Final project report: Stress Management in the ESOL Classroom

Leanne Ovalles, Genesis Center


I currently teach a Level II ESOL class at the Genesis Center. We meet for approximately 20 hours a week. I have been teaching ESOL for over 9 years and have taught in variety of situations from 2nd grade to university level, in community centers, public schools and overseas. My first career was as a Computer Programmer in a large financial company and I changed to teaching because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I have not been disappointed and have a great passion for teaching. In addition to my love for teaching ESOL, I have also had a great love for Yoga and stress reduction techniques and have recently become certified as a Kripalu Yoga Teacher.

Why Stress Management in the ESOL Classroom?

Working in an adult community center, with an immigrant population I have always tried to work with students to help them improve their lives (solve their problems, reduce their stress etc.). Often this was in a Paulo Freire style working with students to identify problems, and then attempting to take action to solve those problems. While I found this very effective, I was also aware that there were many factors contributing to the stress of my students that could not be 'solved', and that perhaps my students needed some methods for dealing with that stress.

My students also expressed their interest in learning about stress management. In an interest survey conducted at the Genesis Center we polled students on 19 different health topics to determine which topics were of most concern to them. The two topics that students indicated they were most interested in learning more about were Stress Management (51 out of 59 students surveyed) and Depression (44 out of 59 students surveyed). Our students face so many obstacles in coming to a new country, learning a new language and culture (one that generally moves at a much faster pace than they are accustomed to), it is not surprising that they suffer from stress and depression. In response to this survey we hired a social worker to come and do a 4 week (1 hr session a week) session on stress management. These session were not very successful because the presentations made by the outside provider were at a language level that was too high for our students to understand. It was as a result of these experiences, and my own experience of stress management that led me to my inquiry question, "What happens when stress management techniques are incorporated into an ESOL Classroom?" My intention was to use 'stress management' as a content area in which to teach English.

Data Collection Methods:

I used three main data collection methods throughout my project. I used student surveys and questionnaires to get information on my students' experience with stress management. I used feedback forms to determine which types of activities students felt were most effective, and I kept a journal with my own reflections on the lessons.

Student Surveys/Questionnaires:

Through out the project I used student surveys to determine if there really was a need for stress management, and to learn in more depth what was causing stress for the students. In addition, as I began to teach stress management techniques, I used questionnaires to determine if the students were utilizing the material that we were learning.

Feedback Forms

I frequently gave students feedback forms to determine if they felt the activities we were doing met their needs. I generally asked them to rate the activities on a scale of 1 to 5, and then asked some open-ended questions about what they found useful, what they didn't like and any suggestions for improving the lessons.

Journal entries

I generally wrote my own reflections on each lesson in a journal. This included making notes about how the activity went, how I would modify the activity in the future, any ideas for subsequent activities, and any anecdotal notes from my class observations.

How I integrated Stress Management into my ESOL Classroom

Over the course of five months I worked to develop language activities around a number of topics on stress management. I began by incorporating two routines into my classroom, doing yoga stretches daily and reading Reflection Cards (positive, inspirational words of wisdom) once a week. Then I moved on to using a book on Stress Management and covering the causes and symptoms of stress, and thinking patterns. Finally I did a unit on creating support groups in the classroom.

Yoga Stretches and postures

One of the first aspects of stress management that I incorporated into my classroom was teaching students some basic yoga stretches (click here -- then back, for examples of yoga stretches). Since my class meets for 4 hours a day the students' energy often dropped in the afternoon. I began by doing a short series of yoga stretches and postures after lunch. In order to incorporate language into this activity I reviewed a number of key vocabulary words before we began stretching such as body parts, breath in/out, lift/lower and hold/release and the yoga stretches themselves were a TPR (Total Physical Response) lesson. In addition, I developed language activities to go along with the yoga stretches. For example, I gave each pair of students a card with directions for a yoga posture and asked them to rewrite the directions in their own words. Then I asked them to explain their posture to another student and have the student try to do the posture.

After a few weeks of doing the yoga stretches daily, I began to do them less frequently. As time went on we usually did the stretches 2 or 3 times a week when one of the students would request them or when I felt energy level was low.

