The Need For Stress Reduction in Children and Adolescents

Jacob GoodwilerUncategorized

By, Krista Hahn, MA, LEP #3476

In his ample free time, my octogenarian father enjoys sending emails of which I am frequently the recipient. Recently, he emailed one in particular that really resonated with me entitled, The Six Best Doctors in the World. I immediately scrolled down to find out who are these immensely talented physicians awarded such a prestigious title and, to my surprise, read the following:

“The six best doctors in the world are sunlight, rest, exercise, diet, self-confidence, and friends. Maintain them in all stages and enjoy a healthy life.” 

How delighted I was to discover that the answer came not in the form of prescriptions or purchases, but rather in the basics, natural goodness afforded to all of us, at any age, if we simply stop to recognize and appreciate the benefit each has to offer. The fact is a “healthy life” is not only pertinent to our physical bodies but to our minds as well. Our mental health significantly affects our ability to think well, reason and learn, and demonstrate self-control. Scientific studies have repeatedly proven that the three most effective strategies to improve focus and attention are a sufficient amount of sleep, physical exercise or activity, and a nutritious diet. Additionally, these essentials have a positive effect on our executive functions as we must meet the mental demands of each day whether at work or school. Our students require these necessities. It is no longer enough to include them in our parenting or teaching rhetoric, we must incorporate them in our home and classroom routines. Time dedicated to movement breaks and rest must be intentionally and thoughtfully included into the schedule of the day. Access to healthy snacks and lunches with a variety of choices offered must become a priority in our schools and home kitchens. To the extent that we, as parents and educators, can control these necessities for the sake of our children’s wellbeing, we must. Our children feel stress every day and those with learning disabilities, even more so. The solution is to be proactive rather than reactive. Children and adolescents who feel stressed or anxious need prevention, not just intervention. Managing stress and the emotional reaction that often coincides with it has become a priority among our students, particularly those with any type of disability. In order to think clearly, stay focused, regulate our emotions, control our impulses, initiate and execute tasks, and make appropriate, thoughtful decisions, our students need to manage their stress level.  

Simple and helpful stress reducers that can be proactively utilized on a daily basis include planning ahead by anticipating what you will need, how long it will take, who needs to be involved and create back-up plans for the unexpected. Be flexible. Allow for extra time in the morning and prior to scheduled activities or appointments. Set a schedule for completing long-term projects by dividing the work into manageable portions. Do one thing at a time and tackle the most unpleasant or challenging tasks first. Ask questions early and often to prevent confusion later. Allow yourself to say no when asked to join another extracurricular activity, event or duty. Follow a realistic routine and stick to it to increase predictability and decrease chaos. Simplify by removing unnecessary clutter, and organize work areas and desks, assignments/projects, binders, and backpacks. Take breaks. Adopt a positive mantra and tell yourself you can do it! Eliminate destructive self-talk. Unplug and allow time every day to embrace quiet, private moments. Take time every day to do at least one thing you really enjoy. Do something for someone else. Take a hot bath or shower. Learn relaxation techniques like deep breathing, yoga, journaling, reading, meditation or prayer. Count your blessings, then count them again.

The following excerpt is taken from an article published in ADDitude Magazine (2018) and written by Jerome Schultz, Ph.D., entitled, Why School Stress Is Devastating for Our Children 

Repeated bouts of fear, frustration, and failure in school create stress that builds up over time. This state of mind is actually neurologically damaging. It impairs brain function by fouling up the brain’s chemistry and even shrinking critically important neural brain tissue, making problems with learning and attention worse.

Chronic stress decreases memory and cognitive flexibility, as it increases anxiety and vigilance. This ratchets up a student’s alert level and gives rise to a protective defensiveness. As a result, too much energy is put into escaping the threat by avoidance, resistance, or negativity.

Neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Eric Kandel, M.D., explained that just as fear, distress, and anxiety change the brain to generate sequences of destructive behaviors, the right interventions turn the cycle around. That’s what my DE-STRESS model aims to accomplish. It includes the following steps:

*Define the condition. Make sure that the adults involved in the child’s life understand and agree on the cause of the challenges. If there are “dueling diagnoses,” valuable energy is wasted on disagreements, legal challenges, and “doc-shopping” to resolve differences of opinion. The adults need to come to some consensus about the child’s condition. A plan built on guesses or misinformation is destined to fail.

*Educate. Informed adults (parents, psychologists, teachers) need to educate the child about the nature of his/her challenges. Only an informed child can be a self-advocate.

*Speculate. Think about how the child’s strengths and assets, as well as his challenges, will impact his prospects going forward. Think ahead: What’s going to get in the way of success and what should be done to minimize disappointments and derailments?

*Teach. Educate the child about how to use strategies that will address his specific needs and maximize his success. Give the student the tools he needs to take this bull by the horns and wrestle it to the ground.

*Reduce the risk. Create learning environments that focus on success and that minimize the risk of failure (small classes, individualized attention and support, providing time and space to reinforce learning, decreasing distractions).

*Exercise. There is scientific evidence that physical activity reduces stress. Make sure that the student is engaged in a regular program of physical activity. Collect evidence that shows that exercise enhances mood and learning.

*Success. Replace doubt with confidence by creating a learning environment that allows the student to experience success more often than failure. Make sure that fear, frustration, and failure are overshadowed by successes. Show the child that confidence and control are by-products of being competent. Help the child internalize a mantra: “Control through competence.”

*Strategize. Use what you and your child have learned about achieving success in order to plan ahead. Find opportunities to confirm that confidence and a stress-reducing sense of control come naturally from feeling competent. Teachers and parents should make learning from errors part of the plan, and help the child move from strength to strength.

Dr. Schultz’s article in its entirety can be found here:

Additional useful resources with helpful advice and practical application (available on Amazon): 

What to Do When You Worry Too Much-A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety by Dawn Huebner, Ph.D.

The Anxiety Workbook for Teens-Activities to Help You Deal with Anxiety & Worry by Lisa M. Schab, LCSW