Reducing Stress

Stress can be reduced by what we think.

Some experts suggest that a little stress is good, but high levels of stress are harmful to most people. However, it is possible to perform well when relaxed (think masters of kung fu). In my opinion, that should be the goal: a classroom (and life) that is productive and virtually stress-free.

A traffic jam can prompt feelings of stress one day but not the next, indicating that, with the right training, we are be able to face stress with equanimity. The most common approaches are familiar: eliminating the sources of stress and practicing techniques such as breathing exercises or meditation. Since these are not practical in a classroom, let’s look at an approach that anyone can use: thought management—not only for teachers but also for educating our students.

Here is the opening paragraph of my education book.

“Life is a conversation. Interestingly, the most influential person we talk with all day is ourself, and what we tell ourself has a direct bearing on our behavior, our performance, and our influence on others. In fact, a good case can be made that our self-talk creates our reality. Many psychologists have argued that, by thinking negatively, we cause ourselves mental and physical stress. Stress is related to perceiving the world as manageable or unmanageable. By practicing the three principles below, we can reduce stress because these principles enhance the management of our world. Practice of the principles also improves relationships and increases our effectiveness in influencing others to change their behaviors.”


The first principle to practice is positivity. We know that we learn and do better when we feel good, not bad. Unfortunately, rather than communicating in positive terms, we often communicate in negative terms, such as by using consequences. Although consequences can be positive or negative, when we refer to them we usually mean imposed punishment, which is negative and coercive. A more effective approach than consequences is the use of contingencies. Rather than reactive and negative, contingencies are proactive and positive.

In contrast to imposed and reactive consequences, proactive contingencies rely on internal motivation and are perceived in a positive way. “You can do that as soon as you do this.” “When/then” and “as soon as” assist in sending both a positive message and placing the responsibility on the young person—where it belongs. Notice these in the following examples: “When your work is finished, then you can go to one of the activity centers.” “Sure, you can go—as soon as your work is finished.” Although the result of a contingency is the same as that of a consequence, the message and emotional effect are markedly different. When using a consequence, the responsibility for checking is placed on the enforcer—the adult. When using a contingency, the responsibility is on the youngster. In addition, whereas a consequence implies a lack of trust, a contingency conveys a message of confidence and trust. The crucial difference can be best understood in personal terms. Which would you prefer to hear your supervisor say to you: “If you leave and are not back on time, we will have a real problem,” or “Sure, you can leave as long as you are back in time”? Communicating in positive terms reduces stress, improves relationships, and is more effective than negativity in prompting change in others.

The second principle to practice is the use of choice. Choice empowers. Many practitioners who have written about behavior maintain that choice is the prime principle of empowerment. Young people learn that regardless of the situation, external stimulus, or internal impulse or urge, they still have the freedom to choose their responses. Freedom to choose one’s response is fundamental in a civil society. It is incumbent upon the adults of our society to teach young people that they have a choice in controlling their behaviors and that it is in young people’s own best interests to choose appropriate responses.

When a student comes into a classroom stressed by home life or some incident, the student has a choice: be controlled by the stimulus or redirect thinking into becoming engaged in the lesson being taught. This choice is within the student’s power to make. I taught my students to continually say to themselves, “I am choosing to . . . .”

The third principle to practice is reflection. Reflection also reinforces the other two practices of positivity and choice. Reflection is essential for effective learning and retention. In addition, reflection engenders self-evaluation—the critical component for change and an essential ingredient for happiness. Perhaps Stephen Covey in his “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People” put it most succinctly when he stated, “In all my experiences I have never seen lasting solutions to problems, lasting happiness and success, that came from the outside in.” (p. 43)

Reflection is a powerful teaching and learning strategy that is too often overlooked. The key to reflection is the skill of asking self-evaluative questions. Here are a few examples:

Are you angry at me or at the situation?
Does what you are doing help you get your work done?
What would an extraordinary person do in this situation?
Are you willing to try something different if it would help you?

Unfortunately, teachers ask ineffective questions such as, “Why are you doing that?” This is a pothole question. First, most people cannot articulate their motivation and second, the youngster may answer, “Because I have ADD.” Better never to ask a student a “Why?” question regarding behavior!

Asking reflective questions is a skill that any teacher can master. Once started on the journey of asking reflective questions—rather than telling students how to behave—you will be amazed at how effective and simple is the strategy.


◆ Stress is directly related to perceiving the world as being manageable or unmanageable.

◆ Practicing the three principles of positivity, choice, and reflection can reduce stress because they enhance the management of our world.

◆ Practicing positivity, choice, and reflection both with ourself and with others improves quality of life.

The reason that my books, DISCIPLINE WITHOUT STRESS and PARENTING WITHOUT STRESS, are so named is that they teach three practices of thought management, which both manage and prevent stress.