Common Core Stress? Advocate, don’t argue

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I admit it:  I was in hysterics when I read the answer that dad provided for the math question on the second grade test.  The question was not a good one – I think we can agree on that.  The fallout, of course, is yet another argument about the role the Common Core Standards play in these scenarios.

The Common Core Standards are just that – a set of standards.  There is not a “Common Core Curriculum”.  However, school districts across the country are in a big transition phase as they seek out the best curriculum to help our children thrive and meet the standards.  The math that my daughter comes home with in her backpack each week is not necessarily the same as the math homework of a first grade student in New York.  Long story short:  The district calls the shots on the curriculum.

In some districts, kids are thriving.  Katie Sluiter works in a school district seeing great results.  But others are struggling.  That’s not to say that one district is better than another, but implementation has not been smooth  in every district.

So now we have one group of people yelling out, “Don’t blame the Common Core!” and a second group of people screaming, “Common Core math (or fill in the blank) is insane!”  And somewhere in between is a sea of confused and slightly stressed out parents trying to make sense of the changes.

My personal views on the matter are immaterial.  The fact is that parents do seem to be under stress as the changes occur, as do children when the intensity of the work becomes too much to bear.  It’s natural to want something (or someone) to blame, but the truth is that finding a scapegoat won’t actually help the second grade boy with the needlessly complicated math problem.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating:  Stress is contagious.  Change is HARD and can potentially trigger stress, but we need to cope with our own stress so that it doesn’t trickle down to our children.  Our kids watch us.  They take their cues from us.  If, each time we sort through the homework, we become inflamed over math problems or reading logs that appear time consuming and headache inducing, we send a very negative message to our kids.  You might think you’re empathizing, but what you’re saying is this:  This is too hard for you.  You’re not capable.  This will stress you out.  This will give you a headache.  This is wrong.

Is that how you want your kids to approach learning?  Do you want them to feel defeated before they’ve even had a chance to try?  Of course not.  You just don’t want added stress, and that is understandable.  Surely you know me well enough to know that I think homework grounded in busywork holds little to no value, but my daughter doesn’t know that I feel that way.  She knows that I support her learning, and advocate for her when stress creeps in.

So what can parents do?  How can parents help their children through these transitions without piling on additional stress?  Two words:  Support and advocate.

Advocate:

I am the first to admit that I scratch my head at some of the math problems that come home and the reading log made me want to run for the hills.  But you know what?  My daughter rocks those math problems!  She feels confident and capable and she’s learning to look at a problem from more than one angle.  That will help her later on in life.  And while the reading log is intense and the boxes are too small for first grade handwriting, the questions on the log are good.  It’s full of thinking questions.  And I want my daughter to think.

When she broke down into tears at the sight of one more thing to fill out, I emailed the teacher.  Within an hour, the new plan was for me to ask her the questions and fill in the log on her behalf.  Advocacy works.  When writing spelling words over and over and over again triggered stress in my otherwise free spirited child, I asked the teacher if she could type the words instead.  Done.  Advocacy works.

The bottom line is that young children are generally pleasers by nature and won’t advocate for their needs for fear of disappointing a teacher or parent.  Also?  It’s just a lot to ask of an elementary school child.  If stress related to your child’s learning is overwhelming (stomachaches, headaches, excessive tears, behavioral changes, etc.), it’s up to you to communicate with the teacher and work out a new plan.  All kids are different.  They have different strengths and weaknesses, and cope with stress in different ways.  Advocate for your child to find the best learning style and the stress will decrease.

Support:

Homework isn’t always fun.  Sometimes it is – my daughter just completed a long-term project in four days because it was an animal report and she just couldn’t wait to learn about the colossal squid.  But often it’s more of the same…because the point of homework is to support the learning (or so they say).  It can be frustrating for parents when kids dig in their heels and fight homework.  Believe me, I get it.  Instead of fighting back, we have to support them.

Empathize with your child.  Talk about your own homework as a kid.  Find ways to make it fun.  Plan obstacle course breaks every 10 minutes.  Throw in a dance party.  Take the assignment and make it into a game show.  And before you tell me that you don’t need extra work on your plate just to get the homework done, arguing is extra work.  And it leaves everybody feeling miserable.

Be there for your child.  Arguing with your child or imposing consequences for unfinished work only increases the negativity.  Just be supportive.

Get involved:

I recently attended a meeting at my daughter’s school.  It was an evening meeting scheduled to help parents understand changes to the curriculum as the school implements the Common Core Standards.  In a fairly good sized elementary school, only a handful of parents showed up.  Yes, it can be difficult to arrange childcare or tweak schedules to get to meetings at school, but it’s important to get involved.

