Children are over-stressed and under-slept, and don’t know how to handle it.
At least that’s what psychologist Dr. Stuart Shanker and project manager Mike McKay of the Canadian Self-Regulation Initiative told an auditorium filled with approximately 150 parents and teachers last week at Northern United Place in Yellowknife.
Too often, adults dismiss childhood fears as silly or as something the child shouldn’t worry about, but that’s not a solution, they said.
“If you think there’s a monster under the bed, there’s a monster under the bed,” said McKay.
The presentation was done in partnership with the Department of Education, Culture and Employment as part of the Education Renewal Initiative (ERI).
One of the goals of the initiative is to engage parents and teachers in helping students to learn independently. This particular presentation focused on self-regulation, which is the ability of a child to recognize they are stressed and find the cause, then find solutions to reduce stress, a process which parents and teachers can help with.
The public meeting was unrelated to the education renewal being proposed by the department, said ERI project manager Jon Stewart after the presentation.
“It’s not part of the politics of the renewal, but the practical stuff,” he said.
The session aimed to show parents and teachers how to help children handle stressful situations, which they emphasized are different for every child.
The theory of self-regulation is that human beings operate with two very different modes of the brain – survival brain and learning brain. When reacting to a high level of stress, the body concentrates solely on staying alive and shuts down functions not necessary to survival. Shanker compared it to the typical reaction to hypothermia.
When a student becomes stressed in the classroom over a problem, a confrontation with a classmate or another stressor, they might shut down and go into survival mode so that even though a teacher or a parent is talking (or yelling) at them, they aren’t going to listen.
“When a kid is under too much stress, they can’t tell you, but their reaction can show you,” said Shanker. “The child might not be able to hear you talking – their ability to read you goes away and they become very impulsive.”
Once an adult realizes a child is stressed, the first step is to help the child understand why they’re reacting that way and what’s causing the stress, Shanker said. When that self-awareness is achieved, working with the child to make self-regulating techniques comes next, followed by showing them how to avoid situations that stress them out.
“You don’t have to talk a child into being calm, because they want to be calm,” Shanker said. “They just might not know what it feels like.”
Aside from teaching parents and teachers how to help a child calm themselves down from a stressful situation, Shanker and McKay also warned the audience that today’s children have become the most stressed-out generation to date.
They listed screen time (video games and computer usage), food, sleep-hygiene (how well and long a child sleeps), play and exercise as influential parts of a child’s life that can either reduce or increase stress.
McKay said that through team work, stress can be reduced in children and they will have a better chance to learn.
“We learn better when we learn together,” he said.