How Parents Can Monitor and Manage a Child’s Stress Level
By Wendy Taylor
as Published July 7, 2017 in Social Work Helper
Adults are all too familiar with the concept of stress—we live with it almost every day to some extent. Not so surprisingly, American children are sadly experiencing chronic stress as well. In fact, data indicates that pharmaceutical use for children with emotional disorders has risen to an alarming rate, as has the suicide rate for adolescents.
We know from our own personal experiences that mounting stress has an enormous ripple effect on our day-to-day lives. Sleeping patterns, eating habits, productivity, social/emotional well-being—all of these factors are very much correlated to stress levels. If we adults sometimes find ourselves in the weeds when it comes to stress, how can we expect children to react to an increase in stress?
The solution to stress in children should not involve managing stressors once they have reached their peak, but rather helping children avoid getting to that point of eruption. Here are a few tips to help parents take a proactive approach to stress:
1. Pack the schedule with pockets of “downtime,” as opposed to more activities. Of course children yearn to participate, whether it be dance class, soccer practice, after-school camp, science club, etc. This enthusiasm should not be discouraged, but it is a parent’s job to manage a realistic schedule and to keep it manageable. Yes, things will pop up—parties or sleepovers or field trips will emerge from the woodwork. However, downtime is essential for children to maintain their mental health. Often times, a child or adolescent’s stress levels mount when they feel incapable of maintaining the balancing act. To avoid this, allow time in the family’s daily schedule to do absolutely nothing. These pockets of time can be used for anything—a school project, extra violin practice, reading, or simply relaxing. The key here is that the time is used to keep that overbooked sense of urgency at bay.
2. Explicitly discuss stress and where it comes from. The more your teen recognizes where and when his or her stress emerges, the better equipped he or she will be able to anticipate and circumvent the stressor. For instance, if procrastination or last-minute rushing is the catalyst, teach time management strategies and how to plan ahead.
3. Similarly, if you know your child’s stressors, help him or her to prepare for upcoming events that might cause anxiety or stress. If you know that your child despises the dentist, give him or her a heads-up about an upcoming appointment. Explain that nervous feelings are valid, but that the pros of going to the dentist far exceed the temporary uneasiness.
4. Think of outlets for stress. In the same way that we hit the gym to expel the stress of the day, allow your child to explore options to clear his or her mind and body of any angst. If a walk around the block the morning before an important recital keeps the jitters at bay, make that a routine. Or, bring a stress ball to the dreaded dentist appointment. When said event is over, celebrate your child’s bravery, tenacity, and composure.
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The Rise of the Fidget Spinner: What, Where, When, and How
By Wendy Taylor
as Published June 29, 2017 in Fractus Learning
Anyone outside of the education realm, or who does not regularly interact with children, might assume that a fidget spinner is some sort of spaceship contraption or an obscure item found on the shelves of a home improvement store. However, teachers, parents and, of course, children know all too well what a fidget spinner is—and we know that you will likely hear one before you will see one. Silly dramatics aside, the fidget spinner has swiftly entered classrooms and become a staple in many pencil pouches. Before we purchase, shun, recommend, or loathe these gadgets, it is important to look further at the intended purpose.
What are fidget cubes/spinners/balls/blocks for?
The colorful, handheld, spinning, clicking, toggling, shifting devices were initially intended to serve a therapeutic purpose. Research of students (and even adults) with ADHD, autism, anxiety, or PTSD has shown that small, repetitive motion can alleviate stress, anxiety, or the urge to move.
The handheld devices are also thought to improve focus, memory and attentiveness. Much like the concept of the stress ball, the fidget craze began as an attempt to discreetly busy the hands while centering and focusing the mind.
Where should they be used?
If looking solely at their cognitive or therapeutic purposes, fidget spinners and cubes can be seen in classrooms, small group academic settings, or at a study/homework work session. Since the repetitive motion and occupation of the hands are said to alleviate stress and anxiety, children could also make use of them at the doctor’s or dentist’s office, in the car while running errands, or any other instance in which a child or teen may need to center themselves to assuage any stressors.
