How to help students regain their academic mojo after a year of stress

Regain Academic Mojo

In the winter of seventh grade, my math teacher handed me a graded test that had a big “45%” at the top circled in red. “Your counselor is expecting you,” she said to me in a low voice. “You need to go right now. Take your stuff.”

My stomach twisted into knots as I made my way to the main office. When the counselor saw me at her door, she told me to take a seat. “Do you know why you’re here?” she asked. I shook my head, and she looked at me kindly before breaking the news. “I’m moving you to the lower math class,” she said as she nudged a box of tissues toward me. She expected tears, but I was too relieved to cry. No one had died, and I wouldn’t spend another minute in a class that made me feel like a failure. Still, my math mojo was gone, and I worried I’d bomb the easier course, too.

The new class was different, though. The teacher insisted we hand in our scratch paper so he could “see our thinking.” He never once handed back a test that only had a score at the top. If anyone answered a question incorrectly, he’d point out a step or two they got right. Our scratch paper was always returned with encouraging comments. And when he met with my parents a few months later to discuss my progress, he didn’t bring up my grades at all. Instead, he talked about my thinking. “Phyllis has a unique way of approaching problems,” he told them. “She gets to the right answer eventually, but in her own, outside-the-box way.” He could have said I needed to pay closer attention in class, or that I should read instructions more carefully, both of which were true. Instead, he chose to focus on my creativity. I still remember the pride I felt when my parents relayed his feedback. Before then, I considered myself “bad at math.” After that day, I was an outside-the-box thinker!

I’ve thought a lot about that teacher as I contemplate what it must be like for students returning to school buildings after a year of disruption. More than ever, they’re going to need teachers who are adept at the artful reframe. So many middle schoolers have lost their academic mojo during the pandemic, whether sky-high stress levels messed with their focus and follow-through, or they lacked access to technology, or they struggled to adjust to shifting schedules and instructional methods. And if a kid’s grades plummet in the insecure tween years, during a time when they’ve spent months feeling disconnected from both teachers and peers, their academic self-concept and motivation are bound to take a hit.

The good news is that tweens will engage in learning if they think their teachers consider them capable and want them to succeed. Recently, a sixth-grade girl shared in an affinity group that she does her best work for one teacher who is particularly flexible about due dates. “I haven’t missed a single one yet,” she said, “because I know he trusts me, so I want to work harder for him.” This isn’t unique to middle schoolers. Christina Samsock — a senior in high school and my counseling intern — told that sixth grader that she feels the same way. A couple of Christina’s teachers gave her “extension passes” this year that buy her an extra 24-hours to complete an assignment, no questions asked. She can just staple a pass to the late assignment when she hands it in. The passes lower her stress and, as a result, may help her work more efficiently, as she’s never had to use one.

The same is true when it comes to behavioral expectations. As kids return, they may be more wiggly, more likely to flop over their desk or lie on the floor, but understand that they’re simply trying to stay grounded. “Students are coming in with compromised abilities for regulation and attention because they’ve gone through toxic stress,” explained Mona Delahooke, the author of Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges. “It’s important to look beyond behaviors to compassion, to have a new tolerance for movement,” she added. “We need to help every student meet their need for movement and praise them for it.”

If a child comes back with a lower tolerance for frustration, they also may call out or scream. “If that happened, I’d ask them what the purpose is,” said Morgan Penn, a science teacher at Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, Maryland. “I’d say, ‘If you’re frustrated, let’s talk about other ways to handle frustration. It’s okay to yell, but this isn’t the space.’” She noted that students won’t learn if they feel anxious or think their teacher isn’t rooting for them. “A student said to me, ‘This is the only class I have an A in.’ When I asked him why, he said he knows that I like him and will deal with it if he’s struggling.”

Even without the strain of a pandemic on a middle schooler’s nervous system, they’re operating with an undeveloped prefrontal cortex, heightened sensitivity and impulsivity, and increased moodiness. As Delahooke pointed out, “Teachers and administrators are going to have to ride the waves of this maturing executive function, be realistic in their expectations, and try to understand and empathize.” The good news is that anything educators do to convey care will improve a child’s self-concept, engagement, behavior and performance.

