Teaching Resources

Promoting Well-Being: Compassion and Stress Reduction

Resource Overview

Course policies and teaching practices that support student mental health

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Shaina Rowell

Assistant Director, Educational Development

srowell@wustl.edu

Actively listen to your students, acknowledge their perspectives, and use course policies and teaching practices that help reduce stress. Students with higher stress and lower coping skills tend to have lower academic performance (Frazier et al., 2019; Johnson et al., 2015). By acknowledging our students’ lives outside the classroom, we create opportunities to support positive coping and reduce stress. Moreover, being compassionate contributes to student motivation and helps students feel comfortable seeking assistance (Gurung & Galardi, 2021; Young-Jones et al., 2021).


Course Design

  • Reflect on your course design by trying to step away from your perspective as the instructor and consider your students’ perspectives.
  • Set deadlines and policies that support students in achieving healthy work-life boundaries. Example: Avoid scheduling exams or large assignment deadlines right after school breaks.

Syllabus

  • Ask yourself: Do my policies balance structure with flexibility? Structure helps us and our students manage time and workload, while flexibility acknowledges the difficulties students may be facing.
  • When designing policies, recognize mental health as a legitimate concern, as you would physical health. Both impact students’ abilities to be in class, pay attention, learn, and complete assignments.
  • Explicitly mention ways that you are compassionate in your course design and policies. Example: “I understand that unexpected things can happen, so to provide some flexibility you can turn in two weekly assignments up to 48 hours late.”
  • Write policy language in a way that is positive and supports student autonomy. Read through your syllabus and identify negative or controlling language that you can change. Examples:
    • “Don’t be late for class.” → “Being on time to class will support your success.”
    • “Each student must post AT LEAST twice per week or they cannot receive credit.” → “To help you get the most out of our discussions, I ask you to contribute at least two posts each week in order to get credit.”

First Weeks

  • Help destigmatize mental health concerns by explicitly talking about your commitment to supporting student mental health and well-being.
  • Mention campus resources for mental health (Danforth Campus, Medical Campus) and stress reduction. Remind students about these periodically during the semester, particularly during busy or demanding times.
  • Talk about students’ concerns and worries about the course; show that it is normal to have these thoughts and feelings. Then discuss strategies to address their concerns and emphasize how they can find support in the course (e.g., office hours).

Throughout the Semester

  • When a student comes to you with a question or need, use active listening.
  • Give students the benefit of the doubt and avoid making assumptions about the reasons for their behavior. Example: If a student doesn’t do the reading or gets a bad grade on a quiz, don’t assume it is because they don’t care about your course.
  • Mention ways that you reduce stress and ask students to share what they do. Example: “It’s been a hard week, so I’m looking forward to going for a walk in the park tomorrow. Does anyone have something relaxing they’re planning to do this week?”
  • If you’re comfortable doing so, it is okay to acknowledge when you are going through hard times without getting into detail in class. This serves as a model for students so that they know they don’t need to act like they’re fine when they aren’t. Example: “I have a challenging personal situation that I’m dealing with, so it’s going to be an extra day before grades are posted.”
  • In longer classes, allow for short breaks so that students can stretch, get water, or have a snack.
  • Create space in class for students to reset their attention. Examples:
    • Incorporate mindfulness activities at the beginning of class or before exams.
    • Get students ready for the day’s topic by presenting an image, quote, question, or song that is related to the topic and asking students to make a connection.
    • Have a brief reflective exercise in the middle or at the end of class, such as a Minute Paper.

Mindfulness in the Classroom

Here are several 1-2 minute techniques that you can do at the start of class:

  • Ask students to take five slow breaths, inhaling through the nose, then exhaling through the mouth.
  • Ask students to think about their favorite place. Ask them to describe it in great detail, using their different senses.
  • Try a Headspace mini meditation video such as “Let Go of Stress” or “Find Your Focus.”
  • Use the simply pausing audio exercise.

UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center: This resource contains several mindfulness meditations lasting 3-20 minutes that are available in 15 languages.

References

Frazier, P., Gabriel, A., Merians, A., & Lust, K. (2019). Understanding stress as an impediment to academic performance. Journal of American College Health, 67(6), 562–570. https://doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2018.1499649

Gurung, R. A. R., & Galardi, N. R. (2021). Syllabus tone, more than mental health statements, influence intentions to seek help. Teaching of Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628321994632

Johnson, M. L., Taasoobshirazi, G., Kestler, J. L., & Cordova, J. R. (2015). Models and messengers of resilience: A theoretical model of college students’ resilience, regulatory strategy use, and academic achievement. Educational Psychology, 35(7), 869–885. https://doi.org/10.1080/01443410.2014.893560

Young-Jones, A., Levesque, C., Fursa, S., & McCain, J. (2021). Autonomy-supportive language in the syllabus: Supporting students from the first day. Teaching in Higher Education, 26(4), 541–556. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2019.1661375

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