When should they be used?
Students should feel able to use them at specific times only—not the entire school day for any purpose. If students are nervous or stressed about an upcoming presentation, quiz, or assessment, a fidget toy can act as a much-needed distraction from the nerves.
A child could also benefit from a spinner or cube when she recognizes that her focus is waning. The movement and repetition provides mindless movement for the hands, while allowing the mind to focus on the reading, handout, etc. Fidgets can also be used during a sudden need to expel energy. Since it is not always plausible to stand up, do jumping jacks, or stretch out in the classroom setting, a fidget toy allows for inconspicuous movement in order to placate the restlessness.
How should they NOT be used?
And herein lies the issue with the rise of the fidget spinner—too much of a good thing can become a whirring, buzzing, spinning nightmare. Since the therapeutic toy crossed the boundary into “fad” territory, it has become problematic in many classrooms and academic environments. When crazed middle schoolers created such a rapid demand for spinners and cubes, the market responded with what I’d call “spinners on steroids.” What began as a subtle, silent, handheld trinket now has flashing lights, sound effects, and stainless steel mechanisms for extra heft. Outside of the classroom, there is no problem with these fancy fidgets; however, the attention tool has now become a big distraction for many students.
Whether one is fidgeting or not, the constant murmur and spinning can be heard and seen in the periphery. YouTube has exploded with fidget spinner “tricks” and competitions. Schools are having to either ban or temporarily confiscate the more boisterous students’ spinners, only to be met with the issue of deciding which students need them versus which students want them. The pendulum has now swung in the opposite direction for some preteens—now diminishing their focus and motivation, which conflicts with the intentions of these gadgets to begin with.
Bottom line—if it helps the child focus, relax, and release, allow it. If the spinners are beginning to spin out of control, leave them for recess or settings other than the classroom.
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Avoid The Brain Drain! Here’s How You Can Make the Most of Outdoor Learning This Summer
By Wendy Taylor
as Published June 2017 in Fractus Learning
The summer months are notorious for triggering brain drain. The shear gap in time, combined with the hiatus from hours of learning every day, prompts a decline in knowledge acquisition and retention.
Now, it is no wonder why summer activities and routines make it difficult to convince children to complete ungraded practices. Kids would much rather ditch the homework and head outside to soak up the sunshine with their friends. So instead, what if we took the learning outside? What if activities were presented as challenges, exploration, observation, andinquiry? The impact could be dramatic.
What If We Took Learning Outside?
Research and data indicate that outdoor learning can have immense benefits on student achievement. Western European countries have found major benefits to embracing outdoor and out-of-the-classroom learning. Aside from increasing engagement, learning “outside the box,” so to speak, allows students to experience hands-on practice, first-hand knowledge, real-world application and academic exploration. The value of outdoor learning experiences has been solidly recognized, so it is essential that parents, educators, and schools incorporate some of these ideologies.
Root Learning In the Environment
This does not mean that teachers and parents should simply plop children down outside to complete a worksheet—the learning needs to be rooted in an aspect of the environment. Much like using educational technology simply for the sake of using technology, venturing outdoors just for the sake of being outdoors is not one of the fundamental concepts of outdoor learning.
Some classes like physics, biology, and physical education more readily lend themselves to outdoor learning opportunities. Say you are studying types of clouds during the weather unit in science class. Instead of viewing drawings in a textbook, students could perform outdoor observations of actual clouds. Groups could discuss temperature, the wind, and humidity to assess which variety of cloud is most common for the day’s weather. Math students could make use of the nice weather to plan, organize, measure out, and purchase materials for a regulation kickball field, miniature greenhouse, or standing long jump.
Use The Outdoors—It’s Already Ready!
Other subjects take a little more creative planning, but they can just as easily utilize the outdoors. If English students are reading poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, they may take the excerpts outdoors to combine the lush descriptions of nature on the page to the physical world surrounding them. If a child is more resistant to spending some parts of summertime explicitly learning or reviewing academic skills, activities can be disguised even further.
