Managing student stress: Understanding the window of tolerance

Ilia Lindsay, Registered Psychologist, Komodo Psychology Lead


Stress is an unavoidable part of our daily lives, and the developmental challenges of adolescence often result in high school students feeling particularly stressed. We and our students are also living through an unprecedented time - COVID 19, the war, social media and the escalation of technology, global warming, financial crises.  Add this on top of the typical stressors of adolescence, peer pressure, academic stress, identity exploration and we have a perfect storm. 


Stress arises when the combination of internal and external pressures exceeds the individual's resources to cope with their situation. Whilst stress is inevitable and it is a valuable part of learning, when students do not cope well with stress this can have a very drastic effect on their development, education engagement and behaviour (Kumari & Gartia, 2012).

In general, we all handle the stressors of everyday life differently. For some people, we see them seemingly coast through chaos whereas for others the emotional and stressful triggers they face day-to-day can be emotionally overwhelming — at times even interfering with daily activities. The way you handle stress can depend on your window of tolerance and how wide or narrow it is.  Simply put, the window of tolerance describes the best state of 'arousal' or stimulation in which we are able to function and thrive in everyday life (McCarty, 2016). When we exist within this window, we are able to learn effectively, play, and relate well to ourselves and others. We are able to deal with the daily stressors of life without anxiety, exhaustion, or feeling out of control.

The window of tolerance is a balance between hypo and hyper arousal. Both hyperarousal and hypoarousal can occur when your fight, flight, or freeze response has been activated (McCarty, 2016). Hypoarousal can also occur when hyperarousal becomes overwhelming. 

When students are operating outside of the window of tolerance we see:

  • Decreased engagement, lesser school attendance and greater school drop out 
  • Poorer academic achievement on standardised testing
  • Difficulties in social interactions
  • Externalised classroom behaviours -  these can be disruptive to students either because of these larger emotional expressions or through their attempts to regulate e.g. fidgeting, moving, shaking etc.
  • Recreational drug use - we know students who report greater levels of stress are more likely to experiment with recreational drugs and this is where some find relief from being at either end of the window of tolerance and can start to self medicate.

(Frazer et al., 2019; Hess et al., 2016; Kumari & Gartia 2012, Siegel 2014). 


So how can educators or parents support students to stay within their window of tolerance?


Ok so, if stress is inevitable and students are going to move in and out of the window, how can educators or parents support?
First things first, we have to calm the more primal areas of the brain. We need to calm the emotion centres of the brain and calm the threat detection systems that are activated when we move outside of the window of tolerance (Goldstein, 2017). 

Here are Komodo's favourite five strategies that regulate the emotion centres of the brain. These strategies can be used in a reactive manner - to help students get back inside their window of tolerance, as well as being used in a proactive manner to help students expand their window of tolerance. 

1. Belly Breathing
Place a hand on your belly and a hand on your chest. Take slow deep breaths and imagine a balloon expanding in your belly with each inhale. Try to keep the hand on your chest still and relax with each exhale.  

2. Mindfulness
Use your “How” and “What” skills to engage in a mindful activity

3. Soothe the senses
What sensory input do you need or, need to remove. Listen to music, take some space away from others, splash some cold water on your face. 

4. Gratitude practice
Reflect on what has been good about your day so far. What are you thankful for, what has made you smile.

5. Cope ahead plan
Create a plan of what you know you need to do to ground or settle yourself. This proactive strategy is like knowing where the fire exit is before the alarm goes off. If we have this plan in place before we need it, when we need it, it is ready to go.

(Goldstein, 2017; Hess et al., 2016; Mazza et al., 2016; Siegel 2011). 




  • 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
  • Goldstein, B. (2017). Cultivating curiosity, creativity, confidence, and self-awareness through mindful group therapy for children and adolescents. Play and Creativity in Psychotherapy (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology).
  • Hess, R. S., Shannon, C. R., & Glazier, R. P. (2016). Evidence-based interventions for stress in children and adolescents. Handbook of evidence-based interventions for children and adolescents, 343-354.
  • Kumari, R., & Gartia, R. (2012). Relationship between stress and academic achievement of senior secondary school students. Asian Journal of Multidimensional Research (AJMR), 1(3), 152-160.
  • Mazza, J. J., Dexter-Mazza, E. T., Miller, A. L., Rathus, J. H., & Murphy, H. E. (2016). DBT? Skills in schools: Skills training for emotional problem solving for adolescents Dbt Steps-a. Guilford Publications.
  • McCarty, R. (2016). The fight-or-flight response: A cornerstone of stress research. In Stress: Concepts, cognition, emotion, and behavior (pp. 33-37). Academic Press.
  • Siegel, D. J. (2014). Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain: an Inside-out Guide to the Emerging Adolescent Mind, Ages 12-24. Findaway World, LLC.
  • Siegel, E. D., & Bryson, T. P. (2011). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child's development mind.