Chronic School Stress and Children

Stress is defined by the American Psychological Association as; any uncomfortable "emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioralschool stress changes. Some stress can be beneficial for our wellbeing; however, when stressors become chronic this is when it can affect our health.” Chronic stress occurs when everyday stressors are ignored or poorly managed, as well as exposure to a traumatic event. Chronic stress can lead to anxiety and depression as well as risk for heart disease or abuse of addictive substances.  

A recent article by ADDitude Magazine; Why School Stress is Devastating for Our Children, explored how chronic stress is affecting children especially ones with ADHD and learning disabilities (LD).  This is troubling because chronic stress can affect our brains and how we handle situations. It can also prevent us from reaching our potential and succeeding, and in some children, it affects their desire to attend school.

As parents and teachers, what can we do if the chronic stress of school is affecting our child to the extent that they no longer want to attend?

First, we need to look at why this is happening; Dr. Jerome Schultz explains that chronic stress decreases memory and cognitive flexibility as well as increases anxiety and vigilance which in turn increases an individual’s defenses. This behavior is often read as willful or oppositional instead of the defensive protective stance a child is taking to not look inadequate or like a failure. This protective stance comes from the experience many children with ADHD and LD have because these children often have more failures than successes in school; this affects their outlook and behavior towards school. Their self-esteem weakens, and they feel like a constant failure. These feelings build up and create stress overtime which turns into chronic stress.

Since the behavior often presents itself as oppositional, teachers and parents react to it with punishment which is not helpful for these children and continues to feed into their feelings of failure thus continuing to increase their stress.

So how do we deal with it positively?

Neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Eric Kandel, M.D., explained that just as fear, distress, and anxiety change the brain to generate sequences of destructive behaviors, the right interventions turn the cycle around. Below is the method created by Dr. Schultz to DE-STRESS the situation:

  • Define the condition- make sure the adults involved in the child’s life understand and agree on the cause of the challenge. The adults need to come to some consensus about the child’s condition. A plan built on guesses or misinformation is destined to fail.
  • Educate-Informed adults (parents, psychologists, teachers) need to educate the child about the nature of his/her challenges. Only an informed child can be a self-advocate.
  • Speculate-Think about how the child’s strengths and assets, as well as his challenges, will impact his prospects going forward. Think ahead: What’s going to get in the way of success and what should be done to minimize disappointments and derailments?
  • Teach- Educate the child about how to use strategies that will address his specific needs and maximize his success. Give the student the tools he needs to take this bull by the horns and wrestle it to the ground.
  • Reduce the risk-Create learning environments that focus on success and that minimize the risk of failure (small classes, individualized attention, and support, providing time and space to reinforce learning, decreasing distractions).
  • Exercise-There is scientific evidence that physical activity reduces stress. Make sure that the student is engaged in a regular program of physical activity. Collect evidence that shows that exercise enhances mood and learning.
  • Success-Replace doubt with confidence by creating a learning environment that allows the student to experience success more often than failure. Make sure that fear, frustration, and failure are overshadowed by successes. Show the child that confidence and control are by-products of being competent. Help the child internalize a mantra: “Control through competence.”
  • Strategize-Use what you and your child have learned about achieving success in order to plan ahead. Find opportunities to confirm that confidence and a stress-reducing sense of control come naturally from feeling competent. Teachers and parents should make learning from errors part of the plan, and help the child move from strength to strength.

Dr. Schultz also explains; unless students have the opportunity to learn skills that allow them to bypass or overcome learning weaknesses, they are likely to exhibit the fight-or-flight response. Fortunately, the changes in neuronal circuitry associated with chronic stress are reversible in a healthy, resilient brain.

Play Attention is an intervention to use in conjunction with Dr. Schultz's method. Play Attention is a neurocognitive learning system that improves cognitive skills associated with executive function, which reduces impulsivity, helps with task switching, aids in rational thoughts on emotions, supports the ability to plan and organize, and benefits self-regulation. This is a program will make changes in your child’s mind and self-esteem and strengthen life-long skills and reduce stress.  Your child will benefit from Play Attention’s skill building and behavior shaping for the rest of their life.