Let’s help our stressed out children

mother dealing with stressed childrenYou’ve got kids?  This article is for you.

When you consider your child’s education, what is important to you?

Do you wait and hope they will come home with a good report card or are you more concerned that they’ll come home with friends? Is learning about Science, English and Maths most important or would you rather they learn about relationships, sex, emotional management and communication.

I know which I’d rather.  It’s the latter.

Now I’m not saying Maths and English aren’t important but if my kid wasn’t so crash hot on her algebra but had strategies to effectively build relationships and manage her way through stressful situations in non destructive ways, I’d be chuffed.

Research by the Western Australian Commissioner for Children and Young People in 2009 found that 35% of the 1000 children surveyed agreed with the statement that they had too much stress in their lives.  Family conflict, alcohol misuse, fighting with friends, bullying and school workload all caused stress for these kids.  Canadian research professor Dr. Stuart Shanker says “when a child is exposed to too many stressors, the body’s ability to self-regulate and return themselves to “baseline” gets worn out.  According to Dr Shanker this can give rise to obesity, cardiovascular disease, anxiety or depression.

It seems that this children’s stress is playing out in dangerous ways.  As reported in THE AGE, Resilient Youth Australia conducted research into the mental health of almost 4500 year 7 to 12 students.  It found a third felt constantly under strain and unable to overcome problems, 33% of girls and 25% of boys were depressed, more than half had low levels of resilience, one third were drinking at dangerous levels, 25% lacked the confidence to say no to unwanted sexual experiences, 1 in 6 felt it necessary to carry a weapon and many felt violence was an appropriate way to solve relationship issues.

This made me start to think about my experience as a kid.  Whilst I did well in class, outside class I was lost.  I often spent lunch roaming the playground feeling very lonely.  Even when I was involved in activities such as ‘kick to kick’ (kicking the footy) on the oval I felt alone.  My problem?  I didn’t know how to make conversation with my fellow classmates.  So I kept quiet.  I wonder how school would have been if someone had taught me how to connect with others and how to reduce my anxiety about interacting with others.

But they didn’t.  My teachers focused purely on the traditional curriculum.  Maths, Computers, Legal Studies.  Sometimes the teachers even made things worse.  In our ‘religion’ class we saw a video of a child being aborted with no accompanying balanced discussion of the associated issues.

Reading the recent research findings above, it only underlined my existing concern about what children are being taught in school about relationship management, emotional management, sex and communication.

What I have been pleased to see is that there appears to be a growing number of schools that are including sessions on mindfulness, meditation and emotional intelligence in the curriculum. Anything that helps kids reflect and monitor their own response to environmental factors is a great thing.  Dr. Shanker talks about the importance of self regulation – “the ability to manage your own energy states, emotions, behaviours and attention, in ways that are socially acceptable and help achieve positive goals, such as maintaining good relationships, learning and maintaining wellbeing”.  In my opinion such self regulation is a critical life skill, like breathing and walking.

So whilst it is encouraging to see more schools introducing classes that teach these skills, I suspect a lot more can be done to equip kids with the raft of skills they will need to manage the social and emotional turbulence of teenage years and adult life. There is a lot of talk about the importance of resilience these days. In my opinion there is no more needier a group than teenagers for resilience training. I’d be stacking the secondary school curriculum with it.

In January, Education Minister Christopher Pyne announced a review of the national curriculum, headed up by a former teacher Kevin Donnelly.  Donnelly has refused to comment on whether “social and emotional learning” would form part of the revised curriculum.

Wellbeing Australia have made a submission to the National Curriculum Review on why  Social  and  Emotional  Learning  (SEL) should  be  explicitly  taught  in  schools  as  part  of  the  National  Curriculum.

Hopefully when Pyne looks at recent statistics on children’s stress levels and the repercussions, common sense will prevail.

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