Archive for School stress

When Trauma Happens in a Classroom or School

Unfortunately, we live in a world where trauma happens. It might be a school shooting, a natural disaster, or a significant loss of a student, teacher, or admin, but it happens more often that we’d like. I recently sat in with a classroom of 4thgraders who lost a fellow schoolmate to a fatal disease—a significant school trauma. Their journey in understanding what happened is complicated, but I was grateful to be there to help them through it using The Imagine Project.

Drew Rushton is described as a fun-loving, kind, silly, Dennis the Menace type kid who was a ray of sunshine in the eyes of those who had the honor of knowing and loving him. He knew no enemies and was gracious to everyone—which means he had a lot of friends who will miss him. With the loss of Drew comes great sadness to many, particularly his friends and classmates. I was asked by a 4thgrade teacher to come in and help start The Imagine Project process just about 2 weeks after Drew’s passing. Drew was not in this particular classroom, but he was the same age and many of the kids were friends or had known him from previous classes.

The second step of The Imagine Project asks the kids to write a down something that has been difficult for them in their lives. Yes, even young kids have experienced tough times, the most common are moving, loss of pets or grandparents, injuries, or parents divorcing. Sadly, in the class there were more than a handful of kids who wrote down, “Drew”, just “Drew”. For a few of the students, it was all they could write. They couldn’t add any more details, just “Drew”.

Step 3 asks each student to write an Imagine story—telling in more detail the story of their difficult experience—each sentence begins with the word Imagine…  Ann Henderson, their teacher (who was wonderful BTW), and I walked around the classroom helping them with ideas, spelling, how to write, etc. There were a few kids who were able to write their feelings about Drew, even though it was hard, they found the words. But there were a few more that had a hard time saying what was in their hearts and minds. They wanted to write, but it was too hard for them, they didn’t want to cry, and they knew they would. It’s painful to talk about a loss that still hurts. We encouraged them, but they just couldn’t. So we honored their feelings and after some time writing, we brought everyone together in a circle. Bravely, one little boy read his story about Drew out loud to the other kids.

Imagine having a friend who was incredible.

Imagine that friend becoming very sick.

Imagine thinking that friend would be okay even though he had been through a lot.

Imagine that friend dying.

Imagine seeing his body and signing the casket.

Imagine going to his celebration of life and hearing stuff about him you never knew.

Imagine knowing he’s in a better place.

Gavin, 4thgrade

As Gavin read his story I watched the other kids, particularly the ones who struggled writing their stories. They were fighting back the tears, hearing and feeling similar emotions. After they read their stories (those that wanted to) we talked a bit about how hard it was to not have Drew there anymore. I was even able to do a group round of tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique—see below) with the kids which really helped them let go of some of their sadness and move into the comfort of knowing Drew is in a better place.

There is such comfort knowing others feel the same as you do when you’re hurting. It doesn’t necessarily take the pain away, but it helps. I’m told over and over again by teachers and counselors that The Imagine Project brings out buried feelings and opens up avenues of compassion and empathy for kids (and adults). A child writing about a difficult time is powerful, hopeful, and healing—and they love it! They want to share how they feel and many of them just don’t know how—it’s not a skill we always teach to kids, but it’s so important.

Giving a classroom, school, or community the opportunity to work through a traumatic time is critical for healing and bringing kids and adults together in a comradery they may never have experienced before. They grow together in healing, love, trust, and empathy because they understand each other and themselves a little bit better.

If your school, classroom, group, or community has experienced any sort of traumatic experience, it’s helpful to have those involved write their Imagine stories together. By writing and sharing, there is a deeper understanding of our own hearts and minds, and those around us. What a great way to bring people together and embrace the amazing human resilience. We are all resilient, it’s just easier when you have others who understand and maybe even feel similar.

Ms. Henderson had this to say after doing The Imagine Project with her class:

My overall takeaway is that the project gave the students permission and encouragement to write and talk about their feelings in an open and safe forum. A very few students have had some counseling before and sharing in this way has been normalized, but many students have had less exposure to the idea that they can/should get their feelings out and learn how to process them. With a common trauma, I think this is especially important because the kids know that other peers are finding this difficult time too, and that it’s ok to feel upset and ungrounded at the moment.”

