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How many times have you found yourself asking how will these times of increased stress, anxiety and uncertainty affect my young students’ mental health? As tensions mount and the instability of the situation intensifies, not only may you be questioning your young students’ well-being but so too may you be questioning your own ability to cope.
The good news? You can use this time to actually strengthen your students’ resilience and mental health.
Early Childhood and Mental Health
A child’s early years are formative when it comes to mental health. From birth, the brain develops rapidly, so rapidly that 90% of the brain has developed before children enter kindergarten. Given brain functioning is the interaction between genetics and experience, the brain is particularly sensitive and malleable to environmental influences and daily experiences that impact and shape the developing brain’s architecture long term. As educators to young children, you can play an important role not only in shaping those experiences but also in what your students learn through them. How we engage and interact with children now can help them learn to cope with the inevitable f uture challenges and stresses of life.
Three Levels of Stress
All of us experience a range of mild to tolerable moments of stress at some points in our lives, but there are ways to effectively cope that can make us stronger and more resilient long-term. The reason that some forms of stress can leave children vulnerable rather than resilient has to do in large part with both its intensity and our response—with how responsive, nurturing and sensitive we are to our children and the degree of stress they are experiencing. To help your students cope, it is helpful to understand these three levels of stress, which range from mild to tolerable to toxic.
The fact is that mild stress can actually have a positive effect. It can be motivating and help to develop a sense of mastery. It may occur when learning or when experiencing something new and unfamiliar, such as being dropped off at childcare or being introduced to a new topic. Healthy and supportive relationships with a responsive adult can support the learning and personal growth that occurs as a result of mild stress.
The second level, tolerable stress, is more prolonged but also time-limited. For example, it can occur as a result of family complications, a death of a loved one, natural disaster. Again, caring and nurturing adults can help children manage this type of stress through their attuned and sensitive response.
A third level is toxic stress. This level of stress includes abuse and neglect. It is chronic, frequent, and unpredictable. It is damaging in part because it is often characterized by an absence of, or neglect from, a supportive and responsive adult. It is this type of stress that can have long-term impact on the developing brain’s architecture, increasing the likelihood of stress-related physical and mental health illnesses later in life.
How Best to Respond to Your Students’ Stress An antidote to children’s heightened, prolonged, but time-limited stress is our reliable, nurturing, predictable and responsive relationship with them. This relationship can help reduce their tension and stress while stimulating the development of healthy neural circuits related to their ability to manage behavior, emotion, and even thought.
So what is involved in being responsive to our children during times of stress and anxiety? Common misconceptions of what is necessary include believing we should be impervious ourselves to the anger, frustration, and anxiety that comes from heightened stress and distress. In fact the reverse is true. In order to better help our students manage stress, we need to be aware of and responsive not only to their cues, gestures, behaviors and emotions, but also to our own. We need to help ourselves as well as them, and we need to be sure they are not solely reliant on us. The five pointers below, which are built on these principles, may help you support your child’s mental health in these times of increased stress, anxiety and uncertainty:
1) Be aware of our own emotions as educators. Emotions are children’s first language and as a result, they are great emotional detectives. They can sense when you may be feeling angry, anxious, sad or afraid. They can feed off your emotions and will often respond through their behavior. So be aware of your own emotions and how you are expressing and managing them. Give yourself permission to feel. Understand and seek to manage your own emotions. By doing this, you will not only model the appropriate regulation techniques but also teach them about the healthy management of feeling and emotion as well.
2) Help translate behavior into words. Young children most often express emotions in action not words. You can help them manage their feelings by teaching them to identify, label, and constructively put these feelings into words. This approach will help them not only better understand what they’re feeling but also help them be more in control. For example, when they are angry and throw something, you might say: ‘I know you’re mad because you are showing me with your balled up fists and furrowed brow. Let’s talk about what is making you feel angry so I can better help you solve the problem. But it’s not okay to throw your toy because that could hurt someone.’ By helping them express their feelings, you decrease their tension and stress while supporting their ability to problem-solve. By facilitating discussion and their understanding of the emotions behind their undesirable behavior, you can help them to learn to better manage the underlying emotion as well. To further support that learning, it’s important to share your feelings as they relate to the situation at hand as well. You might say, for example, “I understand and can see that you are frustrated that you can’t play with this friend right now, but throwing your toy at me is not OK and can hurt me and makes me feel angry. What is a better and safer way that you can let me know you are angry.’ You then can guide your student toward a solution such as in this case, together coming up with a way, depending on your child’s age, for connecting with her friend without going to her house.
3) Maintain consistency and routine. During times of change, establishing and maintaining consistency and routine can help provide a child a greater sense of security and control. Being consistent in how you respond to your students is particularly important during times of change. If possible, maintain routine around class time activities and mealtimes. If this is not possible try to prepare your students either the day before or the morning of a new day and walk them through the schedule and expectations. It also remains important that you follow through on what you say you will do. Consistency and routine provide a sense of security and predictability that children particularly need when feeling a loss of control.
4) Preserve emotional and social connections. Social distancing can add stress to an already stressful time, but emotional and social connections undergird healthy development and are important to keep alive and well, particularly when one can feel isolated. It is important not only for you to stay emotionally connected to your students, but also to encourage them to connect to favorite pets, people and stuffed animals as well. When your student is feeling sad or mad about not being able to play or run around with their friends or be with their cousins, grandparents or favorite aunt, being able to talk about their feelings of disappointment or sadness with you and their peers is important. Figuring out creative ways to encourage your students to engage socially and emotionally connected by sharing stories and/or artwork they’ve created at home can all heighten social and emotional connections while lessening the stress of physical distancing. And don’t forget that you also need to stay connected to others as well.
5) Look after you. Your own mind, body and soul need time and attention too. Not getting your needs met makes it very hard if not impossible to have the required energy to help your students manage, cope and thrive. When it comes to caring for ourselves, there is no one treatment that fits all. Whatever you do to care for yourself—whether reading, meditation, games, exercise, long baths, calming music or some combination of them—don’t neglect yourself. Caring for ourselves leaves us stronger and more appreciative as well.
As a closing note, most children are very resilient and heightened stress from the effects of this pandemic and national trauma can and will lessen if you keep these principles top of mind. Weave lessons on emotionality and introduce activities or books that support emotional intelligence throughout your regular lessons, whether virtual or in-person and encourage parents to take on the same lessons outside of school hours. Continuity at home will only reinforce your teachings and possibly alleviate stress for not just your student, but entire families.
However, it is important to note, there remain situations where families will experience more traumatic situations such as direct threats to safety from a close family or friend, illness or death, severe economic hardship, or even drug dependence or abuse. In these situations, it is not uncommon for the problematic and painful behavior of the child or parent to intensify and last for longer than a couple of months. At these times outside help with a specialist is necessary. If you or your student experience this type of trauma, seek help. Remember: realizing you need professional help to get the appropriate support to deal with the tensions and stress of trauma takes strength and courage.
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