8 Ways to Cope with New School Term Stress

You’ve probably had a lot of work to do over the holidays, and maybe you’re not sure if you’ve completed it all correctly. There are undoubtedly things that you’ll have forgotten and need to re-learn – and if your school is the kind that spends a week or so before the holidays start winding down with activities instead of regular study, then it might seem like aeons since you had to sit in a classroom and concentrate for any length of time.
As a result, it’s natural to go back to school for a new term and feel stressed, tired and maybe even a little overwhelmed. Some teachers will try to ease you into the new term gently, but you can be sure that some will prefer to throw you in at the deep end, perhaps under the impression that you’ll be recovered and ready for it after your time away. If you’re looking ahead to a new school term and not feeling sure how you’ll cope, here are our top tips.

1. Plan ahead to make the first few days easy

Hands write on a planner.
Pre-plan the first day back early, so you don’t forget anything.

There are lots of minor tasks that you can get out of the way during the holidays to make the first few days back at school a little bit easier. There are the practical things, like putting out your clothes the night before, finding your locker key, packing your bag and making sure you have something delicious for lunch, to avoid the last-minute dash for a sad corner shop sandwich on the way in. There will inevitably be things that have gone missing or been forgotten over the holidays, and these can be a major source of first-day-back stress, so try to cut down on that by sorting out as many of those things as possible a couple of days in advance.
Aside from the practical things, you can also plan ahead emotionally – if you already know that there’s a particular teacher who likes to wake you up by covering something difficult on the first day back, then think about what you can do to make that easier for yourself, such as taking extra time to read over your notes from that subject before you go back. Or it might be that chatting on the phone to a friend the night before you go back helps to calm any nerves you might be feeling; aside from anything else, it can help to know that other people are feeling nervous or stressed too.

2. Think about the year ahead

2018 calendar on a desk.
Work out when the stressful periods are going to be so you know what to expect.

When you’re thinking about things with a stressed mentality, it’s easy to end up collapsing the time you have available – do you ever catch yourself having thoughts like, “we’re going back to school, then in just a few months it’ll be exams and I’m nowhere near starting to revise and I’m not ready!” But even if exams are at the end of this term, you’re only just starting back; it might feel like they’re just over the horizon, but in reality, you’ve still got a long way to go before you get there, and plenty of time to get ready. Our year-round exam countdown checklist can help you figure out what you have to do a certain time before your exams, and should reassure you that there’s still time to catch up, even if you’ve fallen behind.
But the time just before you go back for a new term can be a good point to look at the year ahead and figure out what you’ll need to do or have achieved each week. Plot it out in your diary or wall planner so that you can be sure that major deadlines won’t sneak up on you. You can also figure out if there are any times when there are several deadlines in short succession, so that you can make plans in advance to stop the stress at those times from becoming too much.

3. Don’t throw yourself into everything all at once

A girl collapsed on a table.
Take it slow – to prevent this situation.

When you first go back to school for a new term, it’s tempting to pack your schedule full and go to everything in the first week. You might have spent three weeks without choir practice, debating club or getting to be anywhere near a basketball hoop and you’re determined to make up for lost time. And if you’ve done a bit less studying over the holidays than you’d hoped, then you might be planning to spend every spare minute that you aren’t at a club or activity in the library catching up on your work.
But this is a recipe for feeling exhausted and burnt out by the time you reach Wednesday of your first week back. Yes, it’s worth making sure that you’re up to date with homework by the time you’re back in school, but trying to go beyond that and get ahead with schoolwork and take part in every club or activity going is asking too much of yourself, especially if you’re already feeling the pinch of stress before you’ve gone back. The start of a new term favours turtles rather than hares. The only exception is that some clubs might hand out roles and responsibilities at the start of a new term, in which case it is worth going along to make sure you get the role you want. Otherwise, pace yourself.

4. Reduce uncertainty

A girl sits with her eyes closed.
Uncertainty can mess with your mind more than anything else.

