As we are finally back to school, it is important to also acknowledge and address the stress that may accompany a return to the school environment. Any transition to a new setting can be stressful, especially for children with disabilities. The combination of an unfamiliar environment, interactions with peers, classroom expectations, unpredictability, reduced control, change of routine, challenging coursework, facing the unknown, or the impact of disabilities can signal the stress system (aka sympathetic nervous system)  in our children’s bodies. This is also known as the fight, flight or freeze system. When faced with fear, uncertainty, a perceived threat, or the anticipation of a stressor our bodies will increase the stress messengers of the body (aka adrenaline and cortisol). This results in changes in breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, posture, concentration, and also systems like digestion. As this is a normal response in the human body, sometimes it can be overactive and can impact a child’s ability to engage with peers and learning activities. 

As parents/ educators/ therapists, our desire is that our kids thrive and enjoy learning about our crazy, cool world with confidence and curiosity. A calm, confident, and aroused state is key to this success in the classroom and with peers. Luckily, our body always tries to have a balance (homeostasis) by having its own checks and balance system. 

Introducing: the de-stress system (aka parasympathetic nervous system) which counteracts the stress messengers and helps achieve a calm state. Successful strategies of managing stress often include techniques that help stimulate this de-stress system. Such strategies include slow/ controlled breathing, postural alignment, reducing arousing stimulus, adjusting exposure to stressors, calming touch, engagement in a soothing activity, spending time in nature, and consistent exercise. 

Below are some practical tips to incorporate these de-stressing strategies into your household routine for your children and the whole family!

Recommendations:

  1. Open and supportive communication 
    • Assist your child in processing events of the day, interactions they experience, and their emotions. Not only does this give you a glimpse of their day, but it also enhances child/ parent bonding and it provides your child with a safe and trusted place to process complex feelings and thoughts. One practical way is for each member of the household to discuss highs and lows of that day at a designated time. This is a good opportunity to model emotional regulation for your children, by showing how you as an adult also face highs and lows and move forward in healthy and productive ways. Decluttering the mind reduces stress.
  2. Deep breathing
    • Slow, deep, controlled breathing stimulates the de-stress system. One way to do this is to have your child place their hands on their stomach and breathe in through their nose so that their stomach fills and pushes into their hands. Hold for 3-5 seconds and then slowly blow the breath out through the mouth. You can make it fun by placing a toy on their belly and watch it move up and down as they inhale/ exhale.
  3. Yoga & Mindfulness
    • Yoga combines intense tactile input, exercise, and coordinated breathing which stimulates the de-stress system while also promoting strength, stability, and balance. One free resource is cosmic kids yoga on youtube which provides fun and popular, kid-specific themes. Mindfulness is another effective strategy to help stimulate a calm and self aware state that is ready to learn and engage with others. One resource that has a variety of mindfulness activities is the OT Toolbox blog (https://www.theottoolbox.com/mindfulness-for-kids/).
  4. Address Sensory needs
    • Kiddos with sensory processing difficulties may also experience stress if they are over or under stimulated. Some children may be sensory seekers or instead sensory avoiders. Depending on the child, they may need increased or decreased sensory input to promote a calm state of arousal. An idea to address the needs of sensory seekers is to perform handstands against a wall when they arrive home from school. When sensory needs are significant and impacting their success at school and home, your child may benefit from a consultation with an occupational therapist.
  5. Exercise and play
    • Research supports that individuals who engage in regular, consistent exercise have reduced baseline stress levels. There are also countless studies that support positive impacts of exercise on mental health, anxiety, and depression. After sitting in a classroom the majority of the day, it is important for our kiddos to engage in physically active play as this promotes their development and brain health.
  6. Engage in Soothing Activities
    • Every person is unique and has different preferences for calming activities. Some examples can be listening to or playing music, going outside in nature, art, reading independently, story time with a caregiver, or journaling. The key is to find an activity that promotes a calm state for that specific child.
  7. Reduce screen time
    • High levels of screen time are correlated with increased anxiety and depression with adolescents and teens. Although screen time can have a calming impact, take into consideration the lighting of the device and that screen time can be an isolating activity. 
  8. Stress education
    • There is an expanding library of educational resources for children to better understand their bodies and how it processes stress. Knowledge and understanding of how our bodies work can help kids interpret why they feel certain thoughts, sensations, or emotions and provide them with effective strategies to stimulate the de-stress system independently. Here are two youtube videos that provide stress education for the adolescent and primary school aged child. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Nf2Pzcketg (adolescent) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYFofKgBHxU (child)
  9. Adjust and limit exposure to stressors
    • Reducing activities that stimulate the stress system can also reduce your child’s stress level at school. Getting ready in the morning before school is a common example of a major stressor. So planning ahead, giving adequate time, incorporating routines, setting clear expectations, and setting clothes out the night before can eliminate the stress of rushing to get to the bus or school. Think about what are potential stressors for you and your child and how things can be adjusted to reduce that stressor.
  10. Have fun
    • The happy chemicals that our brains produce when we are enjoying what we are doing also counteracts the stress system. What brings your child true joy? Incorporate that into their routine to promote wellbeing.

This post is for education purposes only. Please seek medical advice from a licensed health care provider that directly manages your care.

Further reading on stress:

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