Reflection Cards

I used two types of reflection cards. One included words of wisdom such as " There are no mistakes in life, only lessons" and the other were power thought cards, which were positive affirmations such as "Life is simple and easy". Each Friday morning we would each choose two reflection cards and sit together in a circle. We would then take turns reading our reflection cards with other students listening and trying to understand. In the beginning it required a lot of explanation on my part as these cards are made for native speakers and contain a lot of difficult vocabulary. We used a number of methods to practice the new vocabulary such a TPR, Bingo and guessing games. Also on a number of occasions I asked the students to rewrite a reflection card in their own words, or to create their own reflection. Overtime students were able to understand the cards on their own.

Using the Stress Management Book

One key to using stress management as a content area to teach English in was using the book "Managing Stress" published by New Readers Press. Using this book gave the topic of stress management more credibility, and gave the students a focus point. Beginning with the Stress Management book as a base, drawing on my experience as a Yoga Teacher and as an ESOL teacher, I was easily able to develop language appropriate materials for my students.

I developed language activities in a variety of ways. Usually I created activities to accompany a reading from the book, sometimes I would revise activities that were in the book, and occasionally I would introduce the topic in the book with another resource such as a song or a movie.

Developed activities to go with a reading from the book

Often I developed my own activities to go along with a reading. Some of the activities I developed included: partner interviews, find someone who activities, vocabulary activities, matching activities, concentric circle conversations, scrambled sentences, making charts and graphs, comprehension and self-reflection questions, and writing activities.

For example, while reading about the physical symptoms of stress we did the following activities:

  • We used a picture dictionary to learn many new vocabulary words to describe physical symptoms of stress (headache, muscle tension etc.).
  • I developed a questionnaire for students to interview each other about the physical symptoms of stress they experienced. Since we were studying adverbs of frequency I had students indicate how often the person experienced the symptoms (sometimes, often, never etc).
  • We then interviewed a number of different classes at The Genesis Center about their physical symptoms of stress.
  • We made a bar chart showing the number of people who experienced each type of physical symptom.
  • Finally, students wrote about their own physical symptoms of stress, and the frequency that they experienced them. For example: I never get headaches or I often have sensitive teeth.

  • Revising activities from the book

    I sometimes rewrote activities in the book to make the language level more appropriate for my students. For example, one chapter in particular had a number of stress tests with very difficult vocabulary. I took one test, the Events Stress Test and simplified the vocabulary words on the list (i.e. spouse died, became husband or wife died). In addition, I made the test more culturally appropriate by added a number of stressful events that my students have encountered, that were not included on the test. For example, moving to a new country, learning a new language, not have a close group of friends, and living far away from your family.

    Introducing the topic with outside resources

    At other times I would use outside resources to introduce a topic, and then we would do a reading from the book. For example, to introduce the chapter on Thinking Patterns, I decided to introduce the topic of positive thinking by watching the move "Stand and Deliver" (inner city teacher who inspires his students by believing in them and helping them to believe in themselves). I made up a list of questions for students to consider while watching the movie, and we did a number of activities to highlight specifically how the teacher and the students had used positive thinking to change their lives.

    Creating Support Groups:

    The last topic on stress management that I completed was creating support groups in my classroom. My goal in creating support groups was for students to make deeper connections with each other, to see each other as resources, to learn skills for overcoming obstacles in their in their lives, and to encourage each other in their efforts to learn English.

    I used the song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" [lyrics here; then click back botton to return to this report] to introduce the idea of creating support groups in my classroom. I did a number of activities before, during and after listening to the song, to help students understand the song. Then we used the images from the song, of a bridge as the support we could offer each other, and the troubled waters as the problems we faced in our lives.

    Here are some samples from my class:

    Troubled Water(problems)

    I'm frustrated that I don't learn English quickly
    Absent from class
    Speak native language often and watch TV in my native language
    Problems in my home
    Miss my family in my country
    My car breaks down
    Bridges (support)

    Encourage each other, say positive things, Notice when someone is making progress
    Get handouts/explain what we did in class.
    Call someone when they are absent
    Encourage each other to speak in English and to watch TV in English
    Listen, share your experiences, offer advice
    Encourage positive thinking/affirmations
    Offer to give a ride

    I broke the students into support groups with 3 or 4 students in a group and asked them to create a support group agreement. This included choosing a name for their group, listing their problems and the types of support they would be willing to give each other. Students then created a visual with a Bridge representing the support they were offering each other and the 'troubled water' representing the problems they were trying to overcome. Finally, the students presented their agreement to the class and I made photocopies of the agreements for each student in the support group.