Sitting back and listening to the chatter will not increase your understanding of the changes happening in your child’s school.  You have to get involved.  Volunteer when you can.  Schedule a meeting with your child’s teacher to express your concerns and problem-solve together.  Make the choice to be informed.

Cope with stress:

Teach your child to cope with stress.  Relaxation breathing and guided imagery are incredible tools for young children.  Talk about how you manage your own stress.  Try family yoga or make family exercise a priority to help relieve pent up stress (a hike is fun, healthy, and has the added benefit of fresh air/nature – very relaxing).

Childhood stress is serious.  It affects mental health, physical health, learning, and social/emotional well-being.  Be mindful of your own stress level so that you don’t project it to your child, and keep an eye on your child’s stress level so that you know when to intervene.

We can sit back and complain about the changes to education, or we can think locally and do something about it.  We have to put our kids first as the changes roll out, and the best way to do that is to be involved in your child’s education and support your child along the way.

 

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Play More Often for Happy Kids!

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I’ve seen some great articles on the importance of play in the past few months.  This is a good thing.  While people all over the country continue to argue for or against changes in public education, the truth is that our children are the ones caught in the middle.  Our children are experiencing high levels of stress and insufficient time to play.

Play is crucial for developing minds.  And before you start to think that this only applies to very young children, it actually applies to kids of all ages.  The benefits of child-centered unstructured play are well-documented, and we need to start giving kids more free time to tap into play.

I’m super proud of this article over on HuffPost Parents this week, and truly humbled by the positive response to it.  If we all work together, we can decrease stress levels for children and raise happy kids.

Please head over there and check out “Stressed Out in America:  5 Reasons to Let Your Kids Play”.

 

Common Causes of Childhood Stress and How Parents Can Help

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Children experience stress for a variety of reasons, and stress can crop up without warning.  While adults tend to know when they are under stress, children often internalize these uncomfortable feelings.  They don’t always ask for help because they don’t understand it.  They might not even be able to identify their triggers or connect the dots between their emotions and their physical responses.

In general, physical complaints and behavioral changes are indicative of stress in children.  Children experiencing stress are likely to exhibit one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Stomachaches
  • Headaches
  • Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling asleep or frequent nightmares)
  • Changes in eating habits
  • School refusal 
  • Decreased social interaction
  • Frequent crying
  • Temper tantrums
  • Regressed behavior
  • Anxious behavior (skin picking, nail biting, hair twirling)

It’s important to pay close attention to behavioral changes in young children, particularly if frequent physical complaints are also present.

While stress can have many triggers, there are a few causes that tend to pop up regularly:

Transitions:

Transitions can be difficult for young children.  Many children respond well to structure and routine, and changes (both big and small) can cause stress.  A new school. a new home, a new classroom, a new work schedule for mom or dad, a new baby…the list goes on.

Be on alert for possible signs of stress when transitions occur so that you can intervene before the stress level increases.

Parental stress:

Stress does tend to have a trickle down effect when it comes to families, and when parents are under stress kids pick up on it.  While we all do our best to shield our kids from adult issues, kids can be very intuitive and like to listen in on conversations.

Be aware of your own daily stress level and try to get the help you need so that you can cope more effectively when the kids are present.

Family discord:

Divorce is an obvious source of childhood stress, and it can linger on long after the divorce is final.  It’s very difficult for children to understand and cope with divorce, and often they tend to blame themselves or wonder what they could have done to stop it.

Other instances of family discord can cause stress for children, as well.  Sibling bullying is a very real and very scary problem.  It tends to get overlooked at times and is often thought of as normal sibling rivalry, but it can be very stressful (not to mention dangerous) for the child on the receiving end.

Even fractured relationships with extended family can take a toll on kids.  If children hear about or witness family discord, they might feel obligated to choose a side and act accordingly.  That’s a lot of pressure for young children.

Friendships can be tricky:

Making and keeping friends isn’t always easy.  Friendships change over time, and this can cause stress for the kids who tend to stick to one or two friends.  When kids feel left out they tend to engage in self-blame, and this exacerbates stress.

Bullying of any kind causes significant stress for children.

Academic pressure:

Some kids never worry about school at all, while others obsess over every single test, quiz, and homework assignment.  Some kids spend hours making sure their homework is perfect, while other fly through it without even reading the directions.  All kids are different.

Even when they’re young, children can sense the importance of performing.  As natural pleasers, this can add a significant amount of stress to the school day.

How parents can help:

  • Talk about stress:  Describe it.  Share your own experiences in age-appropriate language.  Normalize it.
  • Educate them about the mind-body connection:  Connect the dots for them so that they can begin to understand that stress can cause headaches, stomachaches, and other physical symptoms.
  • Listen:  If we want to help our children cope, we have to listen to what they are saying.  Don’t dismiss things that seem small to you.  Those things might feel very big to your child.
  • Teach relaxation strategies:  A stress ball kept in a desk at school can provide relief when academic stress sets in.  Deep breathing exercises and guided relaxation can help your child learn to calm her senses and breathe her way through a stressful moment. Music, reading, and journaling (even for little ones – one word at a time still releases the negative emotions) are all useful strategies.
  • Prioritize a consistent sleep schedule
  • Prioritize healthy eating habits
  • Ensure that your kids get plenty of exercise and outdoor play
  • Provide creative outlets within the home
  • Avoid over-scheduling 
  • Allow mental health days:  Sometimes kids need a day off.  One day of missed school won’t set your child back too much, especially if it means caring for the soul and sending your child back relaxed and ready to learn.

Childhood stress can have a lifelong impact on children unless they learn how to manage and cope with it.  An understanding parent can be the difference between a child who internalizes negative emotions and a child who understands the importance of asking for help.  Be the parent who provides the shelter from the storm.  Your children will thank you one day…that much I can promise.

If your child appears to be under stress more often than not and the above mentioned strategies fail to provide relief, it’s best to contact a licensed mental health professional for an evaluation.

 

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Coping with Childhood Stress

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Childhood stress is on the rise.  It might seem like childhood is a breeze (they don’t have to worry about the big things in life, right?), but often it is full of stressors big and small.  Many children just keep swimming until they finally sink because they truly don’t know how to cope.  They don’t know what stress is, how it affects them, or how to ask for help.  And they definitely don’t know how to help themselves.

It can be difficult to spot signs of childhood stress, as symptoms of stress are often physical in nature.  That headache that just keeps coming back for more probably isn’t due to dehydration or allergies – it’s probably a function of stress.

Some common signs of childhood stress include:

  • Complaints of stomach aches or headaches
  • Sleep problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Behavioral changes (short temper, increased anger, excessive crying, clinginess, etc.)
  • Nervous habits like nail biting or hair twirling
  • Refusal to participate in normal daily activities (school, camp, sports, etc.)

Childhood stress can be triggered by any number of reasons.  Sometimes it’s something external, such as big life transitions or world events, and other times it’s internal, such as the pressure to do well in school and make friends.

Some common triggers of childhood stress include:

  • Transitions (new schools, new teachers, a new baby in the family, moving, etc.)
  • Family problems (divorce, illness, death in the family, fighting between parents, etc.)
  • Over-scheduling (too many activities = stress and exhaustion)
  • Internal pressure (wanting to fit in, wanting to get perfect grades, fear of making mistakes or disappointing parents)
  • School stress (test anxiety is very real and very stressful, bullying, poor relationship with teacher, learning issues)
  • Bad news (major world events can really shake kids up)
  • Scary stories, books, movies, TV shows, games, etc.

It’s essential to teach kids how to cope with stress.  Simply telling them not to worry goes in one ear and out the other.  They need to practice stress relief strategies that they can use anywhere at any time.

Stress relief strategies for kids:

  • Deep breathing exercises:  Teach your child to breathe in slowly for a count of four, hold for three, and release for a count of four.  Deep breathing relaxes the central nervous system and helps reduce stress symptoms such as a racing heart, feeling dizzy, or sweaty palms.
  • Exercise:  Adequate daily exercise helps reduce overall symptoms of stress and anxiety.  Aim for at least 45 minutes of kid friendly (riding a bike, shooting hoops, etc) daily exercise.  Taking a 15 minute walk or kicking a soccer ball when under stress can also relieve the acute stress reaction and help your child open up and talk about it.
  • Worry journal:  Writing down their daily stressors can help kids get their feelings out.  Leave a journal by the bedside table and encourage your child to record her daily stressors and the things that made her happy.
  • Self-talk:  Talking your way through a stressful event can help restore a feeling of control.  Teach your child to talk back to her worried brain and take control over the situation in the process.
  • Consistent sleep:  Consistent sleep helps reduce stress.  Prioritize bedtime and set a good example for your kids by making sure that you get adequate sleep (10-12 for them, 7-8 for you).
  • Adequate nutrition:  A balanced diet helps keep stress under control.  Help your child learn to make the connections between food choices and behavioral reactions.  Be sure to stock your kitchen with plenty of healthy options and teach your kids to cook!
  • Hug it out:  Never underestimate the healing power of a hug.
  • Calming stones:  My DIY Calming Stones over on moonfrye are a great way to help kids feel calm and remember that good feelings are just around the corner.

How do you teach your kids to cope with stress?

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