She added the next day that the kids were overall calmer too. Does The Imagine Project help with childhood trauma—absolutely. Is it easy to implement—yes! Will it bring up emotion for everyone, probably, but you can always try using Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) with yourself and the kids to help. If you want to learn more about EFT (also called tapping) you can google it and watch a few YouTube videos or I explain how to use it in my book: The Imagine Project: Empowering Kids to Rise Above Drama, Trauma, and Stress. The Imagine Project Journals can be downloaded for free here.

Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT or Tapping)

Wording I used for group tapping in this classroom—the kids repeated after me and tapped where I tapped:

“Even though I’m sad Drew is gone, I love and accept myself” (above the eyebrow)

“Even though it’s hard not to have Drew around anymore, I love and accept myself” (under the eye)

“Even though I’m sad Drew is gone, I love an accept myself” (under the nose)

“It’s hard to lose someone you love” (chin)

“I miss Drew a lot” (collar bone)

“I wish I could see him again” (under the arm)

“My heart is sad” (top of the head)

“I hope I feel better soon” (eyebrow)

“It helps to know my friends feel the same way I do” (under the eye)

“I know my feelings will get better” (nose)

“It helps to know he’s in a better place” (chin)

“He’s probably watching over us right now” (collar bone)

“I bet he’s smiling and playing and laughing” (under the arm)

“It makes me smile to think of him smiling” (top of the head)

“He’s happy and that makes me feel better” (eyebrow)

**The trick to tapping is using the points that are typical in tapping and saying what the other person/student might be feeling. You may not know exactly what they are feeling, but you will have a sense and you can try a few different emotions/thoughts to get to their general thoughts. After acknowledging their painful emotions it’s important to bring them around to positive thoughts, gently.

Thank you and happy Imagining!

Love,

Dianne

The Gift of Gratitude

With the holidays comes family, fun, and gifts! There’s no better time of year to each a child (and adults) the importance of gratitude beyond the “Thank you” that comes after receiving a gift. Daily gratitude is such a simple idea/process, yet most people overlook it’s amazing benefits. Dr. David Hamilton, author of Why Kindness is Good for You, writes, “Gratitude is a mark of being kind to life by being aware of all that is around us, and when we are grateful, we acknowledge the people and situations in our life and express thanks for them.” We teach our children to say “thank you,” but it’s also important to model and teach them to see gratitude as a key philosophy of life. Seeing and feeling gratitude every day is one key to being resilient and successful.

There is quite a bit of research on gratitude and it’s positive effects. These positive effects make sense because when you think about what you feel grateful for, you can’t help but feel relaxed, fulfilled, and blessed.

The benefits of gratitude:

  • Greater sense of well-being
  • Improved physical health
  • Improved self-esteem, resilience, and empathy
  • Decreased aggression
  • Increased optimism
  • Improved sleep

Gratitude even improves relationships. Research shows that saying thank you to someone helps to create a more positive relationship. When a child feels gratitude from his or her parents for being helpful or for just being a good kid, the child feels safer and more empowered to say something when they are upset and need to talk.

It is fairly easy to teach kids to practice a life philosophy of gratitude. Using the 30-day Imagine, Gratitude, and Kindness Challenge (Step 7 in My Imagine Journal) is a good place to start—especially during the holidays. Kids can have fun creating a family gratitude board or a gratitude box where everyone can write, keep, and even share what they feel grateful for anytime of year. We play The Gratitude Game in the car or at meal- time. Particularly if someone has had a bad day, this can help them put their experiences in perspective and feel better.

The gratitude game:

Each person takes a turn saying what they are grateful for, beginning with, “I am grateful for…”. We can be grateful for anything in life, even our pillows or phones, waking up on the more or just life in general! Everyone takes at least three turns. By the 3rdturn you should see and feel more positivity in the air!

 If someone is unhappy about something, it may help to first clear the air by letting them talk about what’s upsetting them, while others listen with compassion. After they’ve had their say, feel more relaxed, and are ready to change perspective, switch it to gratitude, and watch moods brighten.

 If someone wants to remain cranky, it might feel like pulling teeth to get them to join the game, but be patient and gently invite them to join when they feel ready. They may be content to listen—and benefit from it—especially if they know it’s not being done to manipulate their mood. Even if they continue to resist, simply let them be, and honor their desire to come around in their own time, on their own terms.

Even before the gifts begin to open, it’s so important to teach a child to find gratitude in every day. Begin each morning by taking turns saying what everyone is grateful for; end each day with the same practice; both are life long practices that positively change brain function and will improve anyone’s outlook on life.

