A is for Apple, P is for Pressure
“Why, preschoolers don’t need stress management. They don’t have stress! All they have to do is play and grow up.” The person responsible for this statement had no daily contact with or knowledge of the dynamics involved in a child’s reality. While the sources of stress may differ — for example, a child may be stressed from learning how to share toys while mom and dad are plagued with financial concerns — all individuals, whether adults or children experience stress. We develop our patterns of stress response when we begin life and interact with the environment around us.
Although children learn about stress in much the same way that adults do, the physical aspects are more important to them. From the onset, their learning has to be tactile; they need to see, touch, hear, and feel their way through stress signs in order to fully understand the concepts of stress management. They are accustomed to learning about themselves in relationship to their environment outside their bodies: tie shoes to prevent tripping; wear a raincoat when it is raining, and so on. Therefore, a structure must be built to bridge a child’s internal experience with the external environment for greater understanding of self.
By teaching preschoolers how to make healthy choices for themselves regarding their own behavior, teachers and parents give children a foundation for building self-care and self-confidence. Helping children develop an internal frame of reference will increase their self-control in dealing with life’s ongoing stressors rather than allow them to feel victimized by blaming those stressors for how they think, feel, and act. Children can polish their skills by practicing during stressful events and as a result, gain self-esteem. Without skills for handling stress, they are more apt to wallow in confusion, self-doubt, and self-pity, and depend on external stimuli for temporary gratification.
Two basic concepts must be established through teaching modalities to firmly set the groundwork for teaching stress management skills:
1. Understanding how the mind, body and emotions work together; and
2. Realizing that there are appropriate and inappropriate levels of relaxation and tension.
Since learning, adaptability, curiosity, and implementing new skills with self and the environment are at a premium for readiness in the preschool years, children in this age range can easily be taught stress management skills. However, applying and reinforcing these skills in daily occurrences creates the real potential for practical use over the life span. To teach stress management skills and to apply stress management techniques, teachers must recognize stress signs. As children become aware of their own stress signs, they can prevent unnecessary tension and assume more responsibility for their own psychophysiological health.
In most instances, stress signs are easily monitored in children. By knowing a child’s normal state of being (body language, ways of expression, eye sheen, eating and sleeping habits, ways of interacting with others, and playing behaviors) it is easier to notice changes. For example, withdrawal or frequent acting out, restlessness during the day or night, destruction of objects, nightmares, biting nails, jiggling hands and feet, abrupt body movements, changes in vocal tones and energy levels, cold hands/feet, irritability, lack of concentration, extra body tension (e.g., twitching, stiff shoulders) can all be signals that something is not right. However, deviations in a child’s normal range of behaviors can also mean there is a new stage of growth or an illness settling in. Such deviations also could be indicative of nutritional deficiency, allergy or physical ailment, all of which are stressors themselves. One of the benefits gained in the analysis of this unknown sea of stressors and signals is the fact that as children learn to recognize their own stress signs, they learn more about themselves.
Another point to remember is that if there is stress in the lives of the adults who care for the child, there will undoubtedly be stress signs in the child because he or she is an integral part of the system, whether at home, school, or elsewhere.
Beyond normal stress, “superstress” is sweeping the land and children are not forgotten in its wake. Our culture is filled with cancer producing food additives, water-air-land-sun polluting toxins, disintegration of the family system, soaring economic pressures upon the working classes, lack of reality in television programming, and rampant drug use. Consequently, what were once considered stress-related illnesses for adults are now infiltrating very young bodies. Professionals in the medical field agree that an increasing number of young children are suffering from tension migraine headaches, ulcers, eating and sleeping disorders, hyperactivity, nervous disorders, blood sugar imbalances, violence and suicides, and depression and apathy.
What Teachers Can Do
Teachers at all levels must teach and use basic stress management skills in the classroom. Demonstrate the difference between appropriate and inappropriate levels of tension and relaxation. For example, show children which groups of muscles it is necessary to tighten while carrying a chair or heavy object across the room. Let them do it, then discuss the experience. Next, demonstrate how you would look if you tensed those same muscles while talking with a friend. Again, let the children experience it to feel and know for themselves. Assign partners and let the children role-play with each other.
