Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools

Mental Health



Building Stress Tolerance

By Tara Laughlin, Ed.D., Director of Curriculum at PAIRIN

We see it all the time.  A person rushing around, from activity to activity, to the store and back, jumping from meeting to meeting.  We hear it all the time.  “I’m so stressed!”  We feel it, too.  The pounding heart, tight muscles, mind racing, knot in the stomach.  Stress: it’s an ever-present part of our internal and external worlds.  

When you break it down, stress is simply the mental or emotional reaction your body has to any kind of demand or threat, causing your nervous system to release a flood of hormones.  And believe it or not, stress can actually be a good thing.  When you’re truly in danger, these stress symptoms serve to protect you, helping you stay alert and active, sharpening your focus and increasing your motivation.

Managing stress is one of the elements of emotion regulation, and an essential social-emotional competency.  It’s vital whether we are in danger, or whether our distress is less consequential. None of us will, or would want to, live in a stress-free world.  So it’s worth considering how to better tolerate or manage the stress we feel, regardless of the magnitude..

Stress Management Strategies

Everyone has their own ways of coping with stress.  Some of these ways are positive, and some are negative.  Do any of the following sound familiar?  Or perhaps you’ve seen a friend or loved one responding in these ways?

Negative Strategies

Smoking Sleeping too much
Drinking/Drugs Procrastinating
Junk Food Overscheduling yourself to avoid facing problems.
Hours in front of TV/computer            Taking stress out on others
Withdrawing from family  


If so, take heart.  There are more positive ways to manage stress.  Try these three simple strategies:

Positive Strategies

Deep Breathing: Deep breathing is breathing slowly and fully to increase feelings of relaxation.  By purposefully changing your breathing from being rapid and shallow to the opposite, you send a signal to your brain and body to de-stress.  Try this:

  1.  Sit comfortably with your eyes closed and start focusing on your breath. Feel your stomach moving in and out as you fill and empty your lungs.
  2. Count your in- and out- breaths. How long do they last?
  3. Start slowing your breathing.
  4. Aim for an in-breath which lasts for a count of 6 and an out-breath for another count of 6.
  5. If possible, do this for 5 full minutes without opening your eyes.

Visualization: Picture a place which is relaxing for you, in great detail, and imagine yourself in that place.  Visualization forces you to clear your mind of the many thoughts you are juggling. You can then replace those thoughts with ones that are purposefully calming and relaxing. Try this:

  1. Sit or lie down comfortably, and close your eyes.
  2. Think about a place which you find relaxing, preferably one you have been to before. This might be a quiet forest, a mountain overlook, a beach, or even your bedroom.
  3. With your eyes still closed, clearly imagine yourself entering this place.
  4. Use your sense to see, hear, smell, and feel the details of this place.
  5. Picture yourself finding a comfortable spot and unwinding in this place.
  6. Stay here until you feel calm and relaxed.

Progressive Relaxation: Focus on each muscle group in your body, one at a time, tensing and relaxing them. It may seem strange to tense your muscles while trying to relax, but doing so actually allows you to relax more deeply. Try this:

  1. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position, closing your eyes.
  2. Starting with your toes, tense them tightly by curling them under and holding for 5 seconds.  Then, relax them.
  3. Repeat this process with your feet, ankles, calves, thighs, core, hips, lower/upper back, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, neck, and face.
  4. Pay close attention to how each muscle group feels after tensing it.
  5. Finish by tensing your entire body at once, holding for 5 seconds, and releasing.

The key to using any of these strategies is to find the right time and place when you can do them feasibly. It’s especially useful to practice stress management when you are not highly stressed, so the techniques can be accessible to you when you most need them, and the context might not be so ideal. Notice when you find yourself rushing around, telling yourself or others how stressed you are, or feeling that familiar flood of stress hormones. Use that awareness as motivation to carve out some time for stress relief.

(For more information on strategies to improve social and emotional skills, visit to learn about our SEL curriculum.)




What’s the Best Way to Prepare for an Emergency — and How Can SEL Help?