Relationship-building not only helps in the short term, but also is likely to have a lasting impact. Middle schoolers will never forget the teachers, counselors and administrators who helped them when they were at their lowest. After all, it’s been three decades since I took that seventh-grade math class, and yet I still remember the teacher who combed through my scratch paper so he could focus on my strengths instead of my scores.

Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD, and the author of Middle School Matters (Hachette Book Group, 2019). Phyllis also writes The Kappan’s weekly Career Confidential column and tweets. @pfagell


  1. Wow! What a great read! There are so many interesting pieces in this article, but there were 2 that specifically stood out to me. I love the approach that your new math teacher made. I think that focusing on the positives, helped to boost that overall self-esteem. You were still able to see your test scores, but more of a focus was put on what you did correct. The other point that stood out to me was the late work pass. I think that this could be a wonderful idea! You are allowing for some flexibility, but still setting a high standard for your students. Overall, I feel like this is a time that a focus really needs to be put on the students mental health and this article does a great job of expressing just that.

  2. I connected with this article (How to help students regain their academic mojo after a year of stress) because I have been I that situation. And I think lost have been at some point The best idea that I saw was “ The good news is that tweens will engage in learning if they think their teachers consider them capable and want them to succeed“ because that reminds me that I can control the atom OSP her of my classroom and the success of my students.

  3. I connected with this article because I have been in that situation. And I think lots have been at some point. The best idea that I saw was “The good news is that tweens will engage in learning if they think their teachers consider them capable and want them to succeed“ because that reminds me that I can control the atmosphere of my classroom and the success of my students. It also supports the growth mindset philosophy I subscribe to.

  4. I love this article! I completely agree with the statement that students do better for teachers who see them as being capable and want them to actually succeed. As educators we are put into a position where we are here to help and support students, never put them down, so making those small adjustments like were mentioned in the article like due date flexibility or extension passes to help students in a no brainer to get them to succeed.

  5. I am so happy I could relate to this article in some way! I am a student right now feeling the same way about losing my mojo. I think that being able to experience this now as a student can really help me in the future when I am teaching.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this article I personally suffer from severe anxiety disorder. This has resulted in me being very familiar with what stress can do to the human body. It can result in much more than a panic attack. I personally have been so stressed that I have become extremly ill. Another side effect of stress can also be a decline in academic success. I do acknowledge that not all students experiencing this stress may not have a severe mental health disorder. I do think as a future educator we need to be aware of the stress that is put on the students in our classroom. I also think that in our modern world we need to be aware of the students mental healthafter the pandemic. I think it will take time for these students to readjust and that transition will not be easy but with positive relationships I beleive that teachers and students can work together to build a better classroom environment.

  7. I honestly love the idea of “24 hour passes” for late work. This seems like a good idea in general, since students often have hard days due to mental health, family matters, extracurriculars, etc. which may make them appreciate a no-questions-asked extension where such an extension can be given without disrupting learning. However, Covid in particular has made this even more of a brilliant idea. So many students are struggling to get back in the groove of in-person instruction, and of deadlines and expectations from an in-person teacher, so things which might have been minor hiccoughs in 2019 now become large obstacles to student achievement. Some degree of late-airk forgiveness can ameliorate this significantly and make it so much easier for students to “breathe” when necessary.

  8. Hello! I really enjoyed reading your article. Specifically the portion that talked about focusing on the positive feedback during testing, assessment, or evaluation. I think that encouraging students to understand that they are going to constantly be learning in life is very important. There is most likely never going to be a time when student’s have “acquired all of the knowledge.” Therefore, when students have a tough time understanding their feedback or constructive discussion about assessments, while we should emphasize what they need to review and what they got wrong. However, if we associate students receiving feedback with growth and opportunity for correction, they should experience less negative connotation with grades. Ideally, as they understand this concept, their grades will improve as a show of that.m

  9. I loved this article! It is so important to consider what students, and teachers, have been through this last year. I was discussing with my cooperating teacher this semester how our 6th grade students hadn’t been in face-face school since they were in 4th grade. There is so much that happens between 4th and 6th grade, and as teachers we need to take that into consideration with our instruction and tolerances.