How Kids Can Cope With Stress in Our Unpredictable New Reality
by Whitney Stewart
October 26, 2017
In the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, six of the largest school districts in the United States closed, and 1.7 million American students missed school. This figure doesn’t take into account school interruptions after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and elsewhere where officials have no clear timeline for school re-openings for over 350,000 students.
According to some experts, such school closings could have disastrous consequences the likes of which we’ve seen only after Hurricane Katrina. I worry about the students in Texas, Louisiana, Florid, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands who have been displaced by these recent storms, because they may experience the kind of stress my New Orleans students had to handle in 2005 and 2006. Officials on the ground are already reporting a mental health crisis in Puerto Rico. And, as if the hurricanes aren't enough, scenes of assault weapons spraying bullets on a crowd in Las Vegas pop up in our children's news feeds and cause more anxiety.
After Hurricane Katrina forced evacuations and devastated New Orleans, I returned home and volunteered to teach creative writing in a public school. My plan was to help children write stories to express their emotions and creative voice. I quickly discovered, however, that many of my students had high levels of anxiety and poor academic success. They had difficulty focusing in class, following my instruction, and sitting still to write. They also fought with each other on the playground. As I got to know them, I learned why.
Many of these children were growing up in poverty, and their families had limited resources to evacuate during the storm. Some had stayed in New Orleans and witnessed trauma. After Katrina, their families moved to other cities – often living in shelters – and my students had missed school. Like many displaced children, they exhibited depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders. Some also faced other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including abuse, neglect, exposure to unsafe environments, and a broken family structure.
Research has shown that children who experience stressful events at an early age may have behavior problems and below-average academic and literacy skills. They are also at increased risk for developing health problems as adults. The good news is that children often respond well to interventions, including classroom mindfulness activities. With a mindfulness program, teachers have reported improved classroom behavior of their students especially in the areas of paying attention, self-control, participation, and respect for others. As a long-time practitioner of mindfulness, I decided to teach my students mindful techniques at the start of each writing class.
Mindfulness is a method of paying attention – on purpose, with kindness and patience – to what’s going on inside and outside of you in each moment. This practice gives adults and children strategies for developing self-awareness and acceptance, improving mental focus, handling difficult emotions, and increasing kindness and empathy. In my writing class, I taught my students many of the mindfulness exercises I still use today as a way of preparing them for the day, and for writing. Here is a sample:
Feel your breath come into your nose or mouth, into your lungs, and into your tummy. Feel your lungs release each breath before you take another. Put all of your attention on the air going in and out. If you start thinking about something, shift your attention back to your breathing. This exercise helps you focus on where you are and what you are experiencing in your body in the moment.
Squeeze and release
After taking three mindful breaths, focus your attention on your feet. Squeeze all the muscles tight and then release. Move your attention up your body, squeezing and releasing all your muscle groups until your reach your head. End with three more mindful breaths. This exercise, too, brings your awareness to the physical sensations in your body. You can try it lying down to help you relax.
Try this one as a way to release the stressful thoughts that are bothering you. Think of your worries as bubbles that pop. Take three mindful breaths and imagine holding a bubble wand. Breathe in and notice your worry. Breathe out and blow your worry through the wand to form a bubble that floats away and pops. This is a way to see your thoughts as temporary and release them. Repeat the visualization until you feel ready to continue your day. This exercise may not take away immediate problems, but it gives you a tool to release troubling thoughts so you are better prepared to face your life.
Finding the pause
Breathe normally, and at the end of each breath, notice the short pause before you breathe in again. Relax a different part of your body during each pause. Continue as long as you wish, relaxing your whole body a little more with each pause. This exercise helps you handle your emotions and problems with more confidence.
I taught my students these or similar techniques, which we used before writing. In the absence of a controlled study, I can only report that I saw many changes in my students over the school year. At the start of my class, the majority of my students could not write a complete grammatical sentence much less a story with an intact narrative thread.
By the end, every student contributed at least one complete story to our classroom collection, which we printed and bound. They also performed on stage, many reading their writing aloud to a packed auditorium. They also improved in paying attention and controlling their behavior. We simply got along better by the end of the year, and my students were calmer, at least in our classroom.
For the teachers and school administrators who have been affected by the 2017 storms, I wish them courage as they face the challenges of returning to school. They too had to evacuate or shelter in place and may struggle to create a safe environment for their students who could be traumatized. I hope they can put interventions in place that allow for healing and growth during this tough time.
No matter how bleak or surreal our daily reality becomes, our kids don't deserve to fall into a desensitized-yet-anxious funk we often feel, especially after a series of crises. We owe them a way to cope. Mindfulness is a helpful tool.
For more on mindfulnes, visit Barefoot Books. Whitney Stewart is the author of "Mindful Kids: 50 Activities for Kindness, Focus, and Calm".