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Why can’t I focus at school?

Stress can make it difficult to concentrate, learn and feel motivated. Here are some tips that may help!

Student at computer

School stress can make it really hard to focus

A bit of stress can be motivating. This is why some people work well with a deadline or a bit of positive pressure. But severe, complex or chronic stress can have negative impacts.

Stress is part of your danger response, which was an evolutionary brain adaptation to help you stay safe. It can affect your academic performance in lots of ways, such as:

  • Difficulties communicating - if you are very stressed, you might find it hard to understand what you are reading, or have trouble finding the words you need when writing or speaking.
  • Trouble concentrating - if your brain thinks you are in danger, it can make you ‘hyper vigilant’ (jumpy), which means you are easily distracted. This is because your brain is constantly scanning your environment for threats. This means you might find it hard to focus.
  • Feeling unmotivated - we respond to danger/stress through our fight/flight/freeze response, which means running away from danger, fighting it off, or even hiding and hoping it goes away. In everyday life, these responses can result in avoiding and procrastinating doing any work.
  • Sleep and memory difficulties - sleep plays an important role in helping us remember things. If you are stressed, it can be hard to sleep (as you can be vulnerable to danger in your sleep), which can make it harder to remember things.

"Stress and anxiety at school can disengage your frontal lobe."

School stress and your brain

Our brain has an in-built response to dealing with danger. This is known as our stress response.

This response existed long before the invention of stuff like school and homework!

It’s triggered by anything we find moderately to severely stressful.

When it’s triggered, it creates changes in our body and brain that were designed to help us survive danger. This includes turning off your ‘smart brain’ ( your frontal lobe). 

Your frontal lobe plays an important role in thinking and communicating. This can be impaired when you are experiencing stress.

“Mental health and wellbeing issues can greatly impact on your school performance, and whether you stay in school or dropout. Getting support is very important, not just for your grades, but also for your health and wellbeing.”

Amanda, Kids Helpline Counsellor

How do I focus on school?

Even when we are dealing with stress, we usually still have to meet educational commitments, like going to school or handing in assessments on time. That can be really challenging.

The good news is that it can be really good for you to be exposed to moderate, temporary stress that you feel you have some control over. It may actually result in higher grades!

Here are some things that might help improve your focus:

  • Mange your stress. Finding coping strategies and ways to manage your anxiety can help you feel less stressed and more focused. If you have been feeling flat and demotivated, strategies for coping with feeling down might also help.
  • Some people find school work to be a helpful ‘distraction. The good news is that your brain can’t do more than one thing at a time, so if you are able to focus and use school work as a distraction, it can give you a mental break from other stresses in your life.
  • Be organised. Anxiety/stress can be a way our brain and body responds when it feels we don’t have the tools we need to cope with a situation. If you feel overwhelmed, break down your tasks into smaller, manageable steps. You might start with what’s easiest to complete, to build your confidence and momentum. 
  • Reflect on how you have done well in the past. Chances are you have experienced stress in the past and found ways to cope and focus at school. Thinking about how you achieved this can give you some great strategies that work for you, and can also help build your confidence that you can get through this.
  • Look after yourself. It’s hard to be at optimal academic performance if you are eating unhealthy foods, not getting enough sleep or not getting enough fresh air and exercise. Some people might even turn to alcohol or drugs to try to cope. Self-care is an important part of stress management.
  • Get support. If you are struggling to focus or cope, professional support can really help. Plus, difficulty concentrating can sometimes be a symptom of other health or medical issues. If your inability to focus lasts a while, is distressing, interferes with your everyday life or your ability to cope, a good first step is to see a GP or speak with a school or Kids Helpline counsellor.

Coping with study stress

A lot of school-related stress is around the work itself – feeling like you have too much work to do, that the work is too hard, wanting your work to be perfect or worrying about making mistakes. These things can sabotage your academic performance.

Here are some more tips that might help:

Do work in stages. Sometimes, starting is the hardest part. Focus on what you can control by starting with a loose outline or plan. Dot point any ideas you have. You can start writing/building from there.

Ask for help or feedback. If you are feeling overwhelmed or stuck, you can ask a teacher or trusted adult for help. You may even be able to get feedback on a first draft. And, if you get a bad grade or make a mistake, applying feedback/learnings can help with future work!

Focus on what you like about learning something new. Sometimes we can get caught up in grades and forget what we like about learning. Most people like learning new things most of the time (especially for topics you are interested in, like electives). 

Keep grades in perspective. Assessments and exams and doing well or badly can seem like a big deal. But, at the end of the day, they are a way to reach your big picture, future goals in your career or life. And there are lots of different ways to reach career or life goals.

If you’re having trouble focusing on school work, you’re not alone.

Talking to someone and finding ways to cope with school stress can help.

Give us a call, start a WebChat or send us an email anytime, for any reason.

This content was last reviewed 05/06/2020

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