Grete Arro - What Causes Stress in Pupils?


Even though it is easy to think that schoolchildren seem down due to exhaustion, it can instead be a sign of missing learning skills, says researcher at Tallinn University School of Educational Sciences, Grete Arro.

It is often said that exhaustion is the main cause of stress in pupils. Perhaps we should look at it from a different angle and see that exhaustion itself is caused by missing some important learning skills. Skills that the pupils were never taught. In addition, the teacher can teach the pupils to handle their emotions better. What if it turns out that we do not think of these causes and keep hampering the pupils’ well-being?

There are many useful tips to help a stressed or exhausted pupil already available today. Here are a few examples.

Ability development
Developing abilities is not often seen as a part of learning skills, even though they should be. For a while, data has emerged that when pupils know how to study, their learning behaviour makes more sense, and their results are better. Pupils need to see that abilities can be developed, working hard and using various learning strategies can lead to success, and that feeling the pressure and making mistakes are a natural part of learning, not signs of weakness.

Similarly, once pupils learn that their social skills are adaptable, their relationships and ability to manage complicated social situations will develop, which in turn will increase their emotional well-being. A sensible approach to the development of beliefs and socials skills in pupils can be supported.

Negative emotions
Do we need more reasons teachers need to know about the learning process within the brain? Another reason could be the current knowledge on what happens to the pupil that is overwhelmed with negative emotions – when they are faced with stress, anxiety or shame, when they are tired, sleepless or just in bad shape, their basic functions that are vital for learning, such as their inhibitory processes, working memory, and adaptability, do not work in an optimal range.

If we ignore this, we hinder pupils in two ways at once. We inhibit their learning ability, and this in turn hinders their academic accomplishments that we enjoy exhibiting to others. When we consider their well-being, we take care of the basic functions needed for learning and creativity, problem solving and discussions. Some think that a constant state of fear motivates learning. It does not!

Interest and the lack of it
How many of us are interested in the things we understand nothing about and activities we cannot do? When the teacher is too busy to teach every pupil to learn well, to give them a sense of accomplishment, there is no point in expecting them to develop an interest toward the subject. This is not necessarily a prerequisite for development – on the contrary, according to multiple researchers, competence is a prerequisite for interest.

When the teacher speeds away with the smartest in the class, leaving the slower learners behind, the feeling of competence is quickly replaced by helplessness or defiance, but definitely not interest. Speed should never be the goal of learning, but rather depth, thoroughness, variety of correlations, timeliness, and many other factors never reached hastily.

Meaningful actions
Motivation can be raised by giving meaning to actions. How many of us would work gladly without having a clue about the goal? In Estonian folklore there are characters called Kratts. They are very hard-working, but give no meaning to their actions. Kratts do not know why and what they do. When they get an “impossible” task, they do not change their strategy, but explode. This example should serve as a warning that giving meaning, context and value to our tasks – from the perspective of the pupil – will work wonders on motivation.


These were but a few examples of the reasons that can cause exhaustion from school. We can use the perspective of the pupil, the teacher, or even the parent to ask whether exhaustion stems from causes linked to learning or learning skills, and how to help them in each case. Pupils can be taught all learning skills.

To get twelve years of positive experiences from school, rather than wasted time and torture, should not be a happy coincidence or pure luck, but more of a human right.