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Anyone who spends any length of time teaching or volunteering in a school will slam up against the heart wrenching ways students face and cope with trauma. Elementary schools are the worst. Being exposed to the severity and range of childhood traumas can leave children feeling powerless. During my years working with children, students have shared experiences of homelessness, domestic violence, abandonment, death, coming out, cancer, amputations, mental illness, foster care, cutting, and sexual violence. These are major, disruptive traumas. Even minor traumas can have a compounding affect equating to a major trauma. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACERs) can have lifelong effects.
Pressures of academic success, figuring out how to make friends and maintain relationships are huge in elementary school. Recess can be the toughest part of a student’s day. The task of being included by peers is difficult and nuanced. Understanding tone, body language, and how to communicate effectively happens at a rapid rate for young children. In twenty-five minutes a lot can go wrong quickly, whether perceived or intended.
- Asking someone to play with you opens possible rejection.
- It is scary to feel excluded.
- Sometimes recess is the only time kids see longtime friends and don’t want to include others.
- Competition games cause a lot of conflict based on one’s athletic ability. (Four square and dodgeball are the root of all evil)
- Free play time gives kids permission to say and act in ways they wouldn’t with an adult in ear shot.
- Sometimes kids don’t like each other and that’s okay. Let’s teach them how to honor those feelings AND be respectful.
Grown-ups easily dismiss the stresses children face. I know from personal experience. When I was growing up, on a regular basis, my mother told me that I didn’t know what “real problems” were. Learning to navigate lies, betrayal, sexism, violence, my grades, or dating held little to no value to her. My father checked out and punished me for the demise of their marriage from the age of twelve until he died, on Mother’s Day 2016. His punishment continued post-humorously by willing $1.00 each to my brother and me. It was clear to me that I was a burden. My existence added to the struggles and unhappiness my parents had no coping skills for.
In turn, my brother then held me accountable for our parent’s ineptitude. We were born thirty-four months a part. He directed his rage at me for failing as a parent. And has been punishing me, as a result, for over thirty years. He and I are both victims of our parent’s inabilities. And they are victims to their own parents. The scars and cycles run deep.
Yet, from the outside I no one would have known the secrets and pain I was hiding.
Even typing these words weigh heavy on me, at forty-six years old. The weight of these struggles was suffocating as a child and teenager. Added with the pressures to achieve in school; academically, socially, and emotionally. Seeking approval from others became my coping mechanism, for better or worse. For self-validation I was reliant upon confirmation from outside sources. I have been an excellent listener my whole life. Everything and everyone around me confirmed that my self-worth was contingent upon others.
HOW IS THE CYCLE BROKEN?
Developing healthy boundaries, coping skills, and self-worth matter greatly to me for my students. Caring adults cannot stop children from being subjected to trauma. We can be better listeners, be present and, most importantly, believe their experiences.
You never know what burdens a child carries within.
To be empathetic, you do not need to have literally walked in their shoes. But you can validate their feelings of isolation, rage, anxiety, loneliness, uncertainty, or over-whelm. Stop comparing adult versions of these feelings to ones of a child. The legitimacy of these feelings is the same, regardless of a person’s age. They suck.
It’s important my students feel seen and heard. If I have failed to see and hear them, I own my impact. Acknowledgement and a sincere apology goes a long way to repairing broken trust or hurt feelings. Children are extraordinarily forgiving and passionate.
Last week I showed a video during #AlliesInAction on #Mindfulness breathing and anger. In this video, kids share what anger feels like physically and mentally. Afterwards, we discussed what they do in times of stress.
Scream out loud or into a pillow
Hold my breath
Cuddle, family or pets
Listen to music
Play video games
Think of my favorite song
Students differentiated between the combination of sadness and anger verses frustration and anger. When allowed to be in control of their own agency, children can develop healthy relationships with their own needs and coping mechanisms.
“Art calms me down. Sometimes I write, too. When I am really upset, I either write or draw. A lot of times I draw people. But mostly any art calms me.” Mabel, 5th grade
“Mediation and yoga help ground me.” Liam 5th grade
“It depends. When I am sad/mad, I close my eyes and take a really big breath to help me calm down. I haven’t tried this, yet. But I imagine closing my eyes and picturing a butterfly. When the wings go out I would breathe in. And when they go in I would breathe out. The closer the butterfly gets to my face the calmer I would feel.” Olivia, 3rd grade
“When I am mad, I ask my teacher if I can go run around the track. Running helps me calm down.” Kylie 4th grade
“Knitting helps my mind slow down.” Scarlet, 5th grade
“My dad taught me to take big breaths in my nose, like smelling hot chocolate. I think of smells that make me happy.” Daniel, 3rd grade
“I volcano breathe. It’s where you breathe in really fast in and out your nose. That helps me calm down.” Gabriela 3rd grade
“When I am mad I just stop. And then I think about Allies.” Amelin 2nd grade
Do you consider what coping mechanisms you are teaching and modeling for your child? Practicing these steps will support and nurture emotional intelligence in your child.
- Listen with intent and be present. (No multi-tasking!)
- Do not tell them how to solve their problem, ask them what they think is a solution.
- Be willing to say, “I don’t know.”
- Validate their feelings.
- Practice self-care together.
“It is not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves that will make them successful human beings.”
To learn more on how to help your child reduce stress and anxiety click here. And for tips on practicing actively listening click here. Don’t feel pressured to take it all on and then become overwhelmed. Choose one to two things that you can add into your daily life. Once they become second nature add in one or two more suggestions. After all, modeling behavior is everything.