    In order to prepare students to call each other when they were absent, we practiced sample phone conversations. I gave students different scenarios to work with (i.e. the person is not home and you want to leave a message, the person is sick, the person is having car problems). Students then wrote conversations and role-played them for the class. Periodically (usually every Monday) I reminded students to call students who were absent and gave them class time make the phone calls.

    Having students call each other when they were absent, rather than having me question them when they returned to class, really improved the atmosphere of the classroom. When students called each other we focused the intention as one of concern "We want to make sure everything is ok and we want you to know we are here if you need help". This was much more positive them me questioning them the next day when they came in and reminding them of our attendance policy.

    The questions I had as I began my research project were as follows:

    1. Would I be able develop curricula which would incorporate my students' needs to learn the English language, with their need to learn appropriate methods for managing stress?

    I found that I could easily develop curricula using stress management as a content area for my students to learn English. Learners expressed a high interest in the subject and were engaged during the activities. It was easy to incorporate many different aspects of language learning including vocabulary, speaking, listening, reading, writing, grammar, pronunciation and culture, as well as other skills such as making graphs, problem solving and math. Based on my observations and the results from a mid-cycle test on stress management, students were able to increase their knowledge of English, while they were learning invaluable information about how to manage the stress in their lives.

    2. What types of activities would be most successful?

    I found that the types of activities that were most successful were the ones that engaged the learners in real communication, incorporated and included their experiences, problems and challenges, and allowed them to have a voice. Many of the interviews, find someone who activities and scrambled sentences were developed based on student input. . For example if on one day the students discussed the things that caused stress in their lives and Maria said ŚMy son coming home late" and Adams said "not having enough money to pay my bills", the next day I would make up a find someone who activity that included those two criteria as well as criteria other from other students.

    3. Would the students be engaged and interested in the stress management material? Would they see the information as valuable and useful?

    Students indicated that they found the material to be interesting and useful in a number of ways. I asked students to do feedback sheets each week where they rated the activities (all activities not just stress management) we had done each week on a scale of 1 to 5. Students rated the stress management activities high and made comments such as "I like reading the stress management book because we relax and it helps me a lot". In addition, students would often make comments during our lessons like " this is very important" and on a number of occasions students stayed late to finish a stress management activity.

    At the end of the year I asked students to fill out a questionnaire about the entire stress management curricula. I asked them questions such as "Did this help you in your life?" and "Do you think that stress management should be incorporated in English classes?" Students' responses were very positive. Students who responded indicated that they felt this material was important, that if had helped them in their lives and that they felt it should be taught in English classes. Some of the students comments were " I liked stress management because it helped me have control in my life", "I think it should be taught in English Classes because we learned new vocabulary, a good pronunciation, listening and writing".

    4. Would the students be able to apply the techniques they learned to different situations, inside and outside the classroom?

    Based on surveys, discussion and my observations I believe that students were able to apply the techniques they learned to both the classroom, and their life in general. It seems the most easily applicable content that we learned was positive thinking. Many students reported that they were trying to think more positively when they had problems in their lives.

    In addition, I noticed a change in the classroom behavior. When someone was having a difficult time, other students would often would motion to them to take a deep breath and relax. Students were more encouraging to each other with comments like "you can do it", and they often reminded each other to speak in English.


    I found that it absolutely made sense to incorporate stress management into my ESOL classroom. I was able to develop a variety of useful language activities around the topic of stress management. Learners expressed a high interest in the subject and were engaged during the activities. Therefore at the same time students were increasing their knowledge of English, they were learning invaluable information about how to manage the stress in their lives. In addition, it improved the atmosphere of our class, and reduced the stress for the students and teacher alike. In the future I will continue to explore additional ways to incorporate Stress Management Techniques into my ESOL classroom.

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