Social stress can be defined as a situation which threatens one’s relationships, esteem or sense of belonging within a dyad, group or larger social context. Social stress can immerge in several different situations. Social stress can stem from difficult social interactions or conflictual or tumultuous relationships (Kiecolt-Glaser, Gouin & Hanstsoo, 2010).

Social stress can be analysed on an individual basis but also on a group level. The stress could be connected to a special situation, a social challenge or can be a more permanent situation.

In the classroom pupils will be subjected to different types of stress:

  • Stress about performance and good results
  • Personal stress connected to self-esteem, appearance etc.
  • Traumatic stress through bad personal experiences, war experience, severe illness, divorce, abuse, severe bullying or low quality of caring.
  • Social stress concerning social relations, lack of friendship, loneliness, conflicts and social lability.

Pupils are very different in the way they cope with stress. Vulnerable pupils have often less skills in problem solving, lower social skills and lower capacity for stress. These children are suffering a lot in classes with higher rates of social stress. They are more likely to either act aggressive or to withdraw and be passive, or in fact use both strategies. They are also in danger of having lower support from teachers, other pupils and own parents.

When starting up new groups there is a higher chance of social stress. In such transition periods we can observe two kinds of stress:

  • Stress concerning norms, rules and expectations.
  • Stress about relations, social structures and social attractions.

In a normal class there will be more social stress in the beginning. But in some classes this stress continues and becomes a big challenge for the whole class, and thus for the quality of the learning environment.

This model from Tuckman tells us that some classes normally follow different stages.

The team is formed, and everyone shows their best behaviour. There is a positive and polite atmosphere. Strong guidance is needed by the facilitator as group tasks are not clearly defined yet.

Emerging boundaries become contested and conflicts occur. Also, frustration with the lack of progress is common. Guidance is needed by the facilitator.

Team members start to resolve their differences, appreciate colleagues’ strengths, and respect the leader’s authority. Behaviour from the storming and norming phases can overlap for some time when new tasks come up.

Hard work goes hand in hand with satisfaction about the team’s progress. Team confidence makes team roles more fluid and more tasks can be delegated by the facilitator. Problems are prevented or solved as they pop up.

When all tasks are completed, it’s important to celebrate the team’s positive achievements. Letting go of the group structure after a long period of intensive team work can also generate uncertainty for individual team members.

However, some classes could be in the forming or storming stages for a longer period. They don’t reach the norming and performing stages. They use all their effort on social structuring and less effort on academic achievement. There is also a danger of more bullying and more discipline challenges in such classes.

Though Tuckman presented the different phases as a linear model, it is important to realise that in practise, the phases are rather fluid and group formation is not always a linear process.

Having a way to identify and understand causes for change in the team’s behaviour can help the team to maximise its process and productivity. This is especially the case when the Tuckman analysis is used as a basis for conversation instead of a fixed diagnosis.

In the starting up periods or in classes with a more permanent storming period, it is very important to have a teacher with authoritative strategies (Cornell, 2016). Authoritative means that the teacher both show interest in each individual pupils’ life, classroom life in general, has a good relational capacity but also has good structure, clear expectations, works daily on good routines and classroom rules. If the teacher shows low quality in authoritative leadership, it can either lead to a permanent social stress or that some of the pupils in the class are taking responsibility for leading the class. In classes with social stress these pupils don’t necessarily impose positivity and inclusion.

Cornell concludes that there is a clear link between a teacher’s authoritative perspective and the level of discipline problems, delinquency and bullying in schools. There is also a clear link between different kind of stress in school and the level of bullying (Konishi og Hymel, 2009).

We here talk of two different theoretical frames. Structure means that things are clear, and the norming period has been passed. In a class with structure the whole class will, in a positive manner, use social sanctions and influence each other in a positive way. There will be a positive, inclusive atmosphere, and the class helps pupils with bad behaviour through positive social corrections.

In classes who continuous are in the forming and storming phase each individual incident will have a larger impact on the classroom culture. In theoretical frames we call this interactionism, and it is often connected with feeling unsafe, insecurity and social stress. The opposite is structuralism when norms, rules and routines are clear and individual insedents will have less impact on the classroom culture.

We can analyse social stress on two different levels:

  • The individual perspective: The individual pupil’s feeling of belonging, social security, social recognition. This perspective is very much linked to the child’s social and emotional competence and social vulnerability.
  • The class perspective: A general insecurity, general fear of not being accepted, general social lability, general social anxiety.

If the social stress is over a long period it will be classified as chronic stress. Such stress will have a massive impact on the psychological welfare in the class, on school presence and psychosomatic problems among pupils.

