Teach Students How to Handle Stress on a Daily Basis

Today, you’re going to learn a new technique to teach your students how to handle their stress.

It’s called the “What Can I Do?” Method.

The “What Can I Do” Method will teach your students how to handle stress.

The “What Can I Do” Method will empower your students to make better choices.

How Does This Method Work?

Most stress is rooted in a feeling of helplessness.

Most of our stress develops from a feeling of being subject to forces beyond our control.

The “What Can I Do?” method doesn’t teach kids that they can control everything. Instead, this method reduces kids’ feelings of helplessness, as they recognize that there are things in their control.

This method also teaches kids to practice responsible decision-making… and to become aware that there are choices.

Many of our students might not feel like they have choices. As a result, they revert to the same patterns, over and over again. They continue to manifest their same response to stress, time after time, with nothing in place to change the loop.

This feedback loop is not only dangerous to our students’ health, but to their ability to learn and function in school.

Warning: The “What Can I Do" method is not a magical cure. (Don’t believe anyone that tells you that anything is a magical cure to handle stress!) But with repeated exposure to these concepts, your students will learn valuable skills that will slowly enter their awareness. With repeated teaching, your students will learn new ways to handle their stress.

How to Start

Start by asking students to take an ‘inventory’ of their school days.

It’s better to use the “school day” than the day that begins at home. You know what goes on in school, and you can help your students to analyze the causes of their stress in the school environment.

Let’s start with a common example:

Running Late to School

For some of our students with executive functioning disorders, sleep disorders, or poorly-organized family lives, the day constantly gets off to a chaotic start. These students might scramble to get to school each day, and before the school day even begins, they’re already carrying a boatload of stress.

When these students arrive past the bell and accumulate tardies, this may lead to other consequences in the school environment.

Of course, there’s the others who manage to juuuuust scrape by in time for school to begin. But they’re always arriving juuuuust in the nick of time.

So, let’s attack this common stressor, now, using the “What Can I Do” Method:

We’ll break it into 4 parts:


  2. CAUSE




STRESSFUL INCIDENT: Running late to school.

CAUSE: Kept sleeping when it was time to wake up.

EFFECT: I got another tardy and served detention after school.

You’ll likely need to break down the cause/effect part with your students using MANY more examples.

Use examples from your own life and those freely volunteered by students.

Now, let’s return to the above example: the student who overslept and eventually earned a detention.

Let’s illustrate a chain of stressful events that resulted from this original incident:

CAUSE: I got another tardy and served detention after school.

EFFECT: I missed my free time and lost time to play on my tablet. That night, I stayed up too late and couldn’t wake up on time.

You see how this could keep going and going, of course.

But, now, we want to break the chain.

Once you’ve thoroughly examined cause/effect, you can move on to the “What Can I Do?” part.

Enter the “What Can I Do” Method!

Students brainstorm a list of at least 3 choices… of what they can do!


WHAT CAN I DO - CHOICE #1: Cut off device time at 9 p.m.

WHAT CAN I DO - CHOICE #2: Get a better alarm clock.

WHAT CAN I DO - CHOICE #3: Take a shortcut to school.

Go through each choice, and talk about the pros and cons of each one.

Of course, the ultimate choice might be a combination of all 3 choices.

Follow Through on This Activity

Often, we have the best intentions with this kind of activity, and we introduce it to spur new patterns of thinking, but then there’s no follow-through. So, the students never get to analyze how their choices worked out, or how they could have implemented them better.

You’ll want to follow up this activity with a “How I Did? wrap-up.

Here’s an example:

How I did with getting to school on time

“Did I accomplish it?”

“Why or why not?”

“Did I make the right choice?”

“Should I make the same choice next time?”

And so on.


What About Situations Where Students Don’t Have Many Choices?

Students don’t always have multiple choices to remedy their day-to-day stressors.

For example, you might have students who prepare for tests, yet panic when it’s time to take the test.

Obviously, skipping the test is not a choice.

The students will have to disrupt their old patterns of thinking. Their choices will have to actively fight their ingrained response to the testing situations.

In this example, you might need to guide the students toward inward forms of stress relief, such as breathing techniques, positive self-talk, and guided imagery. Students will choose the forms of response that work best for them. Even when it doesn’t look like there’s too many active choices to make, there are always inward choices to make.

As your students learn and develop these self-management and self-regulation skills, you’ll start to see changes. For some students, the changes will occur faster; for others, you will see slow progress.

Don’t lose hope, and keep trying.

Check out these resources to help empower your students to make better choices in the face of stress:

If you’re on the hunt for resources to help you handle your own stress, check out these tools for self-care: