Learning Matters: Reducing childhood stress is a balancing act

Educators are caught in a circular conundrum. Students are stressed, and their parents, grandparents, mental health professionals and educators themselves all worry about the effects of that stress on student health, well-being, and, yes, on academic and career achievement.

It seems we're all realizing what perhaps we've always known, but haven't put into practice: health and well-being affect learning, and attitudes toward learning affect health.

When I told a friend I was working on a column about child and adolescent stress, she replied, "That's a huge topic."

I agree, and with so many places to begin and no clear answers myself, I'll start with what I've gathered from speaking with friends and attending some programs hosted recently by the Crescenta-Cañada YMCA and the Crescenta Valley Parent Teacher Student Assn.

First is the acknowledgment that student stresses today differ from those of their parents. While bullying has always been part of childhood, online bullying has not. Often anonymous, widely shared, and non-erasable online meanness keeps on hurting.

Similarly, as explained by drug and alcohol counselor and therapist Lisa Vartanian, though drugs and alcohol have tempted teens for generations, never before have prescription and other drugs been so widely available from a friend or online from the "safety" of home. These stresses flourish and fester in an increasingly competitive environment in which so many students strive for the top grade, the top college and the top job.

But do the striving and stresses originate with our youth or even with our schools? Generally not, said Helen Morran-Wolf, a friend I know from workouts at Curves. She recently retired as executive director of Foothill Family Services.

"The stresses of children are the stresses of their parents. Families at all levels are working long hours, living more precariously," she said, many of them doubling up in houses and apartments to get by.

She laments the toxic stress students absorb when they witness domestic violence or any family strife. Not only do children struggle to cope with the emotional effects, but stress can stop their learning for 24 to 48 hours, adding to their troubles.

I spoke to two friends who taught our children at the Co-op Nursery school years ago and went on to careers as marriage and family therapists. Both Barbara Gomperts and Marilyn Hill agree that parents often play a big part in their children's stress levels.

In our competitive culture, parents are easily drawn into the prestige college race, joining forces with those who urge as many advanced placement classes and extra-curricular activities as possible to ensure students get into the "best" colleges.

My friends echoed the advice of Gina Morris, who presented "Challenge Success" at the invitation of the Crescenta Valley Parent Teacher Student Assn. All these professionals promote more balance in our children's lives. They suggest giving more attention to daily healthy living than to future success.

Parents would do well to focus less on their children's college prospects and more on their children's present concerns and interests.

"Let students drive their own decisions," Morris said. "Look for what the child is interested in," and don't expect them to excel in all things. Above all, she said, children need to feel cared for.

Children also need some basics, like sleep. Professionals recommend children get 9.5 hours of sleep per night, yet high school students average only 6.84.

They also need playtime or "downtime" of their own, not organized by adults. Of particular interest to me were the observations that children need the chance to fail, to work through disappointment so they can build their own self-esteem. Parents can't build it for them by preventing sadness or protecting their children from occasional bad grades.

Finally, as promising as technology may be, our children need time unplugged from media. Children of families who regularly eat meals together, away from TV or cellphones, are more likely to escape serious problems. Breakfast or dinner, it doesn't matter; time spent together makes a difference.

My friends concur with the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation: no more than two hours a day of screen time for children, and none for children under age 2. The current daily average for children ages 8 to 18 is more than seven hours.

With stresses and distractions all around, I'm drawn to the simplicity of the advice Gomperts offered: "Find time in your day to appreciate and accommodate the needs of the child you have. If there's anything in all of this, it's balance."


JOYLENE WAGNER is a former member of the Glendale Unified School District Board of Education. She can be reached at jkate4400@aol.com 


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