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


  1. M. A. Greenstein, Ph.D. on February 10, 2009 at 11:33

    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 on February 10, 2009 at 11:46

    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 on February 11, 2009 at 5:55

    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 on February 13, 2009 at 6:31

    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. Alvaro Fernandez on February 13, 2009 at 10:47

    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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SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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