How pre-schoolers can learn to communicate signs of stress

Stress and anxiety can cause serious behavioural problems for children, in fact Be You *an Australian government initiative, focusing on kids mental health estimates '1 in 7 school-age children has a mental health problem, like anxiety, depression and behaviour problems, but only 1 in 4 gets the help they need'. 

In this interview with Katharine Rogers from the ABC KidsListen team, expert in childhood stress management Dr. Stuart Shanker explains that he believes taking action in pre-school years can help to prevent or minimize the stress children experience as they grow up.

Image: Paul Hanaoka - Unsplashed

Dr Shanker has written several books on the subject of childhood stress and discussed his theories at the Early Childhood Australia National Conference in Sydney in September, where he was a  keynote speaker. Here Dr Shanker discusses his methods for combatting childhood stress and how pre-schoolers can be taught to recognise and communicate their feelings of stress and anxiety.

How can pre-schoolers be taught to recognise and manage stress?

The first step and most important step is for them to experience being soothed and calmed when they are over-stressed. This “knowledge” is absorbed, internalized. We have to aim for this sort of experiential knowledge long before we start explaining or describing. And when we do start talking to them about stress, we have to avoid using terms or concepts that they won’t be able to grasp.

We start off talking about body sensations: what they may have felt in their arms or their tummy. And we can use [toys] to help them visualize what it feels like when they’re gone “Red Brain” (e.g., a porcupine) and when they are calm (e.g., Eeyore). Red Brain refers to cognitive functions where the brain is overly anxious and misinterpreting the risks of danger.

It is essential for kids to learn what it feels like to be calm, and to recognise when they are starting to become over-stressed. They can’t learn one without the other.

Can you explain briefly what your self-regulation method is?

There are five steps to self-regulation:

  1. “Reframe the behaviour”

    That is, distinguish between “misbehaviour” and stress-behaviour.” Each requires a very different response from us to help the child – and ourselves! Fortunately, there are all sorts of ways to distinguish between the two types of behaviour.
  2. Identify the stressors

    Not as straightforward as it sounds: especially as many of the child or teen’s stresses are “hidden.” We have to become stress-detectives and learn how to recognize stresses across five domains: physical, emotion, cognitive, social and prosocial.
  3. Reduce the stresses

    For example, if a child is overloaded by large groups of kids, start them off with play-dates with just one. If they are over-stressed by auditory stimuli cut down on background noise (e.g., having the TV or radio constantly playing). If they find “visual noise” stressful get rid of the clutter: especially in their room. If they are sensitive to smells, get rid of scented soaps and cleaning agents.
  4. Develop stress-awareness

    It is essential for kids to learn what it feels like to be calm, and to recognize when they are starting to become over-stressed. They can’t learn one without the other. And don’t make the mistake of confusing “calm” with “quiet.” You can literally see when a child is truly calm by the colour of their face and when their body is relaxed, their speech is not rapid or shrill, their movements are not jerky. All too often a child can be forced to be quiet while their heart is still beating fast and their tension is still high.
  5. Learn what sorts of activities help restore balance in all five of our self-Reg domains

    Every child is different, and what’s more, constantly changing. There is no one-size-fits-all, so you may need to experiment: is it sports, music, art, reading, cooking, nature walks: all of the above!

What are the benefits that self-regulation has across the lifespan?

The short answer is: as great as the case is with children. In fact, all of our courses now start off with the needs of the parent or the educator. But we have seen remarkable changes at all ages: from university students to seasoned professionals at the height of their career to the elderly.

We talk about the extraordinary stresses on children and teens today, but of course, this is true for all of us: our society is in the chronic state of low energy/high tension that is brought on by far too much stress.

Is the self-regulation method only for children or can everyone benefit from it?

The most important lesson we have learnt in all the years we have been teaching self-regulation is not simply that everyone benefits, but in fact, that it is only if we work on our own self-regulation that we can be in that state where we are able to enhance children’s self-regulation.

See original article by Katharine Rogers on ABC KidsListen here.

* Be You Evidence Summary p8

ABC KIDS listen is a dedicated radio station and on demand audio service for children five and under, aligned with the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia. Listen to live radio on DAB+ or select from a range of carefully crafted music programs and educational podcasts via the ABC KIDS listen app.

Dr Stuart Shanker, D. Phil. (Oxon), is a distinguished research professor emeritus of psychology and philosophy from York University, Toronto. He is the creator of The MEHRIT Centre and the Self Regulation Institute. Dr Shanker’s expertise has been sought internationally as an advisor on early child development and self-regulation to school boards and government organisations. His five-step Self-Reg model—The Shanker Method®—is a powerful process for understanding and managing stress in children, youth and adults.

More from Stuart Shanker

Listen to ABC RN Drive interview

Stuart Shanker describes the 5 steps of Self-Reg

ECA Spoke article No such thing as a bad kid