Uncertainty is a significant factor in causing stress. Imagine that you’ve chosen to take part in an experiment about how people react to pain, and you’re going to be given a mild electric shock. You can either receive that electric shock immediately, or you’ll be given it without warning at any point in the next day. If you choose the second option, there’s a chance you’ll be missed out and won’t get a shock at all. Which one would you choose?
It might seem rational to choose the second option, since it includes the possibility that you won’t get a shock. The possibility of no pain beats the certainty of pain, right? Only in reality, most people find the second option much more stressful than the first. With the first option, you have certainty. You can brace yourself, and then get it over with. The second option would probably leave you feeling tense and stressed all day, waiting for the shock to happen, and wondering if it was going to happen at all. You might start to feel nervous about how painful it was going to be. As experiments about stress and uncertainty show, uncertainty increases stress more than the certainty of an unpleasant sensation.
Take a moment to think about how you can act on this. Are there ways that you can reduce uncertainty when you’re going back to school for a new term? For instance, if there’s a piece of work you haven’t been able to do, it might help to seek out the relevant teacher, own up as soon as you go back and take whatever punishment they hand out, rather than trying to cope with uncertainty over whether or not they’ll find out.  

5. Follow the three-minute rule

A black watch on a black background
If it will take less than three minutes, just do it.

One thing that contributes to stress when you’re going back to school is that there’s simply so much to do. Sorting out your books, finishing off your homework, finding out where your school uniform tie got to, polishing your shoes – it’s a list that goes on and on. Any long list of chores can feel overwhelming.
One way to make this easier is to follow the three-minute rule any time you have a long to-do list. It’s a simple rule: if you think of a task that needs doing that will take less than three minutes, just do it now. Chances are that putting it off and doing it later will take more time overall (you have to write it down on your list, or spend a while thinking, “what was that thing that needed doing?”) than just getting it done as soon as you think about it. That might be finding a particular book, or getting your parents to sign a note. If you stick to the three-minute rule, you can reduce a long to-do list quickly, and maybe even prevent it from getting so long in the first place.

6. Make the small things pleasant

Healthy snack.
Am ambitious snack might be just what you need.

When you’re getting ready to go back to school, think about what you can do to make things pleasant for Future You. You’ll be getting up earlier than you might have done for weeks beforehand, and you’ll be back to studying and concentrating in a way that you haven’t needed to in ages either.
So, what can you do right now to be kind to your back-to-school self? Perhaps it’s forking out for the nice cereal that your parents won’t buy for you, or making sure that you have some homemade snacks to take in for break times. Perhaps it’s putting your shoes next to the radiator the night before so that they’ll be toasty warm by the time you come to put them on and go out in the cold the next morning. You might not have considered questions like making sure your school bag is good for your back; you’ll probably have a lot of books to take back to your locker, and if your bag isn’t up to the challenge, you don’t want to have sore shoulders for the next week of settling back in. If it’s cold where you are, the same principle applies in making sure that you have cold-weather clothing so that you don’t arrive back at school half-frozen. These things might feel minor, but they can make all the difference by the time you get to the end of that difficult first week back.

7. Make stress-relieving plans with your friends

Three damp friends laugh.
Spending time with your friends will boost your happiness levels.

Good friends are some of the best stress-relief available, but the first week back at school is a busy time for everybody. Make sure that you’ll get the chance to relieve your stress by spending quality time with your friends by getting some plans in the diary now, for instance to hang out at the weekend after the first week back. The reason to plan this now is because by the time it gets to the end of that first week, you might be too tired to plan or commit to anything. Plus, having it planned now gives you something to look forward to if being back at school is getting you down.
Try to make sure that whatever plans you make will actually serve to relax you – you probably shouldn’t plan for an all-night party, or, at the other extreme, for a marathon group studying session. Think about something low-effort and fun, like a sports game, a trip to the cinema, or just hanging out at someone’s house. You might even want to put in place a “no talking about studying” rule if you think that lots of panicked exam talk will just stress you out further; though remember that for some people, talking about studying and knowing that you’re all in the same boat can help deal with stress rather than increasing it.

8. Indulge in some stationery shopping

White stationery
Fancy stationery could make your 2018.

If all else fails, there’s the time honoured back-to-school stress-busting technique of a bit of retail therapy. New pens, crisp notebooks, files and dividers that will make you feel like you’ve got all the tools necessary to organise those wayward notes: the back-to-school stationery shop is a long-standing ritual for many school students for good reason.
It might be materialistic, but having the right tools can make you feel calmer and better prepared for the year ahead. And if you’re going back to school after a holiday like Christmas, you might have vouchers from friends and family and sales to make this a cheap way to relieve stress as well. The process of sorting out your stationery can act as a proxy for other things: to figure out what you’ll need to buy, you’ll need to think about the term ahead and the studying that you’ll need to prepare for. And if it achieves nothing else, it’ll make your desk look nicer.
Images: boys legs sitting on yellow railings;  writing on a planner; 2018 calendar on desk; girl collapsed on table; uncertain girl with her eyes closed; black watch; healthy snack; three laughing friends; new stationery