When we think of managing stress, we often think of adults, college student and teenagers in need of helpful stress management techniques, not elementary and middle school students. However, children of any age can experience stress and providing helpful coping mechanisms and techniques for them is crucial to their overall well-being.
In fact, for younger children, it may be even more important to address the notion of stress and how to handle it because younger children are less likely to understand their feelings of angst or anxiety. Providing a positive outlet for such feelings helps younger children channel their excess energy and emotions and leads to more stable and healthy kids.
As school counselor Jennifer VonLintel gears up for the start of the school year at B.F. Kitchen Elementary School, there are new students to enroll, files to update and schedules to plan — including the schedule for Copper, her registered therapy dog and a popular presence in the hallways of the Loveland, Colo., school.
Three days a week, the 3-year-old golden retriever’s assignments can include mingling with kids during recess, being assigned to students who struggle with reading or math anxiety, and providing general companionship and support in the classroom, during counseling office visits, and during after-school programs. Any time a friendly, furry face can provide an extra measure of comfort and assurance, says VonLintel.
When there’s a death in a family or a child receives bad news, “with the parents’ permission, we’ll introduce Copper to the situation,” she says. “Kids find comfort in petting him, and sometimes the parents do, too. ”
Pet therapy is just one way that schools are attempting to dial down the level of stress and anxiety facing students today and help them prepare to better handle such situations. Among others:
• Montpelier High School in Vermont is adding a daily 20-minute recess starting this school year and encourages students to get outside and play during the break.
• Shakopee High, southwest of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, has a 25-minute flex period built into each student’s daily schedule during which they are free to check in with teachers, counselors, coaches, go to the library or get started on homework.
• Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, has a “Quiet Time” program, consisting of two 15-minute sessions a day in which students have the option to sit quietly and rest or practice Transcendental Meditation (TM), which is taught at the public school.
• Both Belfast High and Camden Hills High schools in Maine have “wellness rooms” in which students, faculty and staff can sign up for massage therapy, acupuncture, and other stress-relieving therapies, all donated by local practitioners.
In the past decade there’s been “an increasing recognition of the connection between mental wellness, success in school and better life outcomes, so schools have started to implement more supports and services,” says Kelly Vaillancourt, of the National Association of School Psychologists.
Whether a nagging sense of unease or an overwhelming feeling of pressure and anxiety, stress can interfere with all aspects of well-being, including sleep, emotions, focus, even how people eat, all of which are important to the ability to learn, says Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of The Mindful Child.
Greenland trains teachers, counselors, therapists and other adults working with kids and teens in using mindful awareness — “an enhanced ability to pay attention” through breathing activities and other strategies — to help kids “focus and calm (the) mind and body” when they’re “over-scheduled, over-pressured and stressed.”