Imagine this: you step off of an airplane, your bag packed as tightly as it can be.
You carry gifts from home, a bilingual dictionary, some clothes (and you can tell by looking around you will be terribly out of fashion when you wear them), and the expectations of your friends and family, not to mention the huge pressures you put on yourself. Amid the busy airport you hear people speaking, but you cannot understand what they are saying. You look around for signs to point you in the right direction, but they are written in an alphabet you cannot understand. People are rushing all around you, and you find yourself transfixed. What were you thinking? Traveling across the world with almost no knowledge of the language they speak here. Yes, success is important for your future, but isn’t there an easier way to attain it? Your heart is pumping. Your blood pressure rising. How hard would it be to just go home?
This is, of course, fictional, but it might not be too far off from how some of your students feel when they arrive in the U.S., U.K., or wherever you are teaching English. Believe me I know. When I travelled to East Asia to teach English, I was nearly paralyzed when I realized I was illiterate there. And I was only there for a job. Many ESL students make the move overseas with the emotional burden that their entire lives ride on their success or failure in your English program. In other words, they’re stressed.
One of your roles in helping those students learn is to help them decrease that stress as much as possible. People can’t learn when they are overwhelmed with anxiety. So here are some ideas you can use in your classroom to help your students destress.
6 Must-know Tips for Helping Students Destress in the Classroom
Make Class Fun
Play games, do movement activities, go outside…all of these things make class more fun, and fun is a great way to combat stress. Make a point of planning different and enjoyable activities for your classroom lessons, and your students will have an easier time absorbing the not so fun lessons, too.
Eat Right, Exercise, Get a Good Night’s Sleep
These are elements that everyone should attempt to include in their lives, and they’re just as valuable for your ESL students as anyone else. Taking care of the body is essential for taking care of the mind. Your students might need a reminder that how they move, what they eat, and how much they sleep can have an effect on their entire lives, including how stressed they feel in class. So encourage your students to live a healthy, balanced life, and bring opportunities to do so into your classroom whenever possible.
Can and Can’t List
Let’s face it. Some things are out of our control. That’s just a fact of life. Your ESL students may need to be reminded of that fact when they are feeling the pressures of language learning. Take some time and have your students make a list of things they can and can’t control. Things like how much time you spend studying goes on the can list. The grade you get on the test goes on the can’t control list. When we take the time to really think about what we can influence, we often realize that we are putting pressure on ourselves, stressing ourselves out over things we have no control over. We choose our actions but not our consequences. Your students may be caught in that trap of pressuring themselves over things they cannot control, so encourage them to make these two lists. Then point out that they should focus their attention and energy on the list of things they can change rather than the list of thing they can’t change. By focusing their efforts on factors that can actually make a difference, they will find they can stress less about those factors that they really have no say in.
Spend Time on Hobbies Interests
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. It also might make him so stressed he ends up making things even more difficult for himself. Balance is essential in our day to day life. Your ESL students are immersed in English, and they are constantly having to face challenges in communication and day to day living. Encourage them to spend time on hobbies, on doing the things they like to do. That doesn’t mean watching movies in English (unless they did that for fun in their home countries). It means playing sports, doing crafts, joining clubs, and other things that offer nothing but pleasure and enjoyment. Try taking some time in class to brainstorm all the things people do to have fun. Then have your students make a plan to do one or more of those things in the week to come. Help your students find the resources they need to have a more balanced life, and their stress in the classroom is sure to decease.
Journal Writing and Reading
For some people, writing out their feelings is a great way to diffuse stress. Just getting the emotions out and on to the page is cathartic, a release. For ESL students, even the ones that love to write in their native languages, writing in English can be intimidating and can lead to more stress. Nip that attitude in the bud with this exercise. Give your students some time in class for journal writing. You can give them a prompt if you like, but it’s not necessary. Tell your students that what they write is for them. You will not read it and they should not worry about grammar, spelling, or the other things you might otherwise grade on a written assignment. Then let students write. After enough time has passed, invite students who want to read what they wrote to share it with the class. No one has to, but some will probably want to. Then the magic happens. We all struggle with the same things, and your ESL students are bound to be more alike than they even realize. When one person reads (and don’t correct grammar or pronunciation when they read), those listening will come to realize that everyone has the same struggles. Misery may love company, but sometimes just knowing you’re not alone in your struggles is a huge relief. And this will help decrease the stress your students find themselves struggling against.
Finally, encourage your students to develop friendships. Whether it is with their classmates or with English speakers they meet outside your class, having a support system in place is essential when you are tackling a feat as large as learning to speak the English language. In addition to the relational boost your students will get from hanging out with friends, they may also be able to do some of the other things that help decrease stress – exercise, spend time on hobbies, etc. Don’t let your students isolate themselves if you can have anything to do with it. After all, learning to speak English is about communicating, and there is no one better to communicate with than a really good friend, no matter what country they come from.