- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2004

Finding a stressed-out schoolchild, and a stressed-out teacher might not be too far away.

So says Sara E. Rimm-Kaufman, assistant professor of education at the University of Virginia. With all the new requirements being imposed on today’s teachers, their stress levels are on the rise.

Students can sense it.

That anxiety is one reason today’s schoolchildren may be under greater stress than their predecessors. The modern schoolchild is more likely to have divorced parents and can feel the societal pressure stemming from so many terror-laden headlines.

Ms. Rimm-Kaufman says a stressed teacher can’t help but affect the classroom setting.

“When teachers experience more stress, the classroom gets much more structured and more rigid,” says Ms. Rimm-Kaufman, who recently visited some Connecticut schools where she noticed the phenomenon. “Kids absorb some of that.”

Another stressor on many children of divorced parents comes from living two lives, one with Mommy for part of the week and another with Daddy.

“They need to make the transition from one to another,” she says. “Even when it’s polished, it can be really disconcerting.”

Deena Kotlewski, a Gaithersburg-based family counselor, pins some of the extra stress on today’s 24-hour news cycles and the media’s emphasis on terror concerns.

“Children feel a higher sense of anxiety being so close to the Pentagon,” Ms. Kotlewski says.

Pat Schwallie-Giddis, an assistant professor and director of graduate programs for George Washington University’s counseling department, agrees, saying our television culture makes bad news inescapable for children.

“You can’t watch TV and not be aware we’re having an orange alert,” Ms. Schwallie-Giddis says.

“People are much more tuned in to what’s happening in the world; it’s all in our living room,” she says. “Kids are more aware. It’s a much more stressful time than we’ve ever known, and kids see everything.”

Ms. Kotlewski says a stressed child has a number of ways to express his or her feelings.

“I’ve been seeing a lot of regressive behavior — tantrums, anger,” she says. “[Stressed children] tend to strike out in a bullying fashion. … They have a lot of defenses they’re using to cope.”

Worried children also might toss and turn at night, become socially withdrawn or bring home inferior report cards.

Parents are a child’s first line of defense, and sometimes, all a parent has to do is lend an ear to assuage the situation.

“Parents that sit down and listen and don’t interrupt their children, … they let the kid vent and express themselves,” Ms. Kotlewski says. Parents shouldn’t judge these conversations, she says.

“Just listening has a lot of value,” she says. “Sometimes a child just works things out.”

Parents also can let the child work through a school conflict for himself or herself.

“I usually ask them, ‘Why do you think that? Why is that the best way to do it?’ Often, the kid will talk themselves out of the wrong way of doing it,” Ms. Kotlewski says. Sometimes a child becomes defensive if a parent instantly labels his or her schoolyard behavior.

Parents also can help children by being solid role models. If a child watches a parent lose his or her cool during a confrontation, the child might think dealing with a troublesome classmate also demands yelling or fighting to set things straight.

“Some parents take on the child’s problem,” Ms. Kotlewski says. “We’ve had parents coming up and screaming at other children. When you’re aggressive at home, your child is bound to be aggressive at school.”

Ms. Schwallie-Giddis says some parents inadvertently stress out their children by overloading them with activities.

“Parents feel they’re doing the right thing for that child,” Ms. Schwallie-Giddis says. “Every season is a different sport. It’s hard for parents not to want to provide their children with these opportunities,” she says.

Parents would be better served by allowing their children time away from organized sports and other types of programmed activity.

Most of all, children respond to one-on-one time with their parents, she says.

“Children love that special attention. That’s particularly true for children in large families. If you can find a little time each day to spend with each child, even if it’s just 10 minutes just listening to them,” she says, the effects will be calming for the child.

Too many parents confuse any interaction with that kind of precious time. Asking a child about chores or homework isn’t the same kind of calming communication, she says.

“Parents feel like they have to stay on top of all the things kids need to do,” she says. “Take time for conversations when you’re not on the phone or not looking at the television.”

A lesson parents will learn over time is how each child chooses to process stress. Ms. Schwallie-Giddis says one of her granddaughters cherishes reading alone in her room at a time when her sister isn’t allowed to enter.

“It’s a place to go where she can be quiet, someplace to call her own,” she says. Often, the child will do something because he or she has seen a parent do the same to unwind.

Another cultural factor that affects schoolchildren is the pressure to excel in an increasingly competitive society. Dr. Lance Clawson, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and member of the nonprofit American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, says that while technology makes our lives easier, advanced expectations do the opposite.

“We have less room for people who just wanna be a car mechanic,” Dr. Clawson says. “Everybody wants to be a software engineer.”

The homework children bring home reflects the challenges they face.

“In my office, the parents shake their head looking at the homework,” he says. The parents tell him, “I would have never gotten through school with this.”

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