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How Can a Five-Year-Old Be Stressed?

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Childhood is changing and we'd better start to address it soon.

Ongoing research on kids' psychological development suggests that kids who are excessively withdrawn, or hyper-reactive, or act out too much are often sending a signal that their stress levels are too high. There is also a growing amount of research suggesting that kids have much higher levels of physiological stress than they did a generation ago and the adults in their lives need to start recognizing when children's problematic behaviours are due to these high stress levels.

Many perceive childhood as a time of simplicity and play. However, children show stress in complex ways that can represent serious signs of anxiety or a nervous system that is overloaded.

Understanding that burden requires us to think of child stress differently than adult stress. Kids don't have to deal with the pressures of work, money and marriage. So how can a five-year-old be stressed?

Noisy streets bustling with traffic in an increasingly urbanized society or the incessant buzzing and flickering of a fluorescent bulb overhead or on a screen in front of them can contribute to our kids' daily stress levels.

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Using punishment and reward for kids who are overly disruptive and easily distracted doesn't work very well. In some cases, it even exacerbates the problem. Instead of trying to force children to behave according to the rules, we need to recognize these behaviours for what they are -- signs of an over-stretched nervous system.

The Milton & Ethel Harris Research Initiative (MEHRI) at York University has developed an approach to improving childhood development based on tapping into kids' ability to manage their own stress. The process, called self-regulation, is being implemented in a number of B.C. school districts and will soon launch in Ontario schools and roll out in other jurisdictions across the country in stages.

In its simplest terms, self-regulation teaches kids to deal with being over-stressed by recognizing the signs and teaching them to reduce their physiological stress, gain control of their emotions, stay calm and alert. It refers to how efficiently and effectively a child deals with stress and then recovers.

This is critical because problems with self-regulation are a predictor of internalizing problems, anti-social behaviour and susceptibility to drug use later in life. Studies have also tied poor self-regulation to a wide range of issues, including obesity, risky behaviour and attentional problems.

The better kids self-regulate, the better they can control impulses or delay gratification, and focus on learning.

And let's not forget about those who care for the child. Teaching successful self-regulation strategies to children can also lead to a dramatic drop in parental, caregiver and teacher stress, which, in turn, will benefit the child too.

The first step is identifying stressors, whether physiological, emotional, environmental, cognitive or social. Perhaps a child needs a quiet library space at the back of the classroom to calm down or a learning space with fewer distractions.

If a child tends to wake up feeling irritable, exercises such as stretching, push-ups or star jumps and breathing exercises and yoga can improve their mood while teaching them control. But kids need to see these activities as fun. Making them the leaders of their own learning is a powerful tool that isn't used enough.

Play can also be a big part of this method. When kids lead playtime based on their interests, they become focused and tune into what their playmates are thinking as they decide what to build, what story to tell or what game to play. Play fosters connections between people, objects and ideas.

MEHRI's interest in self-regulation arose from their research into treatment options for autism, a condition that impairs social interaction, communication and leads to restricted, repetitive behaviour patterns.

A child with autism will often shut down under too much stress and become unable to engage with others. The MEHRI team of scientists and clinicians is exploring ways to mitigate the severity of the disorder by reducing the downstream effects of poor self-regulation, allowing for more self-control and social interaction.

Using these strategies at home and in the public school system means children with autism will have strategies to cope in different settings, even in classrooms full of potential distractions. The research also suggests that what works to reduce the stressors for children with autism can work for all children. And that all children today do indeed need help with far too many stressors in their lives.

Our ability to reach as many kids as possible, teaching them the skills to manage their stress, can make all the difference in their future success.