or tightening their leg muscles. Then ask them to release the tension and completely relax.

4. Build interpersonal effectiveness skills

Sometimes it’s difficult for young people to communicate what they want or need, especially when the conversation could become intense. However, avoiding tough conversations could lead to further harm. You can help students build and maintain healthy relationships by using the DEAR MAN exercise to prepare for intense conversations. 

Use stress-management activities like the DEAR MAN approach to help students improve interpersonal skills.

D – Describe the situation

Ask the student to describe what they want or what they want to achieve in a conversation by sticking to the facts. 

E – Express how you feel

Encourage the student to express how they feel, without getting upset, by using I-statements such as “I feel this is important because …”

A – Assert yourself

Ask the student to ask directly for what they want from a particular situation without being overly aggressive or angry.

R – Reinforce your request

Allow the student to reinforce their request by giving something in return, such as, “If I can do this, I would be more willing to …”

M – Mindfulness

Encourage the student to stay focused on what they want to achieve from the conversation without bringing in other topics or distractions.

A – Appear confident 

Ask the student to make eye contact and speak calmly and clearly when making a request.

N – Negotiate

Remind the student that an ideal outcome is when both parties feel like they have achieved what they want from the conversation.

5. Help kids “walk the middle path

Seeing things from another person’s perspective is often difficult, but it can be extremely useful in solving conflicts. With dialectical thinking activities, you can help your students become more compassionate and empathetic by allowing them to see two opposite ideas as part of the same truth. For example:

  • With younger students, ask them to describe a fairy tale, such as Cinderella, from the unique perspective of one of the other characters. This could be one of the stepsisters, the prince, or one Cinderella’s critter friends. 
  • Use a guided activity like “Understanding others, understanding ourselves” to help students see the perspectives of individuals from diverse backgrounds or cultures.

6. Focus on regulating emotions

Emotional regulation is all about helping kids understand why they feel what they’re feeling and how to properly express it. However, before they can effectively manage difficult emotions, they need to be able to identify them first. 

Emotional regulation is all about helping kids understand why they feel what they’re feeling and how to properly express it.

The Nasco Managing Our Emotions At Home SEL Student/Family Kit is a helpful tool that can be used in the classroom or at home. The kit includes emotion-recognition cards to teach students how to identify emotions, a sketch diary, and crayons to help them express how they feel, as well as a Wee Critter Puff to help them open up during discussions. 

Dunham also recommends using the ABC PLEASE method as a good way to help students regulate their emotions.

A – Accumulate positives

With any type of learning it’s important to recognize victories, both big and small. Let your students know that you see how hard they’re working.

B – Build mastery 

Everyone likes to feel as if they’ve mastered something. Help your students achieve this by creating smaller goals to attain before moving on to bigger tasks.

C – Cope ahead

If your students are feeling stressed about an upcoming math test, help them decide and reinforce stress-managing techniques, like paced breathing, that can be used in high-anxiety moments.

P L – Physical illness 

Encourage students to be mindful of their physical health, which can affect their ability to focus and learn.

E – Balanced eating

Remind students to eat nutritious foods and well-balanced meals whenever possible.

A – Avoid mood-altering drugs

Teach students about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

S – Sleep

Nothing beats a good night’s rest. Encourage your students to get adequate rest, especially before tests and other anxiety-inducing events. 

E – Exercise

Remind students to exercise regularly, which can go a long way in achieving better mental and physical health.

7. Provide ways to stay grounded

It’s nearly impossible to stay balanced at all times, and sometimes we just need a little something to bring us back to a calm place. Like mindfulness, grounding activities are a good way to return to the center when we’ve veered off the “calm” path. For moments like these use the 5-4-3-2-1 activity, by asking students to describe:

  • 5 things in the room
  • 4 things they can feel on or in their body
  • 3 things they can hear 
  • 2 things they can or could smell
  • 1 thing they can taste
Grounding activities are a good way to return to the center when we’ve veered off the “calm” path.

Though your students’ overall mental health is a primary center of your concern, don’t forget, your health is equally important. As an educator, it’s not always easy to stay grounded, but by giving yourself an occasional break and practicing mindfulness techniques, such as the ones in “15 stress-reduction tips for teachers,” you’ll be better prepared to take on the day. Not only will you feel more balanced, but you’ll provide a healthy model for your students, too.    

Learn more about DBT skills and stress-management activities by watching Lisa Dunham’s full Nasco Education webinar below.

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