Programme to teach school pupils about stress proves effective
Recent studies have shown that Dutch secondary school pupils experience a great deal of stress from school work, and between 2001 and 2007 the number of adolescents experiencing school stress even doubled. The study carried out by Simone Vogelaar focuses on stress factors and the effectiveness of the ‘Stress Lessons’ psycho-education programme that is designed to broaden pupils’ understanding of stress. PhD defence is 6 February.
‘We wanted to use this study to learn more about the stress experiences of adolescents and to see whether a psycho-education programme about stress - 'Stress Lessons' – would be effective in increasing these adolescents’ knowledge about stress. It does indeed seem to help,’ says Simone Vogelaar. ‘We also wanted to investigate whether the stress experiences and the effect of the Stress Lessons varied for different groups.’
‘We decided to focus on how stress was experienced differently among adolescents at different levels of education and from different ethnic backgrounds. We also looked at whether adolescents need additional skills training, including more support in handling stress.’
‘Our research shows that stress in pupils is mainly related to school performance, health and uncertainty about the future. What’s surprising is that social stress and financial pressure seem to have less impact. It’s important to mention that this research took place before the corona period, so pupils were already feeling stress about health even before the pandemic.’
‘My main conclusion relates to the effectiveness of the Stress Lessons. We found that the programme was effective in broadening pupils’ knowledge about stress, but less directly effective in reducing stress levels after the lessons. Previous studies showed varying results following psycho-education about stress, which meant we were unable to formulate a hypothesis about this. Our research emphasises the importance of offering skills training after psycho-education, particularly for pupils who feel they are suffering a high level of stress.’
Another important discovery is that 51% of adolescents were interested in having skills training. We found that pupils who scored more highly on stress and fear of failure were keener to take part in skills training.
‘Stress Lessons’: a psycho-education programme
The Stress Lessons were developed to help adolescents understand stress, to recognise it in their bodies and to learn effective ways of handling and preventing it.
The aim is to give adolescents tools and insights to manage stress in different areas of their lives, such as school, relationships and future challenges. The results of the study show that adolescents who have had Stress Lessons experience an increase in their knowledge about stress, which indicates that the programme has had a positive effect.
Why so many school pupils experience stress
There are a number of different factors that can contribute to the stress Dutch secondary school pupils experience relating to their school work. One important factor is the high expectations of parents, teachers and society to get good grades and pass exams. There is also the fact that the increased emphasis on performance and competition in education add to the stress pupils experience.
It is important to recognise and understand these factors and to develop appropriate interventions that can help pupils reduce stress and build resilience.
‘What makes our research unique is that this is the first study to examine the stressors experienced by pupils at different educational levels and from different ethnic backgrounds. And, as far as we know, this is also the first study where research has been done on the effect of a short psycho-education programme about stress in a random sample of adolescents, including an experimental and a control group.'
‘Finally, our research is also unique because this is the first study where pupils were questioned immediately after a psycho-education programme about their interest in skills training or a course on reducing fear of failure or social skills training,’ Simone Vogelaar explains.
What are Simone Vogelaar’s plans for the near future?
‘I started as a university lecturer at the Institute of Education and Child Studies in Leiden. In the future I would like to do more research on stress, and specifically on the effects of interventions – digital included – on stress.’
Simone Vogelaar explains the cover of her PhD dissertation 'Manoeuvring through a World of Stressors'
‘We taught Stress Lessons to pupils in the first two years of secondary school. The cover illustrates these classical lessons. The project was called Stress Less, which is why you can see that on the board. The artist tried to draw me, so I think the person standing in front of the class must be me.’