Every year, the American Psychological Association releases their Stress in America survey. It isn't news that Americans are a stressed out bunch, especially with the economy and potential job concerns, but what is different is the spike in stressed out kids. According to the most recent survey:
• Nearly a third of children indicated in the past month that they experienced physical health symptoms that are often associated with stress, including head aches, stomach aches, and laying awake at night.
• One in five children reported worrying a lot about things in their lives, but very few parents (eight percent) report that their child is experiencing stress.
• Two-thirds of teens said they withdraw to sedentary behaviors to make themselves feel better (such as playing video games or watching TV).
As we approach back-to-school season, parents would be wise to ask themselves: How does the classroom worsen children's stress?
The classroom can be over-stimulating for some kids, on a physical, social and/or emotional level. For example, an introverted student may struggle to participate in group activities, or to raise her hand in the classroom and ask a question. This leads to confusion, feelings of being 'behind' or 'dumb,' and thus greater stress with respect to self esteem. On the flip side, an extroverted student may not have difficulty asking a question or participating, but may encounter the fact that his particular learning needs are never fully addressed in a system that's biased toward linguistic, logical learning, versus kinesthetic or spatial learning.
Learning styles are not integrated into most educators' approach to teaching. This creates the conditions in the classroom for your child's needs to be overlooked, for years in some cases. While this is understandable innocent on the part of the teacher, it does nothing to alleviate the stress that kids endure while struggling to learn in ways that are not native to them. Research shows us that there are eight "native" intelligences (linguistic, spatial, intrapersonal, etc.), and currently, education systems - even private, innovative schools - aren't necessarily meeting the specific needs of a variety of learning types. Teachers tend to confuse a learning difference with a lack of motivation, while it may really be the fact that the child isn't being reached. The predominant teaching method in a classroom may simply not capture his or her abilities to perform. When kids are overwhelmed, they tend to shut down. That can look like resistance, and it may be in some cases. But it may also be the fact that their needs are simply not being met.
Classroom teachers can worsen kids' stress by creating an environment in which kids lack a sense of emotional safety. When teachers are stressed out, and they project it onto various students, no one is immune. "We teach who we are," as Parker Palmer wisely stated, and kids are just as vulnerable to others' negativity as adults.
So how can parents and teachers can help alleviate kids' stress? Here are 10 ways to ward off school-related stress before it starts:
• Be clear in setting rules and consistent with discipline. Kids live in a "black and white" world. Blurred guidelines and inconsistencies are even more confusing for them than they are for adults.
• Create time in the day for unstructured play. Don't feel compelled to schedule every last hour of your child's free time. Exploratory time for the imagination is a wonderful corrective to the pressures of the day.
• Provide healthy outlets for stress. You probably know the basics: exercise, rest, nutritious meals, downtime, and of course humor! Take a moment to evaluate these areas in your family or in your classroom.
• Create a space in your home or classroom, away from the computer or TV, to just be. A beanbag or chair, a space outside that invites quiet reflection, a corner with books - all of these work, because they are calming and low-tech.
• Model a lifestyle for your kids or students that demonstrates a low-stress lifestyle. Easier said than done, right? If you experience undue amounts of stress yourself, it would be well worth it to both you, and your family/classroom, to invest in stress-easing activities: meditation, massage, or yoga.
• Gentle touch can be very calming. Hugs can go a long way to create a sense of connection and safety, reducing stress. Be liberal with them.
• Sit quietly together for five minutes and breathe. It's extraordinary how long five minutes feels, when you spend it in silence together. Use these five minutes to set a calm tone for the day, or to regroup during the day.
• Do a guided meditation together using a CD together. Sometimes, breathing isn't enough. If your kids or students need help with meditation, try one with light instructions or visualization exercises.
• Talk about what stress is, and how to deal with it.
• Laugh together - a lot! Tell jokes, stories and make up silly games to keep the environment light.
During back-to-school season, we have an excellent opportunity to help kids with stress management. As they head back to school following the lazy days of summer, parents and teachers can become kids' advocates. Now, when a child is struggling with over-anxiety or worry, you'll know what to do.
Willow Dea is an author, speaker, and the editor of Igniting Brilliance: Integral Education in the 21st Century. To learn more, visit ignitingbrilliance.com