It’s with my deepest gratitude and love for believing in The Imagine Project, Inc.

Happy Holidays,

Dianne

Child Stress Symptoms

Stress is a normal, unavoidable part of life. It’s actually good for a child to experience small amounts of manageable stress, such as frustration with learning a new skill, dealing with being late to a birthday party due to traffic, or worrying about saying the wrong line in a school play. Learning to deal with the minors stressors of life as a child, when a parent is around to teach them healthy coping skills, will support them as they grow and face more difficult life challenges.

Unfortunately however, when a child experiences frequent, chronic, or overwhelming stress, survival mode becomes the norm and the brain and body learn to stay in a stressed state. These chronic stress patterns can hamper healthy brain development, leading to a brain imbalance where the emotional part of the brain becomes overdeveloped and the thinking part of the brain remains underdeveloped. This brain imbalance can create significant mental and emotional issues such as agitation, anxiety, impulsiveness, hyperactivity, an inability to focus, lacking empathy, low emotional control, poor decision-making, and weak problem-solving abilities. Chronic stress can also cause a host of minor, and sometimes significant, physical health problems, such as an impaired immune system, slowed growth, aches and pains, and poor digestion.

How can you tell if a child is over-stressed? Look for these physical and emotional child stress symptoms:

Physical Child Stress Symptoms:

  • Stomachaches
  • Frequent headaches
  • Acne
  • Dizziness
  • Bowel problems
  • Bedwetting
  • Change in appetite or food cravings
  • Frequent or lengthy illnesses

Emotional Child Stress Symptoms:

  • Clingy
  • Change in quality of school work
  • New compulsive habits such as hair twirling, nose picking, hand washing, or thumb sucking
  • Too much or too little sleep
  • Mood swings
  • They begin lying or become quiet or secretive
  • Change in eating habits
  • Angry or aggressive behavior

If there is any notable regression or worrisome change in a child’s behavior and/or decline in physical health, it is important to step back and consider whether too much stress is the root cause.

How Can You Help a Stressed Child?

  • First and foremost, spend extra time listening. Your careful, quiet listening helps a child feel heard and validated.
  • Hold space for big emotions. This means being a compassionate, nonjudgmental witness while a child expresses him- or herself. Encourage the child to verbalize feelings, even draw them if they like to draw.
  • Set limits, such as, “When you’re angry, don’t touch anyone or anything.”
  • Suggest they move to get some negative energy out. “Would it help to run up and down the hall for a few minutes?”
  • Instead of interjecting an interpretation or drawing your own conclusions, support the child’s developing ability to analyze and solve problems by reflecting what you’ve heard and asking exploratory questions.
  • Remember, questions that only require a “yes” or “no” answer can stop conversations in their tracks. And “Why” questions can feel pointed or punitive instead of caring.
  • Ask open-ended questions that inspire sharing and reflection, such as, “How are you feeling?” or “What was your day like today?” Or simply invite them to “Tell me more.”
  • Reflect back what you heard, such as, “It sounds like you had a very frustrating time and got hurt by your friends today.”
  • Notice how your child is feeling and reflect on the emotions expressed, “It sounds/looks like you’re really angry (sad, hurt, worried, etc.).”
  • Ask for thoughts about why that happened and ideas for possible solutions. Let them know you can offer help if they want it.

Your listening and caring reflection can encourage children to move through stress reactions and painful emotions, maybe not immediately, but much more quickly than if they don’t feel heard and cared for. By listening to them, asking them what they need, what they want to happen, what they see as solutions, and whether they want your help, you are also providing a supportive connection, teaching children how to manage stress, and promoting healthy brain development.

Sometimes all a child needs is a hug, your compassionate eyes, and/or a verbal acknowledgement that he/ she is experiencing a stressful moment or challenging times. If you or your child/student are really struggling and can’t seem to get on top of the stress, you may need to find a counselor who can help. Having a child write their Imagine story will support them immensely, and it can be a tool to use for a lifetime (you can write one too). Giving a child tools to support their mental health is equally as important as watching over their physical health. A healthy mind, heart, and body will bring joy and positivity to them, you, and the world.

