Unraveling the Mysteries of Stress in the Language Classroom

June 2021

This month we’re looking at stress: what it is, what causes it, and the effects it has on learning. It’s not all negative news, fortunately! We’ve got lots of tips for students and teachers for making the most of stress in the classroom.


Our cover: “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.” – Lady Bird Johnson

Cover photo by AndrewJohnson on iStock, others from unsplash & pixabay

Watch before you read...

This Think Tank looks at a startling tool our brain has developed, stress, which helps us move through difficult situations. This issue also provides some superb tools to help teachers and learners manage it. The Main video challenges some popular notions of stress, while the More video discusses “anxiety,” its classroom counterpart.

Jason Walters gives us a brief overview of stress, setting us up for a deeper, broader examination by Ken Purnell, who also suggests ways to teach students about it. Curtis Kelly carries the discussion onwards by resolving the conundrum of whether stress aids or hinders learning. Following these articles on stress as a feature of the learner brain, Lydia Rickard reminds us that teachers get stressed too. She entertains us with a story that we can all identify with, a frantic Alec juggling a myriad of pandemic problems. Josh Brunotte closes the Think Tank by showing us how one of the most robust tools developed in Psychology, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, can be used with learners as well.

We have a little “spaced repetition” in this month’s Plus section, when John Duplice takes us back to last month’s issue on evidence-based learning strategies by offering us an additional one for teaching writing. Then, Chris Clancy finishes the issue off with a touching story about how he became a teacher.

Our Thoughts on Stress

Stress: We’ve Got Good News and Bad News Jason Walters

When discussing the stress they experience, my undergrad students work with the language tools they have, often describing anxieties and feelings of overwork in terms of limited time. Between the demands of part-time jobs, family obligations, inordinately long commutes, and homework tasks, they struggle to find time for themselves. Their descriptions are usually simple, personal, and grounded in their experience.

Think Tank Articles

How a Deep Look at Stress and the Brain Guides Us in Teaching Students about It Ken Purnell

… stress is a major problem for students that impacts their school achievement and general wellness. They, too, are aware of this, which is one of the reasons that education about the brain using contemporary neuroscientific evidence is attracting considerable interest. For example, at CQUniversity Australia, whereas we only had bout 80 students studying educational neuroscience in 2020, we now have over 50,000 worldwide (see, FutureLearn, 2020; Teghe, 2020). The brain boom is on.

Stress: A Teacher’s Enemy or Ally? Curtis Kelly

Stress. The Problem Child of life sciences.[1] Good or bad? Enemy or ally? For example, dozens of teachers I’ve met at conferences have said: “A little stress helps learning.” Thousands of websites: “Stress is a killer.” A century of research: Well, hard to summarize, but look at what Newsweek’s Mary Carmichael had to say:

“When I started asking researchers about “good stress,” many of them said it essentially didn’t exist. “We never tell people stress is good for them,” one said. Another allowed that it might be, but only in small ways, in the short term, in rats” (2009, p. 1).

Teachers and Stress Lydia Rickard

It’s 7:00 am and Alec, a second-grade teacher, has just started his working day. Firstly, he goes through his emails, perusing messages from administration, parents, and colleagues. He spends a few minutes responding to parents, acknowledging the concerns they bring forth to him. The emails from administration are filled with reminders of upcoming meetings, deadlines, absences, and cover plans. He notes what is necessary in his diary.

Introducing Cognition and Emotion Connections through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Josh Brunotte

There is a growing awareness that mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression can have a direct impact on how students function in the classroom and how effective instructors can be at facilitating learning. Teachers at the tertiary level need to educate themselves on not only the prevalence of these disorders in the student population, but also the best methods for discussing and destigmatizing mental illness within their own classrooms. Students may enter the learning environment already dealing with a myriad of anxieties that affect learning, including communication apprehension, classroom communication anxiety, public speaking anxiety, foreign language anxiety, and more (Brunotte, 2019). In the US, around one-eighth of young adults have anxiety-related disorders, and an estimated 80% of them are not receiving treatment for those issues (IBCCES, 2020). Anxious thoughts can create a “powerful illusion of truth” (Burns, 1999, p. 48), and without intervention these illusions often lead to unnecessary mental distress and excessive avoidance of risk.

Think Tank Plus

Looking Back: Write Slower to Write Deeper John Duplice

I assigned the essay two weeks ago, and the deadline is in six hours. Yet, I only have submissions from four of the twenty students in the class! Did I make a mistake with the due date on Moodle? After confirming it’s correct, I decide to send a reminder email to all the students. Just before I hit “send to all,” two more submissions come through. At midnight, the deadline for submission, all but one essay–there’s always at least one–has been turned it.

Perseverantia Vincit (Perseverance Conquers) Chris Clancy

I never wanted to be a teacher. My mother was a teacher and I never wanted the occupation either of my parents had. I had always wanted to be a baseball player. Fate, however, had already taken its toll on me. At the ripe young age of seven years, I was involved in a bicycle accident that left me in a coma and partially paralyzed. My parents were told that, if I survived, I would never be able to walk again. I was in a coma for ten days—ten days of which I recall nothing. The last memory I have is stopping at the bottom of the hill where my family lived and tossing a popsicle stick in the sewer before riding off to meet friends. The next memory I have is the humiliation of being confined in a crib with a plastic roof and wearing a diaper. This is a story of perseverance conquering.

Call for Contributions Think Tank Staff

Become a Think Tank star! Here are some of the future issue topics we are thinking about. Would you, or anyone you know, like to write about any of these? Or is there another topic you’d like to recommend? Do you have any suggestions for lead-in, or just plain interesting, videos? How about writing a book review? Or sending us a story about your experiences? Contact us.

Going Deeper

Chronicle of Higher Education

Anxiety eclipses depression among college students, and the number who say it’s overwhelming them is on the rise.”

Watch these students talk about it

Teacher stress can have a big impact on teachers, students, and schools. This video highlights research examining the causes and consequences of teacher stress.

Here is a short drama (12 min) about a high school student facing presentation anxiety and changing her mindset to overcome it.

Robert Murphy has offered us his videos on stress for students. The one on the left is in English, while the other two, with the same slides as the first, are a mix of Japanese and English for less proficient students in Japan. (Letting students choose is an example of Differentiated Instruction.)

34 min English only (full content)

14 min Bilingual version, Part A (opening ideas)

13 min Bilingual version, Part B (ending with questions)

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The MindBrained Think Tanks+

is produced by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (BRAIN SIG). Kyoto, Japan. (ISSN 2434-1002)

Editorial Staff

Stephen M. Ryan                Julia Daley                   Marc Helgesen

        Curtis H. Kelly                 Skye Playsted                Heather McCulloch

    Jason Walters                  Rishma Hansil               Mohammad Khari




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