Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools

School 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.)




New Poll: Safe and Positive School Environment More Important Than Higher Test Scores

Summary:  This article reports on a poll of registered voters in California concerning school performance.  The article breaks down the results of the poll and reports that creating a safe and positive school environment was one of the top priorities that should be addressed.

Source: Louis Freedberg, John Fensterwald, and Theresa Harrington, EdSource, October 4, 2017

Categories:  School Culture/Climate, School Health, School Safety



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



Destigmatizing Mental Health Starts in Schools

Summary:  This article tells the story of how one school district has found ways to provide mental health services to all students.  The district recently passed a referendum to provide licensed therapists who would work alongside school guidance counselors.

Source:  Tim Goral, District Administration, August 10, 2017

Categories:  Mental Health, School 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




A New Movement to Treat Troubled Children as ‘Sad, Not Bad’

Summary:  This article stresses the importance of schools taking notice of the mental health needs of students in establishing a place where students feel connected and safe.  The example used is from Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep in uptown New Orleans where “trauma-informed teaching” is taking place.

Source:  Katy Reckdahl, The Hechinger Report, January 25, 2017

Categories:  Mental Health, School Health, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships and Trust




Bullying and Students With Disabilities: A Resource Guide

Summary:  This is a resource guide with links to a number of resources on topics connected with bullying and special education.  These topics include defining bullying, bullying and autism, bullying statistics, and other information.  These topics can be accessed through the full article below.

Source:  Christina Samuels, Education Week, January 9, 2017

Categories:  Anti-bullying, Special Education, School Health, SEL Basics




What a Shared Trauma Meant for My School

Summary:  This article tells the story of how a small rural community school managed to deal with the trauma of a natural disaster by engaging a range of outside organizations to help students, teaches, and community members.

Source:  Tracey Franke, Education Week, December 13, 2016

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



The Mental Health Crisis in Our Schools

Summary:  This is a special series of articles from National Public Radio (NPR) dealing the Mental Health Crisis in our schools.  There are articles as well as audio clips that cover various aspects of the crisis from different points of view.  This is a great overview of this growing problem in our society.

Source:  Special Series, npr ed, August/September 2016

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