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From Distress to De-Stress: helping anxious, worried kids (Part 1 of 2)

Teaching kids how to relax.

Consider this vignette:

-Roxanne: (agitated and loudly) I can’t stand this freakin book!

-Teacher: Roxanne, you need to take it easy. Just calm down! Try to relax.You need to finish your reading.

-Roxanne: (to herself) Right easy for you to say, teacher. But very hard for me to do. What do you mean calm down? I feel like my head is going to explode.

-Teacher: (seeing no response) Well if you can’t settle down, maybe a trip to the office will help you!

Some kids are so agitated that even if they know how to relax, they can’t. If you think about it, calming down when you’re upset is the hardest time to do it! Other kids can’t calm down or relax because they don’t know what that feels like. Teachers, occupational therapists, physical education teachers and parents need to actually teach children (of all ages) how to get themselves into a physical state of being relaxed. This doesn’t happen automatically. If it did, there wouldn’t be so many adult yoga classes!

Setting the mental and emotional stage for success.

Teachers who want to reduce stress and increase learning know that getting kids into a positive mindset will do both. They say things and do things that connect kids to the security of past positive experiences. A boat in the harbor is not likely to be tossed onto a rocky shore if it is tethered to an anchor set firmly into the sandy ocean floor. Similarly, kids whose minds are re-united with the feelings associated with previous successes will be less likely to flounder in an anxious or distracted state.

Consider this interaction:

The teacher says to the class Do you remember this? (holds up test tube filled with red fluid; a visual prop). Turn to your study partner and tell each other one thing we learned about this liquid yesterday.

Now raise your hand if you want to say what your partner just told you.

Paired sharing has the following benefits:

  • enhances social interactions that the teacher can monitor and guide
  • increases information trading which promotes mutual interdependence
  • allows the anxious child a chance to rehearse a response before going public

Telling about someone else’s idea reduces the possibility of public shame and decreases stress. Having the choice to do it reduces the stress even more.

Capitalize on the relationship between learning and feelings.

It is clear that emotions and learning are linked. Why is it that most of us remember where we were when the space shuttle Challenger blew up, or where you were on 9/11? Why does the smell or texture of certain foods make us remember certain places or events in our lives? Research tells us that positive thoughts enhance learning and memory; negative thoughts get in the way.

Here’s a scene from a classroom in which the teacher understands the connection between state of mind and learning. Kids, I would like you to close your eyes (thereby reducing stimuli and putting children out of public view) and think of a time when you learned something very well and felt proud about it. This could be something academic, like fractions, or it can be something you learned to do, like a hobby or a sport. When you get that thought in your head, simply raise your index finger a bit and I’ll know you’re connected to that time and the feeling you had when you learned to do that particular thing.

Now, open your eyes and tell us (solo or in sharing pairs) what it was that you learned and how it made you feel. The teacher asks the kids what was going on (place, people, timing) that made this such a positive experience. Kids can also be asked to write this, or draw a picture of the event as the first step in the new assignment.

The teacher continues: Today we’re going to learn something new (anxiety rises). We’re going to learn about ________. I want you to tell me, based on that positive experience you just recalled and/or talked about, what would make learning this new material successful for you? She gives the students the choice of saying the answer, telling a classmate, or writing a paragraph about it.

By building the new activity on this foundation of comfort, the teacher hopes to lessen the stress that can be generated when taking kids into new territories.

Humor enhances learning and memory

Talented teachers know that students hang on to words in a joke because they want to hear the punch line. They also know that humor, in the form of funny stories, puns, limericks or cartoons can increase a student’s enjoyment of the activity. Students who enjoy learning are less anxious, less threatened and more likely to retain and apply what they learn. Teachers who spend time putting the lid on a funny student’s comments or antics may be missing the opportunity to use that jester as a collaborator. Teachers need to remember that sarcasm and ridicule have no place in the safe classroom. It may appear that at student can take the barbs tossed at him or her in class, but that’s often an erroneous assumption. That student is using up psychological energy coping with the tension created in such interchanges. Teachers also need to think about the collateral damage they do to the kids (especially the anxious kids) who are watching and hoping that they’re not the next target of this teacher’s verbal pot-shots. That student may not want to come to class, and certainly won’t want to come to see that teacher for extra help after school, where there’s no chance of escape if the teacher starts to tease.

In the second part of this article, to be posted next week, we will explore additional ideas such as the need to focus on process, not product.

Jerome SchultzJerome J. Schultz, Ph.D., is a clinical neuropsychologist and is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School in the Department of Psychiatry. He served until recently as the Co-Director of the Center for Child and Adolescent Development, CCAD, a multi-disciplinary diagnostic and treatment clinic which is a service of the Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard Teaching Hospital. Dr. Schultz is the Consulting Neuropsychologist to the Newton, MA, Public Schools and the Binnacle Tech Foundation. He serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Academic Psychiatry, and The Professional Advisory Board of The Learning Disability Association of America. Dr. Schultz lectures extensively on the relationship between stress and learning, especially in youth with special needs.

Related articles:

– Stress and Neural Wreckage: Part of the Brain Plasticity Puzzle
– Mindfulness and Meditation in Schools for Stress Management

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5 Responses

  1. Wow! Anything that encourages somatic sensing and intelligence is a boon for today’s education.

    May I suggest we look carefully at the terms we use when embedding relaxation cues,e.g. the difference between

    think about a time when…
    visualize a time when…

    The former initiates different neural circuits than the latter, no?

    I find using sensory perception terms helps people young and old make a connection back to the world of sensory integration.

    Bravo for raising this issue on!

    Synaptically yours,

    M.A. a.k.a. Dr. G.

  2. Senia says:

    Great article. I love instructional articles that spell out even to the detail what to say. I really like that. It feels useful and immediately usable.

  3. wingspouse says:

    Wonderful suggestions. I never thought about how useful pairing could be. I’ll use that next time I teach creative writing – pairing students will work wonderfully. Heightened pride, love, anger or depression is so important when writing and it’s the hardest thing to explain.

  4. Dan Abshear says:

    I suggest you factor in more thoroughly the etiology for such children. There is a lot of child abuse out there, and I am a victim myself. My anxiety reached a level out of fear that I did not eat, and was placed in a hospital for spilling keytones during starvation. It goes beyond behavioral modification which is what I took as the apex of your post.

  5. M.A.: Jerome is now traveling out of the country, so let me answer your excellent suggestion – indeed, to encourage someone to “think” about something is likely to result in different processes than asking to “visualize”.

    Senia and wingspouse: thank you for the feedback – I agree, Jerome did a great job at linking research with very specific implementation ideas.

    Dan: thank you for sharing your experience. If I can answer on behalf of Dr. Schultz, I’d say that he wasn’t trying to address all problems for all people, but suggest guidelines to help a good number of students. Of course, specific problems, and specific clinical conditions, require professional and tailored diagnostics and interventions.


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