Ask your child if there are any national parks, landmarks, or other attractions that they would like to visit. Casually seek information about the location by asking questions that would encourage your child to perform some informal research. Once you have gathered enough information, take your child to the park, monument, zoo, or lake. Ask if anything surprised them once you have visited in person—did you recognize any of the aspects that you saw in your research?
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When we Put the Focus on Grades—Are We Missing the Mark?
By Wendy Taylor
as Published June 26, 2017 in Fractus Learning
When I think back on my own fond memories from early elementary school, I am flooded with thoughts of show and tell, hatching and raising baby chicks, four-square on the playground, and pretend cooking in my kindergarten classroom’s Playskool kitchen. The focus for my learning, as far as I can recall from those early days in the classroom, circled around creativity, imaginative play, relationship building, and simply grasping what it means to learn.
In retrospect, while I was having all of this “fun” in kindergarten, I was simultaneously learning and developing strong foundations under the guise of games and playtime. I learned what it meant to take turns, share, listen to a peer’s story, take responsibility, and show respect. Can these vital life skills be evaluated on a standard grading scale? No. Do I remember the exact process for incubating chicks? No, but perhaps more importantly, I remember that project as my first opportunity to take care of something.
With these thoughts in mind, I find myself questioning the shift in the paradigm. Kindergarteners today are not living the same experiences that I so fondly remember. In place of show and tell and imaginative play are math packets, reading assessments, and homework folders. Instead of following the “Golden Rule,” we are emphasizing the importance of grades, scores, and rankings—even at the elementary level.
Similarly, the role of the kindergarten parent has changed, as well.
I used to love when my mom would come to the elementary school for lunch. Parents would line up in the cafeteria with their kids, select their choice of milk and other lunch options, and then enjoy lunch with their kids. After lunch, we’d take our moms and dads out to recess and play a game of kickball together. Today’s parents are not afforded those special memories as frequently. Instead, kindergarten parents are the homework checkers, schedule coordinators, and grade mediators. Report cards and test scores replace the crayon portraits on the fridge. What is the end goal for this shift towards a more rigorous class of five-year-olds? At what point are we missing the point of early learning?
A common concern is that we are now putting the cart before the horse.
If a six-year-old knows how to use an array to explain multiplication, but is unable to carry on a polite conversation with a new peer, we have a problem on our hands. We should not discount the importance of specific core skills, but I would like to think that kindergarten is still a place where children must learn how to get along with others in the world.
Before a child learns the parts of speech, we should prepare them to speak to a lonely student during recess.
As an English teacher, I see the importance of differentiating adjectives from adverbs. However, befriending a lonely peer or simply carrying on a polite conversation with a new friend is a skill that will benefit a young person just as readily, if not more. At home, discuss the purpose of extending a cordial “hello” to someone that might be sitting alone at the lunch table. Talk about how it would feel if you were new to a place and had no one with whom to eat. Encourage your child to see things from another student’s perspective, as these conversations build empathy and social awareness.
Before children learn how to divide, we should focus on teaching them how to divvy up a group task.
Teach them that to divide and conquer means that everyone must bring something to the table for the good of the group. Explain how compromise is a key concept when collaborating with others. Children need to recognize that other people’s ideas may be better than their own—and that this is a good thing for the group. Teach children that another person’s success does nothing to take away from their own triumphs—that we need to celebrate others and acknowledge hard work when we see it.
Before we ask children to examine and evaluate a character’s choices, we need to teach them how to assess their own decisions.
We can go even further and discuss how our decisions can greatly affect others. It is okay to make mistakes; we learn from these “bad” decisions. But the takeaway is to use those prior experiences to make better choices in the future.
Before we prompt students to measure a liquid versus a solid, we should show them how to measure their own effort and motivation.
Children need practice when it comes to self-reflection—and the early elementary years provide those opportunities. Ask your children if they did their best today—how do they know? Would they say that they gave their best effort? What was the hardest or most discouraging thing that they practiced today? What made the task difficult and how can you use that information moving forward?
