Just as I was helping students to hone their description of fluvial processes in the lower river course, a breaktime altercation spilled over into the lesson. Two pupils were accusing each other of bullying. One of them, Robert, although he was audibly challenging his classmate, remained seated and outwardly focused. The other pupil, David, was initially verbally and then physically aggressive; he could not be calmed and after a short period of time he left the room, visibly upset.
Later in the day, the process of restoring the pupils’ relationship took place. Both students gave a similar account of what they believed was the cause of the argument; there seemed no clear and obvious instigator. And both followed the behaviour patterns they had shown in class: David spoke quickly and nervously, becoming increasingly verbally aggressive. As he became more agitated, he turned red and started to perspire. Robert remained relatively calm. He put his side of the argument across, yet his frustration never manifested itself physically.
Both pupils reported a very similar sequence of events, but why did they react in such different ways? The answer is perhaps more complex than you might think. And it is also an important factor in how we perceive and manage behaviour in school, as well as how we support vulnerable students. Essentially, the difference between the two pupils came down to their responses to stress.
Stress is pervasive in all spheres of society and the term is used in many ways, from being a catch-all descriptor of general tiredness and disaffection, to the more academic notion of a “stressor” being a risk factor affecting an individual’s development.
It is widely recognised that, during adolescence in particular, the experience of stress can have far-reaching and profound consequences on future behaviour and the psychological functioning of an individual (Romeo and McEwen, 2006). In response to a stressful experience, the human body instigates two automatic physiological systems. The first is the sympathetic-adrenal medullary axis, which is responsible for flight-or-fight activation; this results in an increase in heart rate and blood flow. The second is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which releases stress hormones, such as cortisol (Compas, 2006).
If an individual is repeatedly placed in stressful situations, a neurological wear and tear, known as the allostatic load, will start to significantly affect the neural functioning of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex (McEwen, 2005). These two regions of the brain are responsible for higher-order executive functioning skills, such as working memory, planning and self-regulation, among others (Sapienza and Masten, 2011); these are important for emotional and cognitive mastery, and are associated with a wealth of positive developmental outcomes.
Now, stress-response systems occur within every individual, irrespective of culture or age. But what is remarkable is the ability of an individual to take an experience, appraise its relative potential harm and then activate, implicitly or otherwise, the physiological responses described above. The influential work of Lazarus and Folkman (1984) describes this as a transactional framework, within which any environmental demand is mediated through cognitive processes.
It is this notion of perceived stress that has come to be regarded as the most widely accepted and cited definition of stress (Hess and Copeland, 2006). For example, some people might not consider it inappropriate to have a conversation at a seemingly aggressive and thundering decibel level, as for them, this is the norm; for others, the same conversation might result in a headache and a feeling of being overwhelmed.
As with Robert and David, research has shown that, when faced with the same stressful experience, dramatic differences exist with regard to the response of individuals (Suomi, 2006). Some of this variation can be explained through individual differences in stress reactivity; some people naturally produce a higher level of stress hormones. But cultural background also plays a big part in how we appraise the stressful nature of events (Phinney et al, 1990). The same is true of age: because of the rapid development of the brain during adolescence, when situations arise that test a young person’s emotional response, they might be at greater risk of losing control.
As teachers, the ways in which we spot stress and react to it when we see it are important, both so that we can manage student behaviour properly and also so we can give students the support they need.
Thinking back to the way that David reacted, the pastoral team were aware that he had been witness to a troubled few years, experiencing familial trauma, economic hardship and consistent, aggressive altercations with his parents, who were themselves suffering from the effects of such desperate issues. These chronic stressors had undoubtedly had a serious effect on his response systems: not only was his functioning impaired, but his personal experiences of conflict at home had indicated that an immediate, aggressive response was appropriate. Although hailing from a similar background as his fellow pupil, Robert had fortunately not had to endure the same stressors. His brain was more neurologically prepared to withstand such experiences and his responses, while not perfect, revealed an ability to cope with the potentially stressful situation. He exhibited well-adjusted behaviours.
Knowing this helps us manage the particular altercation and interpret it properly, but it should also inform how we support these students. What schools should not do is accept that pupils such as David are “simply like that”.
A multitude of longitudinal studies have shown that the majority of young people with many risk factors are thriving by the time they reach their thirties (Werner, 2005). By offering coping strategies and support, schools can offer assistance to such pupils.
The pastoral team has to work studiously to build up not only a great relationship with the student and their parents, but also a detailed file containing personal information, notes of review meetings with parents and a list of potential events that could trigger an emotional reaction (find out how to comply with the new personal data-protection regulations at bit.ly/TesGDPRhub).
A key element of this is equipping pupils with the ability to recognise their personal physiological stress responses.
This is not always easy. In my own study of perceived stress, carried out with pupils excluded from mainstream provision, many of the group appeared almost incredulous when I suggested certain scenarios that I thought might have been stressful. In fact, they laughed it off.
But under certain circumstances, despite self-reporting low levels of stress, it was clear that those same pupils exhibited classic stress-related symptoms, such as an increase in both heart rate and respiration. Potentially, these pupils might believe the repeated activation of their stress-response systems to be “normal” and have never had cause to question it or try to fix it.
Teaching students engagement coping strategies as an explicit intervention not only promotes the resolution of stressful situations at school, but also has the potential – using dynamic systems theory – to begin to support adaptive behaviour in different spheres of their lives, most notably at home.
For pupils such as David, the use of primary coping strategies (attempts to alter objective conditions) may be preferable at school, where social support can be more easily sought and emotional expression supported; at home, secondary coping strategies (attempts to adjust oneself to objective conditions) may be considered most useful, as they remain efficacious even in uncontrollable situations (Weisz et al, 1994).
The relationship with David’s parents can also be developed by incorporating the family into a holistic support plan, offering specialist strategies or directing them to services that are able to ease their burden, whether financial or psychological.
If schools can properly understand stress and how to help students cope with it, they can become facilitators of adaptive change through the provision of a safe, nurturing environment – which is what every child requires to learn and develop, particularly those exposed to adversity.
Oliver Ward is a teacher at The Key pupil referral unit in Gosport, Hampshire