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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Teachers, parents can help children dealing with stress

LAS CRUCES - Stress isn't just the hallmark of overworked, time-crunched adults in the 1990s, children feel the effects, too, said a New Mexico State University family scientist.

Daycare providers, teachers and parents all can help children learn to deal with stress caused by life changes, said Esther Devall, an assistant professor of home economics at NMSU.

An article about this topic by Devall and Betsy Cahill, an assistant professor of early childhood education at NMSU, was recently published in the Early Childhood Education Journal.

Life changes that affect children can be developmental, critical or catastrophic, Devall said.

"Developmental changes are normal changes that everybody goes through as they grow up," she said. "These are events like a young child learning to use the toilet, going to daycare for the first time or starting school."

Kids can cope with these changes fairly well, even if there is a little stress involved. "The good thing about these kinds of changes is that they help children prepare for more difficult changes in their lives," Devall said.

Critical changes are unpredictable events that aren't unusual, but they don't always happen to everyone. These changes include moving to a new house, having tonsils taken out, or parents getting a divorce. "These changes are usually stressful, but children can still get through them fairly well if they have support from their parents."

On the other hand, catastrophic changes, which are events that parents don't expect their children will experience, can be very sudden and traumatic. Devall said a good example of this was the recent bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, Okla.

"Besides the love and support of their parents and care givers, children may need professional help from family therapists or child psychologists to cope with these kinds of changes," she said.

Pre-school and early elementary school teachers can help kids deal with stress. I 'Teachers can make sure they have a good relationship with the family even before stressful life events happen, so parents feel comfortable talking about changes in the child's life," Devall said.

Letting children talk about what's on their minds during a sharing time at school is important. Teachers also can encourage the children to work through their stress with dramatic play, she said. For example, if a child has lost a pet, teachers can let the class set up a veterinarian's office complete with stuffed animals, leashes and play medical supplies.

"This gives the child who is coping with the experience help in expressing feelings," Devall said. "It also helps the other children in the class prepare for something similar that could happen to them."

Oftentimes, stress affects the whole family. So, teachers can provide a safe, secure routine for children whose parents are busy recovering from the stress themselves, Devall said.

When parents and teachers don't quite know how to approach a subject with children, they can use books to help kids deal with the stress. "There are children's books about everything from death, divorce and moving to having a new baby and war," she said. "You can just answer the children's questions as you read the book -- it's very natural."

At home and at school, parents and teachers should watch out for post-traumatic play. "When children experience a traumatic event, they sometimes express their stress by reenacting the event," Devall said. "This is different from regular play, because they don't seem to show any pleasure or joy in the play. Instead, they just keep acting out the event over and over."

When this happens, parents should seek professional help for their children, she advised.

For additional help, Devall said there are many books available that give care givers, teachers and parents ideas about dealing with death and loss, family transitions such as adoption and divorce, illness and hospitalization, natural disasters, separations and moving, sexual abuse issues and violence.