Whether we choose to have these conversations with children explicitly, or to model the processes, practices, and behaviors, one thing is certain—the knowledge that comes from learning how to cooperate, interact with, and support others is knowledge that will prove to be beneficial in any setting in the future.
What is the tradeoff if a straight A kindergarten student is incapable of navigating the social-emotional realm that is academia? Kindness, creativity, self-reflection and gratitude, while they cannot be graded or assessed, are arguably just as important as the academic skills we are now pushing to the forefront. Therefore, it is worth the consideration and conversation.
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How to Raise a Reader
By Wendy Taylor
as Published in ADDitude
Six strategies for making books an adventure for life (even for reluctant readers).
Fostering a love of reading has lots of benefits for our children, both at home and at school. We start by reading board books and chasing our children around toddler programs at the library. We move on to reading pictures and sounding out phonetics. We invest our time and patience knowing that our efforts will pay off in the end.
Studies have shown that avid reading has a remarkable impact on children’s learning and academic performance. It enhances study habits and improves linguistic skills, vocabulary, comprehension, analytical thinking and writing. Equally important are the other, lesser-known benefits that strong readers also experience. Reading reduces stress and strengthens memory, which has implications beyond the classroom. With such benefits, reading at home should definitely be part of the regular routine.
But what if you have a reluctant reader? For many children, including those diagnosed with ADHD, the idea of sitting down to quietly read a book is unrealistic. These children crave action and multisensory stimulation, which independent reading does not traditionally lend itself to providing. What to do?
There are actually a lot of great ways to engage your children with books and inspire them to seek new adventures on the written page. It just may take a little more effort on your part to set the scene and bring the words to life. Are you ready to raise a reader?
Turn nightly reading into an adventure by making it something that your family looks forward to doing together. Create a “special spot” for reading, such as a fort or comfy cove in the family room. Get your energetic children in on the action by allowing them to help construct and decorate the reading area. Be sure to include pillows, blankets, and stuffed animals to make it extra cozy. Bring flashlights and something healthy to nibble on while the family reads together. Take turns reading aloud—and don’t forget to get into character!
Keep reading time consistent. Whether you are reading nightly or weekly, be sure to maintain the routine. Reading each night or weekend can be a quick, 20-minute activity, but keeping to the schedule builds a sense of anticipation. The key is to keep it enjoyable, not laborious.
Casually ask questions before, during, and after reading. This should not take the form of a tough question-and-answer session. The book talk should seem just like a casual conversation in which the family discusses interesting aspects of the story. This also gives your child a chance to interject thoughts and ideas throughout the session, breaking up the period of time spent passively listening.
Have a cause for celebration or a reward? Treat your children with a trip to the library or bookstore. Allow him to select any book of his choice as a means of rewarding good behavior, hard work at school, or helping out around the house. Reading as a reward is a great way to associate reading with something pleasurable or gratifying. Also, seeing which books your child selects will give you insights into his emerging interests and developing reading skills.
Read your child’s book ahead of time. Mark up the story with your own comments, cartoons, or questions. As she starts the book, she will have your special messages to build inquiry from page to page. These little notes are also a great way to introduce children to annotating and note-taking as a close reading strategy.
Take the books on the road with tablets, iPads, or audiobooks. eBooks make it possible to incorporate reading wherever the family goes. These technologies can be especially handy during long road trips or flights. Have your children discuss their books with the family as they finish a chapter. You can also set reading goals for the family vacation—something such as each person trying to finish a selected book before returning home.
For older kids and teens, motivate with an added incentive for finishing a novel. If your teen has finished one of the Harry Potter novels, rent the movie for him to enjoy. Then chat about which was better—the book or the movie? Finish the whole series? Plan a Harry Potter themed family dinner, complete with butter beer and boogie-flavored jellybeans. OK, maybe not!
Whether you are looking to challenge an avid reader or motivate a reluctant one, these tips can instill a love of reading that will last a lifetime. With summer just around the corner, start planning now to make new adventures that pop right off the page!
Read this and other articles on ADDitude.