To learn more about stress and trauma in kids and teens you can read The Imagine Project: Empowering Kids to Rise Above Drama, Trauma, and Stress (Yampa Valley Publishing, 2017)

Love,

Dianne

Dianne Maroney is a Clinical Nurse Specialist in Psychiatric/Mental Health Nursing. She is the founder of The Imagine Project, Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps kids, teens, and adults overcome challenging life circumstances through expressive writing. Dianne is a thought leader in the area of stress and trauma in children. Her simple, yet profound 7-step writing tool, now used by schools across the US, gives kids and teens the opportunity to rewrite a challenging personal story and Imagine new possibilities in its place.

 

 

Tips to Help your Kids Cope with Daily Stress

Let’s face it—kids may not always show it, but they are stressed. They may seem happy go lucky on the outside, but in their hearts and minds they can be struggling with common stressors such as pressures at school (or home), feeling pushed internally or externally to do their best (or better), handling the drama with friends, worrying about social media, and sadly, hearing about the negative events of the world. Research has shown the in the last 6 years there has been a giant spike in the amount of anxiety and depression in kids—these mental health imbalances can be a direct result of chronic or intense stress (The Self-Driven Child, Stixrud, PhD).

An important aspect of keeping stress at bay is setting a foundation to offset stress first thing in the morning. Most of us can benefit from using techniques that help to put us in a positive mindset so we can handle the inevitable stress of each day, yet many of us don’t take the time to take care of ourselves (or teach our kids the importance of self-care).  What if you tried a few simple and easy techniques in the morning? Simple ideas that only require about 10 minutes. What if you shared these with your kids/students, teaching them that self-care is critical to a healthy mindset in life? What techniques will help us bring a positive and grounded mindset to our day and how can we help our kids and students? Here are 5 simple tips that will help:

In the morning:

  1. Begin with a 5-10-minute mediation before you get up in the morning. Just follow your breathing in and out. If your mind gets distracted, just bring it back to your breathing, keep trying—you will benefit even if it’s only for a few minutes. If your kids are young, cuddle with them for 10 minutes encouraging them to follow their breathing too. Teachers you can do a 3-minute meditation or mindfulness technique in the classroom before class begins.
  2. When kids (and adults) are getting ready for school and things are getting hectic, try using a singing bowl for a minute or two, it will calm things down and make everyone more mindful of what’s happening. If you don’t have a singing bowl, there is an app you can use on your phone or just play calming music in the background.
  3. Play the gratitude game. Everyone takes turns saying something they are grateful for—do 3 rounds of gratitude each if you can!
  4. Play the Imagine game! Everyone takes turns saying what they want to imagine for the day (or for life). The gratitude and imagine games can be done during breakfast or in the car.
  5. Give yourselves enough time in the morning that you aren’t rushed—get up 10 minutes earlier if needed. Being rushed starts the day off already geared up for stress. If you can’t get your child out of bed, try making mornings more relaxed. Many kids, especially if they are more sensitive will resist and avoid anything that is stressful.

Have conversations about stress:

Talk to your kids/students about stress. What does it feel like? When does it happen? What causes stressful thoughts and feelings? Asking “What…” and “How…” questions will bring deeper answers and more reflections of thoughts about the issue at hand. Help them process the real issue and find solutions to the problems they are facing. Helping them strategize possible solutions will give them ideas for coping in the future—great tools we all need throughout life.

Give them a break—some time to regroup, have fun, and fill up their buckets during and after school. Make sure evenings and weekends have some fun in them. Spend at least an hour every night just hanging out, playing games, talking about life, telling stories, or even cooking a fun meal. This is precious time for all of you and it will help everyone relax and sleep better—resourcing for the next day.

Helping your kids understand, process and offset stress gives them a mental understanding of life and it’s ups and downs. Teaching them to take care of themselves, starting every morning with techniques to support mental health, is a life-long, critical tool for showing children that they can handle whatever life brings them. It’s important to take care of ourselves—a new idea for many of us, but a powerful one to grab on to!

For more information on helping children and students handle stress you can read The Imagine Project: Empowering Kids to Rise Above Drama, Trauma, and Stress (Yampa Valley Publishing, 2018). If you need a tool for helping kids to talk about stress try having them write their Imagine story using My Imagine Journal—a powerful tool that you all will love!

Good luck and take care,

Dianne

The Imagine Project, Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps kids, teens, and adults overcome challenging life circumstances through expressive writing. Dianne is a thought leader in the area of stress and trauma in children. Her simple, yet profound 7-step writing tool, now used by schools across the US, gives kids and teens the opportunity to rewrite a challenging personal story and Imagine new possibilities in its place.