Between activities requiring focused attention, choose one emotion at a time to explore. For example, suggest everyone (including you) make an angry, tense face and body; make angry sounds, stomp around with angry movements, even dance an angry dance. Point out that the mind, body, and emotional feelings always work together. To do a thorough job, the children should notice how their angry thoughts and emotions create body tension. Next, have children do the same for a totally different emotion such as happiness, noticing again how the mind, body, and emotions work together. Let the children understand that it is impossible to have angry thoughts and a happy body or feelings. They should also pay attention to the fact that they are in control of changing everything inside them! By playing with the spectrum of emotions in this way, children can become aware of their internal body signals, telling them which emotion is in place at any given time. It is much harder to lose control when an internal reference point is in place.
Exploring Stress through Role-Playing
Nonverbal role-plays can be used to help children exaggerate a situation with their bodies. This type of activity facilitates an increased awareness internally for personal stress signs. Begin by first role-playing an emotion. Show facial tension, body tension and movement. Let the children guess what emotion you are depicting and which of your body parts are tense. Ask them what kinds of thoughts you were having, too. It is important to reinforce the mind/body/emotional connection frequently.
An energizing way to reinforce the concepts of tension/relaxation, emotional awareness and mind/body coordination is to explore a jungle with the children right in your own living room, backyard, or school gymnasium. Simply ask children to join you in becoming an angry ape, sad snake, tense tiger, happy hyena, cowardly kitten who can turn into a courageous cat, or any combination of tense and relaxaed animals. Act out each animal, making appropriate noises and body motions. Children are enthusiastically creative when they can learn through their own fun experiences.
Find other modes of reinforcement that can meld into the stream of activities already established. If children already stretch occasionally, vary the stretching pace through emotional awareness (e.g., excited stretch, slow and sad stretch, etc.). If it is rainy outside and there’s a need for stress-relief from lack of exercise, children can do some jealous jumping in place, some happy arm swinging, and nervous body jitters.
When eyes are dazed, attention span is scattered, and yawns dot the classroom, allow the children to drift into the right brain activity with a relaxation exercise emphasizing health, history, or science fiction exploration. The quickest way for children to enter a deep state of relaxation and simultaneously release some tension, is to tell them to put lots of hard, tight, tense spots all over their bodies. Tell them to hold tension everywhere while you count to five. Look for scrunched up faces, contorted torsos, tightened toes, and shallow breathing movement. Demonstrate how to do it first. While they are all tense, have them pay attention to the fact that they are holding their breath. Then instruct them to release all the tension at once, letting out deep sighs of relief. If time allows, use imagery by having the children close their eyes while you guide them on a fun, relaxing journey to a rainbow planet, another time in history, or to magical woods where you can encourage them to feel good about themselves. When children are relaxed, with eyes closed, it is easy to reinforce the lessons of the day by reviewing them briefly.
In everyday interaction with children, it is important to integrate stress management concepts into normal activities. First, develop a language system to fit your needs and the activities you are already engaged in with the children. Speak more about emotions, where you feel tense inside, what your thoughts are like, and the fact that you need to take a deep breath when you are upset.
Help children become more aware of stressful situations and make healthier choices by saying, “Gee, Bobby, your shoulders look pretty tight and tense. And your forehead looks wrinkled like something is bothering you. What are you feeling and thinking right now?” As the role model, you may need to share how you feel when you tense similar areas. Provide a body outline for the child to use, coloring body parts that feel hard and tense or simply marking them with an “X.” This provides a tactile mode of expression and reinforcement in the child’s internal awareness as well as improved ability to communicate clearly about his or her internal world.
In addition, create space on the agenda for children to personally share what cuses stress or tension in their lives. Lists (words or pictures) can be made and group discusions can be facilitated. Roleplays can be generated for awareness, expression, and creative problem-solving once children understand the basic concepts of stress management.
When a few minutes are available, children can close their eyes and slowly, deeply, breathe rainbow colors into their bodies. (They can color this later to show you what they look like when they help themselves feel good by filling themselves with different colors or rainbows.) Also, if difficulties arise helping a child discover which emotion he or she feels, choosing a color that represents the feeling inside his or her body can help. Follow through with artwork if appropriate. Help children to breathe fun colors into the body parts that were tense after processing uncomfortable situations.
