Based on the Dutch Early Years Blog written by Tamara Wally.
We ask a lot of young children, sometimes without even knowing it. In class they hear sounds and noise all day long. We tell them to be considerate of other children and play together. We teach them to follow rules, like sitting on a chair during meal time and cleaning up after yourself. We encourage them to do things they have never done before so they can learn new skills. And now and then they are cared for by substitute teachers who are still unfamiliar to them. Taken together, even a regular day at (pre)school puts stress on children. So how can you recognize unhealthy stress levels in children and what can you do to help them relax?
Signals of stress
Stress triggers physical reactions in the body for both adults and children. Your heart rate gets elevated and your breaths get more shallow. It increases our alertness, but it also makes us agitated. In young children stress is clearly recognizable in their behavior: they are tired, restless, rebellious, or they get really angry, sad or frustrated by the smallest things. Sometimes we see that children take a step back in their development because of stress. Wetting their pants is a common example of this. Other examples are a strong desire to read books they loved to read when they were younger, or children who no longer draw people as detailed as they used to. These are important signals to notice because when a child is taking a step back in their development you should take a step back as well.
Tips and tricks for relaxing
It is not bad by definition when children experience stress. It is a normal part of life, especially when children transition to a new developmental phase. But it is important to also teach children how to deal with this stress. We have to teach them how they can recognize their own build up of stress and give them strategies to cope with that stress and relax. Creating a physical space for relaxation is an important first step. This is preferably a tidy place, without much noise or with calm instrumental background music. Moreover, there are several activities that can help children relax:
- Breathing exercise
Singing a song together or blowing bubbles are activities that can help children cope with shallow breathing. But you could also try more explicit breathing exercises. Tell children to lay down on the floor comfortably with a stuffed animal on their belly. Ask them to breathe slowly to their belly where they can see the animal moving up and down with every breath they take.
- Physical activity
Physical exercises are great to release the built up stress in your body. Jumping up and down, dancing or shaking your body helps to redistribute your energy over your entire body. Physical activities are especially useful after children spend some time sitting still (for instance during meal time). Going outside for this is even better as fresh air has a positive effect on stress. You can also give the children exercises to tense and relax their muscles. An easy way to do this with young children is to give them a large stuffed animal or pillow and ask them to squeeze into it as hard as they can with both arms and Moreover, there are several fun yoga exercises for children that can have similar effects.
- Repetitive activities
In general, new activities are stressful for children, known activities are relaxing. Make sure you have enough repetitive activities throughout the day. For instance, use the same routine every day like singing a specific song when cleaning up. Also read the same book more than once. Finally, repetitive activities can be found in physical activities with rhythmic motions such as rolling a ball back and forth and playing on a sling or seesaw.
- Easy play
When we want children to grow, we let them do things that they are not yet capable of doing completely on their own. Help children relax after such an activity by letting them do something that is already known and rather easy for them. For instance, scratching with pencils on a large paper, a puzzle that they are familiar with or reading a book that is rather easy for their age.
Remember, what is relaxing for one child can be rather stressful for another child. And if something is effective on one day, that does not mean it will be equally effective the next day. Look closely at the needs of individual children and the moments you use to help them relax. Try to vary in your approaches or even combine them.