Childhood Stress - Teaching and Integrating Science

Childhood Stress - Teaching and Integrating Science

Stress can be defined as “the body’s physical, chemical, and emotional reaction to an overwhelming, confusing, or exciting situation” (Latona, 2005, 1). All children are susceptible to various types of stress. Simply “being a child can be intrinsically stressful” (Lewis & Lewis, 1996, 66). Rutherford (2002) states that even very young children worry and feel stress to some degree. Stress can lead to many physical, emotional, behavioral, social, and academic repercussions in a child’s life. This topic of childhood stress clearly fits into the category of Life Science, since stress relates to humans.

A teacher may be able to determine whether a child is experiencing stress by being aware of the many physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms that children may exhibit. The way children respond to stress depends on factors such as age, temperament, and family environment. Also, adult symptoms of stress oftentimes differ from those of children, which makes it more difficult to recognize when children are stressed out (Stoppler, 2005). Some of the physical symptoms of childhood stress include headache, diarrhea, constipation, urinating often, weight loss/gain, changes in appetite, and fatigue. Children who are experiencing stress may also exhibit emotional and behavioral symptoms, such as anxiety, phobias, hyperactivity, temper tantrums, whining, sadness, mood swings, aggression, decreased academic performance, and/or bullying (Witkin, 1999).

Childhood stress comes in many forms. Teachers must be alert to and understand the causes of childhood stress in order to help students cope with stress. Some children have reported feeling worried and anxious about their future in general (Witkin, 1999). But, oftentimes, stress in children is caused by issues related to specific areas in their lives, including family, health, the environment, and school (Lewis & Lewis, 1996).

Family-related issues and complicated family dynamics within the home can contribute to varying degrees of childhood stress. According to a stress scale, the top two events that cause the greatest amount of stress an elementary age child are: the death of a parent and the divorce of parents (Lewis & Lewis, 1996). Some of the other stressors related to home life may include marital separation of parents, having a new baby in the home, parental neglect, verbal abuse, physical abuse, and arguments with family members. Sibling rivalry and unequal attention from parents also adds to the stress children feel at home. Birth order is another factor that is often a source of tension in many children, since being the oldest child, middle child, or youngest child in a family all involve unique pressures (Witkin, 1999).

Children can often experience a great deal of stress if they have health problems. Some of the health problems children may have include psychological/emotional conditions, such as ADD/ADHD, Clinical Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Autism. Children who are developmentally disabled may have special needs related to their physical, mental, or emotional well-being. Chronic illnesses, such as Asthma and Diabetes can also add stress to a child’s life. Other health-related issues, such as learning disabilities, allergies, infections, broken bones, getting braces, and beginning puberty all have the potential to cause tremendous amounts of stress in children’s lives (Witkin, 1999).

Childhood stress may also be caused by environmental factors, such as natural disasters, terrorism, war, crime, pollution, and plane crashes (Rutherford, 2002). Two examples of environmental disasters which recently occurred were the terrorism attack on September 11th and the recent tsunami in Thailand. Environmental stress is usually caused by worrying about personal safety and fearing the unknown. Children affected by environmental stress may have difficulty sleeping or may not want to be left alone. Environmental stress may cause children to obsess about the event or avoid things associated with that event (Witkin, 1999).

The classroom setting can present a multitude of stressful situations for children. Some school-related stress may relate to feeling overwhelmed by schoolwork, homework, extracurricular activities, grades, and high-stakes testing. Students may worry about the expectations of parents, teachers, and themselves about their academic performance. Interpersonal dynamics at school can add much stress to child’s life. Relationships with peers may bring up self-esteem issues such as insecurity, the desire to be accepted by classmates, and bullying. Depending on the particular situation, students’ relationships with teachers and other school authority figures can also cause stress (Witkin, 1999).

Although the causes of stress may vary from child to child, there are numerous coping strategies teachers can implement in the classroom to help students deal with stress. For example, teachers can consciously create classroom atmosphere that is relaxing, comfortable, and inviting. This can be achieved by using soft lighting and playing soothing music when possible, using aromatherapy, and ensuring good ventilation in the classroom (Lewis & Lewis, 1996).

Teachers should allow time for relaxation techniques, which can be especially beneficial to students prior to formal assessments. Examples of relaxation techniques include quiet reflection, guided imagery, deep breathing, stretching, and other mind-body exercises (Lewis & Lewis, 1996). Exercise can be used as a stress-reduction technique, so it is important to incorporate physical activity throughout the day. In addition, it is important for teachers to encourage and model healthy eating habits (Zolten, 1997).

Students will know what is expected of them if they are in a classroom that is safe, familiar, and consistent. Ideally, teachers will use positive reinforcement and rewards instead of negative reinforcement and punishment. Teachers should help teach students good organizational skills and study habits by modeling good behavior.

Educators must attempt to meet the needs of the whole child. The role of instructors is not only to teach standard curriculum, but also to act as a support system for children who are faced with unique challenges. It is critical that teachers are aware of the many causes and symptoms of childhood stress in order to better serve their students. If teachers know how to recognize when students are experiencing stress, they will know which strategies to implement at appropriate times in order to help their students cope with life’s struggles. Teachers also need to teach children how to develop life skills that will help them effectively cope with daily stressors, life events, and changes. In some instances, teachers should know when to refer students to professional help if they are having a significant amount of trouble academically, socially, and/or behaviorally.


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