What Parents Can Do
Parents can teach and role-model basic stress management skills easily in the home. They can also reinforce skills being taught in preschool or daycare, or suggest to their childcare administrators that these concepts be taught if they are not presently utilized.
All the aforementioned techniques can be introduced in the home setting with one or more children. If only one child is present, puppets can be used to enhance group discussions. Puppets are also handy in any young children’s group to prompt discussions and understanding as well as to reinforce concepts. A fun, tactile exercise for teaching the difference between tension and relaxation is easily facilitated if a rock and sock are available. Place a rock in one of the child’s hands, a soft sock in the other. Model the exercise yourself as you explain how to tighten body parts to make them hard like the rock, then take a deep breath and relax individual body parts to make them soft like the sock. Start with the face, tensing and then relaxing, and progress all the way down to the feet, one body part at a time. Be sure to use the words “tight, hard and tense,” referring to the rock and “soft, calm and relaxed,” referring to the sock.
Children frequently are so subjectively caught in their emotional turmoil that they have little or no understanding of what they are projecting into the world around them, let alone what their appearance is to others. A portable mirror is an unpopular tool (from the child’s point of view) to use during outbursts of emotion caused by anger, jealousy, frustration or the like. Have this self-reflector easy to reach, but out of the child’s sight, then raise it up to meet the child’s eyes right in the middle of the tantrum or experience you want the child to see. This reflection can teach children more about themselves than any number of words. However, it will be important to explain why this is being done and ask children at the apopropriate moment what they have seen and learned about themselves. Another dynamic tool is to role-play a child’s emotional outburst. After this, ask the child to display the way he or she sees you expressing yourself when upset. Stress management reinforcement is a two-way street!
The Role of Art in Stress Management
In both home and school settings, artwork can prove to be an invaluable tool for awareness, expression, and reinforcement. Preschoolers who can understand the spoken word and hold a crayon can use colors on paper to express their feelings if given instructions and opportunities to do so. The artwork of an angry child will present quite a contrast to that of a child who is feeling content. Use the artwork as a media to help young children learn to label, understand, and talk about their emotions. Place a variety of colored sheets done by children on the refrigerator or a wall and ask them what feeling each sheet has.
Once again, create every opportunity that can possibly be woven into life’s scheme. Have body outlines available for children to color regarding their internal experiences, thus providing a steady stream of tactile bridging between their inner and external worlds. The body outlines become a self-made mirror for the children, and provide adults with a means of helping the children to help themselves.
A note of caution regarding use of the body outlines: When children first begin learning about what is going on inside their bodies, a common response to the question “Where do you feel tight or tense inside?” is “Everywhere.” Unfamiliar with their own internal geography, it will be important for you to either ask questions about body parts, one at a time, and/or be firm in telling the child to choose one or two body parts that feel tighter or harder than any other parts.
The Breath of Life
Whether working with children at home, school, the playground, in the grocery store or in a car, there is one central key that can provide magic in this process for all parties…the breath of life! All relaxation skills have one true core: deep, even, slow breathing. Just as tension cn create more tension in any situation, deep breathing can render speedy healing to an ailing body, mind, or emotions, as well as provide self-control in the midst of anxiety and chaos. Make a game of checking heart rates by placing hands on chests to feel fast or slow heartbeats.
Take deep breaths every time the cuckoo clock strikes or a telephone rings. Make it fun and easy to integrate! Have hand-check games: touch each others’ hands to see if they are warm, which generally indicates relaxation, or cool, indicative of internal arousal, tension or activation.
Educating children about life has always been a major responsibility of a society in any given time. If we want our most precious resource, children, to survive whatever is ahead in our super-stressed world, they must have the tools made available to them to cope with daily stressors. Their own internal resources are waiting to be tapped, the resources they will have with them through every step in life’s journey. Without these basic life skills, they will have difficulty making healthy choices for their own well-being. By knowing themselves, they can choose right actions over wrong actions, feel good enough about themselves to be content without substance abuse, and know how to prevent stress-related illnesses. They will also be able to communicate clearly, to respect others because they respect themselves, and be able to nurture healthy relationships. Most of all, they will care. It is easy to incorporate stress management skills into children’s lives, as easy as remembering that A is for Apple, P is for Pressure.