Helping children get the best from stress

March 22, 2017 | Posted in: Elementary, High School, Middle Years

There’s a music video in my head that hasn’t been created yet.

The late David Bowie and the legendary, nuanced rock band Queen had an iconic collaborative song with a hyper-thumping bass line later sampled by the infamous Vanilla Ice. You know what song I am talking about.

In my video, a camera pans across a third-grade classroom taking an examination. Bodies fidget in seats. The camera zooms. Sweat beads on brows.  Pencils bend, then crack.

Under Pressure.

Testing is a fact of life. We get tested in grade school. We get tested in high school. We get tested at the DMV. Many of us will get tested for our jobs later in life.

When it comes to standardized testing in our schools, it’s a subject that continues to stir emotions. Ten minutes on Google will yield a parent with hundreds of results from hundreds of points of view.

In my family, my daughter will be taking the third-grade ELA standardized tests next week. She’s been talking about the tests now for a few weeks and we recently received our letter from the school informing us of what to expect and how to opt out if we choose to do so.

Parent Today explored the issue of standardized testing pressure in 2013 and offered some great suggestions.

Mary Havlik, a school psychologist who works at Cooperstown Central School District, also has some tips when it comes to tests and just in general. Havlik helps coordinate Cooperstown’s Mindfulness program, which aims to help students achieve balance in their lives by focusing on the present moment.

For more on Mindfulness, check out this article from Parent Today last fall.

Havlik offered these tips, which include some drawn from her own Mindfulness training. They are great for a big test or just in general.

  1. Get a good night’s sleep.
  2. Eat a good breakfast on the morning before an exam.
  3. Do deep breathing exercises right before the beginning of a test.

    A few easy things children can do is draw a star, take a deep breath in on the first line drawn and then a breath out for the next line, and so forth; trace each finger with your hand, taking a breath in as you trace up each finger and breath out as you go down; draw a figure eight sideways, breathing in for the right hand circle and out for the left side.

  4. Have a set schedule.

    When children know when it is homework time, down time, dinner time, and bedtime, it makes it easier for everyone.

  5. Limit screen time.

    Having a routine for the night which includes at least 30 minutes away from screens prior to going to sleep.

But it isn’t just tests in school that put kids under pressure. Children today are involved in more activities than ever. Days can seem like whirlwinds with afterschool activities, sports, youth groups and more. Some of the most stressful tests in life are those that aren’t on paper or a screen. They are how we react in a challenging situation. They are how we handle strained relationships. They are those moments when we are challenged to do the right thing, especially when no one is looking. In short, life is full of tests, many of which we don’t know we are taking until after they are over.

Well before I became a newspaper reporter and later a school public relations professional, I was in the Army Infantry where inducing stress was simply part of the deal. I didn’t make a career out of the service, but I did pick up a few tips on handling stressful situations.

1. Get a good night’s rest and eat a good breakfast.

These always seem to be near the top of these types of list, so there must be something to it.

2. Cultivate a sense of humor.

Laughter takes the edge off. A perfectly timed quip can go a long way toward easing pressure.

3. Keep the long view.

I was deployed along the Korean DMZ for a year. We could see a North Korean flag and a propaganda village from our base. Rather than count down the days until I was able to come home and see my family again, I focused on the present moment, knowing that what I was experiencing then would help me reach my goals later in life.

4. Stress is good.

It is a key ingredient for success. That is why the Army focuses so much on making life tough. Being able to react well when the going gets tough, pays dividends down the road.

5. Don’t forget the AAR.

After training missions and security details, we would have what is called an After-Action Review. We sat around in a group and talked through what went right; what went wrong; and what we might want to do differently in the future.

Some days I feel like a drill sergeant when I am herding my children to and from school and their activities. But as a father, I have a natural inclination to protect my kids and shelter them from the storm. More than anything else, I want my children to be well-adjusted, independent, successful and happy.

Although I won’t be making them low crawl underneath barbed wire or listen to Vanilla Ice, I do want to make sure I am striking the right balance between protecting them and letting them experience life’s challenges.

Jake Palmateer is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. He is the father of a 6-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter. Their adventures include camping, hiking, metal detecting, painting, stargazing, reading, fishing, soccer, mowing the lawn and baking cupcakes.

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