Bullying is normally a phenomenon taking place in normal classes and normal groups and not only in pathological groups. Bullying is a part of the processes of inclusion and exclusion when new groups are created. Bullying is more likely to emerge in social stress periods (Petersen 2011).

We will find periods in a child’s life when the social stress is higher than other periods. Of course, all periods of transition will be difficult. The transition from kindergarten to school, from primary to secondary and after long school holidays. But we also have a social turbulent period at the 5th to 7th grade in the primary school (ages 9-11) and at the 9th level in secondary school (age 15) concerning girls. Here are the results of bullying in Norwegian schools in 2018/2019 : ( Boys mentioned first)

What is the effect of social stress in a classroom (Søndergaard, 2016)?

  1. A lot of social struggling and conflicts about social positions, status and social influence and power.
  2. Marginalization processes. Some pupils will be pushed out and be less social valued than others.
  3. General production of contempt. A lot of discussion about sympathies and antipathies.
  4. A general focus on ridicule and social negativity through negative comments, negative social sanctions, negative nicknames.
  5. A lot of focus on “uniforming”, be like all the others, dress like all others, not distinguish from the mass.
  6. A general feeling of social anxiety, afraid of not having friends, to be an outcast or to lose the friendships you already have made.

The pupils exposed for social stress might have four different strategies to deal with it:

  1. Hunting for a common victim.
  2. Create a victim and use negativity towards the victim.
  3. Making social hierarchies and social ranking.
  4. Making social cliques.

(Lyng, 2018)

The reason for bullying can have many aspects and different angles. One of the perspectives can be a result of social stress and social anxiety. Pushing someone into social darkness, bullying others also set the boundaries for exclusion and inclusion. Being on the inside feels good and increases the feeling of belonging. The insiders will create a community of social bonding through expelling others. We show our common bonding through our mutual disrespect, mutual negativity and mutual disliking of the one(s) defined as the victim(s). But in classes with high level of social stress it also creates an anxiety for who will be the next victim, it could be me.

For those pupils who experience the wrath of the group and who are victimised and isolated it has a great impact on the social self-esteem and psychological welfare. Pupils having experienced this kind of social exclusion and social contempt are more pessimistic about future relations and have less confidence in other people. They lose their social confidence and are constantly afraid of it to happen again. They therefore tend to be more passive and often withdraw from social interaction. They also show a higher rate on depression, anxiety, stress and experience less support from others, both other pupils and teachers (Mittelmark og Hetland, 2010).

There is also a concept called relative deprivation. It means that the loss and consequence of losing a friend you have is worse than never to have had a friend. It is worse to be the only one in class who is bullied than if there are others. It is worse to be the only one the class experiencing a bad learning environment/social climate if everybody else is satisfied (Bø, 2005).

Why don’t fellow pupils in the class give support to these victimized children? There is different explanations:

  1. To help the victim might expose me to the same risk as the victim. It can be me next.
  2. To help the victim requires social courage because I can get negative response from the classroom leaders (bullies).
  3. I am more social secure if I do what the others do and not stand out in any way.
  4. I don’t know what to do or how I can help.

A pupil can help a victimized classmate in different ways:

  1. Tell the teacher (active strategies).
  2. Tell the bullies to stop (requires courage and social risk valuating).
  3. Not be a bully yourself, go away, do not be a spectator (passive strategies).

The number of defenders and the social status of these defenders is very important for the social climate in a class.

There is a clear connection between the defender strategies and the relations toward the teacher.

Those pupils who use reactive emphatic support and active strategies to help bully victims will have better relations to their teacher (inner motivation for helping others). Those who use passive strategies have a less positive teacher relation. With passive strategies we mean that you feel sympathy for the victim, but you don’t inform teachers or don’t try to stop the bullies. (Jungert et al. 2016).

How can we reduce or, even better, prevent social stress in classrooms?

  1. Put a lot of effort in transition periods. Be prepared.
  2. Encourage the teachers to develop an authoritative leadership strategy.
  3. Work constantly on social norms in classrooms. What is a good friend? What is a good classmate? How can we help and support each other?
  4. Practice on these social norms daily in the classroom, refer to norms and use social stressing and corrections if the norms are not followed up by the pupils.
  5. Show interest in each individual pupil, be sensitive, observe, analyse and ask the children about their feelings and social welfare in class.
  6. Conduct social surveys (sociograms) on a regular basis to identify children at risk.
  7. Include the parents in creating a social inclusive social environment.
  8. Use co-operative learning strategies as a method for both academic and social learning.
  9. Be constantly aware of the social atmosphere in the class, find out what is going on, show interest in the children’s social life and well-being.
  10. As a teacher; constantly improve your relational and emotional capacity and be a relational designer and positive role model.

Article by: Frode Jøsang, Lenden School and Resource Centre, Stavanger, Norway.


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