NJM Blog

Back to School: A Student's Guide to Reducing Stress

By Melanie Konstantinou
Back to School: A Student's Guide to Reducing Stress

Back to School season is upon us, and we're excited for the impending fall weather. Many of us have fond memories of dressing up on the first day of school to impress our classmates, seeing our friends again after a long summer break, and looking forward to all the things we would learn that year. Of course, the joy surrounding the change of seasons might not last long for students who find their work quickly piling up. In fact, many students, regardless of how optimistic they may be for the first week of school, quickly find themselves drowning in expectations.

We're here to reassure you: Step back. Relax. It's all going to be fine.

In fact, we have a go-to guide for reducing stress in back to school season. The suggestions revolve around three areas: getting organized, keeping a schedule, and resolving conflicts.

Getting Organized

If you're a student, you've probably heard this a million times — from your parents, teachers, friends, counselors — "A messy desk is evidence of a messy mind. Whether or not this overused proverb is true, keeping things organized is essential to making the right connections in your learning. Think about it this way: Learning is a process of gradually making connections between existing ideas until you develop a new understanding of the world. If your notes are disorganized, it might take longer to make the necessary connections you need to make to truly grasp your subject matter.

  1. Organize each class into a separate spiral notebook. The benefit of spiral notebooks is that the pages don't tear out easily, meaning you won't lose the notes for next week's test or the page where you wrote down last week's homework. Teachers might prefer that you use loose-leaf paper because the edges are cleaner, but that's where perforated spiral-bound notebooks are useful. By separating your classes into separate notebooks, you'll give yourself the brain space to separate those subjects mentally. If your school allows you to take notes digitally, consider using a program like OneNote, which allows you to organize your notebook into folders and subfolders of your choosing.
  2. Use your notebook in order; don't skip pages. If you're disorganized enough, it's probable that one of your teachers has already told you this. "But it's amazing how many students skip around in their notebooks to random pages in no particular order," said one teacher Using a notebook consecutively is key to finding the information you need. It makes studying the right information much easier, too: instead of spending time and energy trying to remember what is on the test, you can focus on the pages between last test's material and the present.
  3. Color-code your notes. Whatever subject you're in, it's always useful to color code your notes. Whether it's writing the term in one color and the definition in another, highlighting the parts of the lecture that your teacher repeats, or using colored post-it notes to mark important parts of a book, color coding is a useful strategy to group ideas together. If you keep your color-coding consistent, you can even extract the most important information for use in an essay. In fact, one proven way to study is to go back and rewrite your notes, color-coding on the second pass. "I used to hand-write my notes in class, then study by typing my notes every night," one teacher said. "As I typed, I changed the font color to match certain rules — important people in green, dates in blue, and so on. It helped me to remember the material when the test came around." For more note-taking strategies, check out this list created for college students.
  4. Set up folders to predict how you'll use handouts. Teachers tend to give a lot of handouts, whether they're worksheets, resource pages, instructions, assignments, or writing prompts. Don't just stash the handouts haphazardly into your notebook; use a folder for each class to organize the pages as best you can. (Even better, make sure your subject folders match your subject notebooks in color or design.) Keep "permanent" pages, such as reference sheets, schedules, and rubrics, on one side of the folder. Temporary sheets can go on the other side of the folder; just make sure you go back to clean these out once you know for a fact you're done with them. Usually something that's already been graded or assessed is worth clearing out. Double check with your teacher before throwing anything away for an added sense of security.
  5. Use a planner. Many schools give students daily planners or agendas on the first day of school. Use yours! Write down all of your nightly homework on that day's date. As you complete each homework item, use a highlighter or a pen to mark off the assignments you completed. In the days before a test, remember to add, "Study," to your agenda. One of the biggest benefits of using your planner is that you won't find yourself in the horrible position of realizing that you left an important notebook at school. If you check your planner before you leave for the day and take all notebooks having to do with your assignments home with you, you'll be good to go.

Keeping a Schedule

"I'll write you into my schedule," sounds like something a business executive might say. So what does it have to do with students? Actually, keeping a schedule is an essential part of managing school-related stress — and making sure you get all of your assignments done on time.

