After spending some time with some 4th graders this week, I was shocked to discover that a significant number of them were not sleeping well because they were stressed about the upcoming STAR testing. I decided to investigate this further and found that according to a survey conducted by Christopher Munsey of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2010, 44% of the children surveyed reported that doing well in school was a major source of stress for them. Although, there are a multitude of reasons for why children experience stress, school performance seemed to rank as the highest stressor.
It is important for us to understand that a little stress can be considered a positive thing as it challenges and motivates us to focus, learn and perform well. However, too much stress can become a major hindrance on well-being, memory and performance. A number of psychological studies have shown that children are not always able to express their feelings and thoughts as well as adults can. Often, children are not even aware of the stress or anxiety that they may be experiencing. They simply react to their internal feelings of discomfort by acting out, behaving badly to get attention or develop the belief that there is something wrong with them. Furthermore, another APA survey conducted by Harris Interactive in August 2010, found that parents often underestimate the level of stress their children feel and the causes of that stress.
So, as we get closer to testing time, it becomes imperative that we teach our children some simple strategies and techniques to help reduce stress and promote relaxation. Over the last 20 years that I have been practicing Psychology and Energy Psychology; the following are some of the most effective strategies that I have found to help people:
When we are experiencing stress, our breath becomes quick, short and shallow. This is problematic because not only does this make our heart beat faster, but it means that there is insufficient oxygen going into our bodies. Just think about this for a moment – if we are not breathing properly, there is not enough oxygen going into our bodies and that creates toxic, anaerobic conditions for most cells that may struggle to function properly. According to The Townsend Letter for Doctors, “Cells undergoing partial oxygen starvation send out tiny panic signals which are collectively felt in the body as a continuous vague sensation of uneasiness, dread or disaster”.
What most people don’t realize is that we have the power to change the way we are breathing, simply by bringing our attention into our breath for a few minutes. And if we can become Mindful of our breath as we go through our day, we can catch ourselves when we are not breathing properly and take a few minutes to regulate our breath. Although there are many different breathing techniques, the one that I have found to be most effective with adults and children is the 3-count rhythmic breath. It consists of slow rhythmic inhales and exhales to the count of 3. Even just 5 minutes of practicing this breath can release a lot of physical and emotional tension and allow the breath to begin to flow with more ease.
Watch Your Thoughts!
There is an internal dialogue that goes on in our minds almost all of the time. The thoughts that race through our minds are mostly about problems and situations, judgments, blame, insecurity, worry and so on. Notice how different thoughts and memories are capable of generating different emotions. For example, a thought process such as “I don’t like math …. it is too hard …. I’m probably going to fail the math test …. My parents will be really upset” may trigger emotions and feeling of worry and anxiety.
Most of us are too engaged with our internal dialogue and under the misconception that the stream of thoughts are important and have something valuable to share with us that we hinder ourselves from truly living our lives in the ‘here and now’. What we need to realize is that our internal dialogue is only a part of us and not a representation of the totality of us. Our thoughts are a habitual attempt by a part of us to understand or adapt to basic survival.
By learning to disengage from our internal dialogue and starting to watch our thoughts flow by like a river can help us to regain more control over our lives and live in more ease. When this ability to watch our thoughts without engaging them is combined with the 3-count rhythmic breath, the process of stress reduction and relaxation becomes quite powerful. The best way that I found to explain this to children is with a clip from the movie Kung Fu Panda. The hero of the movie is a panda called Po, who is having a moment of feeling low and giving up his dream – his internal dialogue tells him he is a failure – he is no good at anything, he eats too much and worries a great deal about everything. In that moment, the wise old turtle Oogway arrives and says, “You are too concerned about what was and what will be. There is a saying: yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift”. Suddenly, a look of realization dawns on Po as he begins to understand that worrying about what has happened and what might happen is pointless, because he is missing out on the ‘now’.
It is important to support our children in being well prepared for the test; as this will help them feel more confident and at ease. Here is a basic checklist:
- Make sure your child has learned the required material thoroughly.
- Talk to your child about their feelings about the tests and provide them with lots of encouragement and support.
- Help your child get to bed on time and get a good night sleep before the day of the test.
- Make sure your child has plenty of exercise and playtime in their routine.
- Ensure that your child does not show up to school on an empty stomach. It is important to have a balanced and nutritious breakfast such as a small bowl of oatmeal, a banana and some orange juice. Avoid foods that can cause physiological stress such as processed foods, tea, coffee, sugar, sweeteners, chocolate, soft drinks, fried foods, meats and any foods containing preservatives.
- Make sure your child is well hydrated.
- Have a relaxation routine that may include some positive visualization, breathing or meditation.
(Note: This article was first written in April 2012 for the Doyle Elementary PTA Newsletter and is reposted here)
Meera Jain (BS, DPS)
Founder and Director at the Institute of Conscious Living
Meera is a Personal Transformation Expert and a pioneer in the emerging new field of Energy Psychology. Her signature programs ‘Energy-Based Psychotherapy’ and ‘Fearlessly Authentic’ have a proven record to bring about life-changing transformations in people.
Her areas of expertise include Meditation, Archetypal Psychology, Inner Child Work and Transpersonal Psychology. She has presented at many different venues, including universities and healing centers for over 15 years.
After finishing her postgraduate studies in Oxford (UK), she worked as an Assistant Clinical Psychologist in the areas of Mental Health and Learning Disabilities, but felt very discontent with the nature of conventional medicine. Her own spiritual upbringing prompted her for many years to search for tools that go beyond conventional therapy and can treat the whole person (mind, body and spirit).
Meera is passionate about her work and takes great care to promote the highest ethical principles, whilst also attempting to bridge the gap between science and spirituality.