 

 

Supporting Stressed Kids in the Classroom

Going back to school can be fun, exciting—and stressful. Teachers have to deal with organizing lesson plans, getting to know new students and staff, budgeting for new expenses, and juggling/organizing their time differently once the kids are back in the classroom.

Students can be stressed too. Pressures of peer groups, sibling rivalry, highly demanding schedules, social media, problems with boyfriends/girlfriends, too much screen time, and family expectations are all sources of kids stress. And for some children, school can be a source of excessive stress. Children may feel overwhelmed when they don’t understand or can’t deal with their workloads. They can also be stressed by feeling socially or academically inadequate, like they don’t fit in, or are not accepted for their strengths and weaknesses. Being bullied or shunned is extremely stressful. Tension and anxiety can often arise from within their own minds too. As children grow, they frequently feel pressure from their own thoughts as they attempt to understand who they are, how the world works, and how they fit into it.

Research done by Stress in America on behalf of the American Psychological Association (APA) showed that teens, ages 13 to 17, tend to feel levels of stress similar to that of adults. On a scale of 1 to 10, teens reported, on average, a stress level of 5.8 during the school year (healthy is considered 3.9), and even in the summertime, a level of 4.6! Teens who face poverty, community violence, a challenging home life, and social deprivation (lacking close, in-person, one-on-one friendships) are at a higher risk for stress. Research also reveals that childhood stress correlates with a greater risk for adult illness due to chronically high cortisol levels. Chronic and/or intense stress in the developing brain can create negative long-term brain function issues that turn into anxiety, depression, difficulty processing, poor memory and a host of other problems.

So overall, it’s best to address and support stress in students (and ourselves)! Here are a few suggestions for teachers to support stressed kids:

  • Decrease extra noise and visual stimulation, keeping the room as quiet and uncluttered as possible.
  • When possible, use daylight or full-spectrum lighting, rather than convention lighting. Harvest natural light by keeping windows free of obstruction.
  • Give an adequate amount of time for transitions, as hurrying students can be stressful for them.
  • Play soft music in the classroom.
  • Use a chime or a soothing bell sound to get their attention or when they are moving to new stations.
  • Take laughter breaks, such as sharing jokes,watching funny videos, or reading a funny story.
  • Take movement breaks, such as dancing, yoga, stretching, or jumping jacks.
  • Teach appreciation through talking about daily gratitude in a morning meeting and/or a wrap-up gratitude circle at the end of the day.
  • Use mindfulness techniques such as taking 2 minutes in the morning and have them close their eyes and follow their breathing. Or they can lie on their backs with a jewel on their forehead, eyes closed focusing only on the jewel and relaxing. Play a relaxing song while they close their eyes and sitting in their chair or on the floor.
  • Find ways to calm yourself before and during school (a calm teacher means a calm classroom). Play inspiring, uplifting songs on the way to work to help you set your energy for the day, journal, take a movement break for yourself!

And of course, giving students the opportunity to write about their stress using The Imagine Project Journaling process can help immensely. The Imagine Project journaling is a simple 7-step expressive writing activity that helps a student talk about what’s stressful in their lives, think through it and improve the way they see the stress, and ultimately, clear the stress and Imagine a new story in it’s place. The Imagine Journaling process is unique because it uses the word Imagine…to begin each sentence. Kids love it (they really do) and it gets them to write more!

After a teacher uses The Imagine Project with their kids and the child understands the process, the teacher can suggest to a student who is stressed to write an Imagine story about what’s bothering them. The student might want to show their teacher their story, or not. You can also ask the student to write an Imagine story to a sibling, parent, or friend they might be struggling with—it works!! They feel better and everyone understands the issue better so they can move forward.

Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) also called tapping can really help a stressed student (or teacher). Look for videos on www.theimagineproject.org about tapping or find one that helps you on Youtube. It’s a great tool too!

Stress is a fact of life in our society. Kids need resources to build resilence and understand they have the grit to overcome most anything! Helping your stressed student is key to supporting their ability to learn and grow positively in life. I hope these simple tips will support you and your classrooms. Download the journals (for free) here!

Thank you,

Dianne

The Imagine Project, Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps kids, teens, and adults overcome challenging life circumstances through expressive writing. Dianne is a thought leader in the area of stress and trauma in children. Her simple, yet profound 7-step writing tool, now used by schools across the US, gives kids and teens the opportunity to rewrite a challenging personal story and Imagine new possibilities in its place.