  1. Plan your homework schedule. The planner provided by schools is usually intended for you to log homework assignments. However, if you look closely, you might notice that there are usually sections provided for after school and weekends. This is a great place to keep track of any extracurricular activities you might participate in. Plug in the times you'll be away at practice, lessons, or rehearsal beforehand. Then, build time into your schedule to complete homework and readings. Setting aside that time each night is a great way to feel less stressed — and more productive. For long term projects, consider setting benchmarks before the due date. Even if your teacher doesn't give you a project breakdown, you can set your own goals, like "Week 1: Complete Research by Friday," "Week 2: Draft Thesis by Wednesday," and so on. Planning ahead like this can also reduce crunch time right before a due date or big test.
  2. Don't shy away from extracurricular activities. A lot of students hesitate to join extracurricular activities because they fear the stress associated with the time commitment. However, many extracurricular activities have opportunities to get schoolwork done, like team study sessions and built-in breaks. These can even be one way to push you to stick to your homework schedule out of necessity. In fact, teachers attest that some students felt the most productive, confident, and optimistic about school when their schedules were jam-packed with activities they enjoyed participating in.
  3. Don't forget to schedule time to de-stress. Some students can get so involved in things that they leave out any opportunity to relax. Make sure that you plan appropriate rest time into your schedule. Make sure your commitments – including homework and eating – end by 10 p.m., so that you can get a good night's sleep. You don't want to burn out and find yourself incapable of functioning the next day because you overworked yourself last night.

Solving Conflicts

One major cause of stress for many students is interpersonal conflicts at school. Such problems can disrupt your whole day, distracting you during class and draining much-needed energy for getting work done. So we can't create a stress management without addressing conflict resolution.

  1. Figure out the cause of the problem. Whether your conflict has to do with friends, foes or strangers, it didn't come out of nowhere. Ask the other party — in a non-confrontational way — what's wrong. A lot of the time, conflicts come out of some misunderstanding or miscommunication between people. You might not realize that you offended your classmate when you made a joke, you forgot your friend's birthday, or your peer has mistaken you or your actions for someone else. Having a conversation with the person on the other end of the conflict can resolve the problem naturally. If you're not comfortable reaching out to the other student on your own, consider asking a trusted teacher or counselor to chaperone a meeting.
  2. Make a plan to resolve the problem. Together with the other student, brainstorm a list of ways to solve the problem. This is also something a teacher or counselor can help you to do, if you're not sure where to start.
  3. Evaluate your plan to solve the problem. This might sound like an extra step in the conflict management process, but it can be essential to being as fair as possible to all parties. Think about how the plan will affect both you and the other person. Is it fair? Could any other conflicts arise as a result of it? It might be a good idea to address those issues early, before it can cause greater issues down the road.
  4. Implement your plan to solve the problem. Put your plan into practice. Don't skip steps or ignore parts that you had previously agreed on. It's important to stand up for yourself if you feel injustice is being served, but one way to reduce future conflicts is to make sure you are acting for the well-being of as many people as possible. Don't rescind a promise just because you found a better solution for yourself. Consider everyone's perspectives, and you might even build a stronger friendship.
  5. If you suspect bullying, report it to an adult. The fact of the matter is that sometimes bullying happens. The good thing is that New Jersey and Pennsylvania have anti-bullying laws. Pennsylvania's law requires that all schools have an anti-bullying policy; New Jersey's law outline the process schools must take if a report of bullying is made. The laws cover everything from bullying on school grounds to cyberbullying. If the issue is disrupting your ability to get work done or participate in your school community, report it to your school. They are required to help.

Asking for Help

Whether the new school year fills you with optimism or dread, rest assured that you have a support system. Everyone who works in a school is there to help you. If you are struggling with stress and don't know how to solve it on your own, ask someone for help. Whether it's a teacher, counselor, coach, nurse, librarian, or administrator, someone will be able to help you through your problem. "Teachers aren't mind readers," one teacher said. "If something is wrong, you need to tell us."

Everyone copes with stress differently, so even if these suggestions don't work for you, consider using them as a starting point for figuring out what does. By setting good habits early, you'll be setting yourself up for a successful year.