Summary: This article touches on how schools prepare for crisis situations and how to build resilience to deal with trauma before, during, and after an emergency incident occurs.  The author contends that SEL and building relationships is an important step in the process.

Source:  Amelia Harper, Education Dive, September 18, 2017

Categories:  School Safety, School Culture/Climate, School Health, Mental Health, SEL Basics, Positive Relationships




Cyberbullying Concerns Prompt Cell Phone Restrictions at Maine Middle School

Summary: This article reports on a decision to restrict the use of cellphones at Lewiston Middle School in Maine in the hopes of reducing cyberbullying.  The decision resulted from the deaths of two students and reports that cell phones were used to bully during school hours.

Source: Linda Jacobson, Education DIVE, September 1, 2017

Categories: Anti-Bullying, Code of Conduct, Student Behavior, Mental Health




Students Say They Don’t Know Where to Turn for Mental Health Services

Summary:  This article provides another take on the “Kind Communities – A Bridge to Youth Mental Wellness” research study that was released by the Born This Way Foundation, which was founded by Lady Gaga in 2012 to assist young people in achieving mental and emotional well-being.  This article focuses on providing access to mental health resources to students in need of services.

Source:  Pat Donachie, Education DIVE, July 27, 2017

Categories:  School Health, Mental Health, Emotional Intelligence, Student Achievement



Happy Students

Some Teens Don’t See School as a Kind Place. Here’s Why That Matters.

Summary:  This article reports on the results of student survey on school mental health conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group on behalf of the Born This Way Foundation, an organization founded by singer Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, to research and promote mental wellness among young people. 

Source:  Evie Blad, Education Week, July 27, 2017

Categories:  Mental Health, School Health, School Culture/Climate, SEL Basics




Student Trauma Is Real. But Connection Can Heal.

Summary:  This article talks about the reality of traumatic experiences, known as “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACEs) and the negative impact that they can have on learning, health, and wellbeing.  The author suggests that a supportive environment based on social-emotional learning can help students reverse the negative effects of this trauma.

Source:  Gary G. Abud, Jr., Education Week, July 11, 2017

Categories:  SEL Basics, Positive Relationships, Mental Health




America Sees Alarming Spike in Middle School Suicide Rate

Summary:  This article comments on the rise of teen suicide across America and in New Jersey where particular efforts have been undertaken to reduce bullying and improve school culture and climate.  Despite these efforts, the suicide rate in New Jersey has continued to rise.  Middle schoolers seem to be at particular risk.

Source:  James M. O’Neill, Staff Writer, The Record, July 16, 2017

Categories:  Anti-bullying, School Culture/Climate, Mental Health, Student Engagement



Penn State Research Brief

Improving Social Emotional Skills in Childhood Enhances Long-Term Well-Being and Economic Outcomes

Summary: This report from Penn State University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation speaks to the economic benefits of improving social-emotional skills as well as overall well-being for both children and adults.

Source: Jones, D., Crowley, D., and Greenberg, M., Penn State University and RWJ Foundation, June 2017

Categories:  SEL Basics, SEL Research, Student Achievement, Mental Health



Happy Students

Happiness Before Homework: Focusing on Feelings in the Classroom

Summary:  This article talks about the importance SEL competencies for both students and teachers.  Prompted by a student suicide, the author embarked on  designing a high school course in positive psychology to help students focus on their own well-being. The author has also gone on to train other teachers to to be “emotionally intelligent.”

Source:  Ronan Habib, Education Week, June 7, 2017

Categories:  Emotional Intelligence, Mental Health, Mindfulness, SEL Teacher Training




Cyberbullying Challenges Mental Health in Our Schools

Summary:  This article, by guest writer J.M. Myers, addresses the challenge that cyber-bullying puts on the mental health of a school and its students. Schools must address cyber-bullying even though it usually occurs outside of school.  In many ways, it is much more pernicious  than face-to-face interactions.

Source:  Jill Berkowicz and Ann Myers, Education Week, May 24, 2017

Categories:  Anti-Bullying, Mental Health, Codes of Conduct, Technology