Excerpted from Chapter 5 of Little Kids, Big Worries: Stress-Busting Tips for Early Childhood Classrooms, by Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D. Copyright© 2010 by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
PERSONALIZING STRESS-REDUCING STRATEGIES FOR CHILDREN
Every teacher needs a personal supply of strategies that work most of the time to calm children and
increase classroom peacefulness. These techniques allow the adult to personalize and enhance positive
interactions with each individual child. Included in this chapter are some stress-reducing strategies for
children. No one stress technique works every time in every situation with every child. As you become a
seasoned child observer, your special knowledge of each child will help you adapt techniques to a particular child in a particular situation. For example, you may find that picking up a child and holding him close in
a big hug is a good method for calming that child during a challenging
interaction. Your ingenuity and perceptive insights will help you to
adapt methods to decrease the child's stress.
PROVIDE SOOTHING PHYSICAL CONTACT AND VERBAL REASSURANCE
Touch is magic; touch is crucial (Honig, 2002). Use soothing touch
whenever possible to calm an upset child. Caress a child's back with
long, soothing strokes using an outstretched palm. When a tiny child is
suffering from separation anxiety during the early times after entering
care, holding and stroking the child are especially important to
decrease stress. An infant carrier such as a kangaroo pouch works well
for soothing a tiny baby with your body warmth and the rhythms of your
movements. In the days after enrollment, a toddler often needs more
cuddling time when suffering stranger anxiety or separation distress. Yet
this same toddler can grin and run boldly away from a caregiver in a
delighted show of his autonomy when he is feeling comfortable in the
child care situation.
Give a Calming Massage
If a child is perpetually getting into disagreements with other children, set aside a few minutes twice a day as your special time with that
child. Use this time to massage that child's back and shoulders, arms,
and fingers with lotion; this strategy seems to work like magic for
many children. Some preschoolers will even request a soothing rub
with "magic" lotion when they are feeling distressed.
Watch an infant massage video. Learn specific gentle strokes, such
as Indian milking, Swedish milking, paddlewheel, sun and moon, and
other strokes that relax babies' bodies. Massage calms the soul and the
body. Babies who are massaged regularly or daily begin to respond to
massages with smiles and relaxation (Leboyer, 1976). Locate lotion with
colorful sparkles inside. Some preschoolers who need daily arm and
hand massages to bring down tense feelings are sure that lovely lotion
with sparkling colors has even more magic to soothe worries.
A child who has been abused may stiffen and flinch if you approach
frontally to caress the child. Try back rubs and soothing pats on the shoulder in your initial attempts to increase loving touches for that child.
Use Lowered Voice Tones
Use lowered voice tones when trying to calm an upset child. Speak slower and with a soothing, even hypnotic, reassuring tone. The calmness in your voice brings down stressful feelings. Lower rather than raised
tones in response to the child's tense exhibition of distress will soothe
the child's psyche. This technique often works well also with an adult
who is frazzled, sharp toned, and sounds upset on the phone or at a parent conference.
Use a Child's Name Frequently and Lovingly
You have noticed how proud preschoolers are when they learn how to
write some letters of their name. Now they can "sign" their own pictures
to bring home for parents to display on the refrigerator. Some 3-year-olds
not only can make those letters but can sound them out when coached
by a parent. Use each child's name often with loving intonations.
When babies are only a few weeks old, they love to listen for their
name. Held in arms, a baby turns her head to find and focus on the face
of the person softly calling her name. If a baby wakes up cranky from a
nap, softly sing a waking-up song that you create on the spur of the
moment. Mention baby's name a lot during the song. He will quiet himself in order to hear his own name; when he has self-soothed, you will
more easily be able to pick him up for a cuddle, a diaper change, and a
satisfying feeding (Honig, 2005). Incorporate each child's name in the
group into a greeting song in the morning. Use any sing song melody
with which you are familiar such as the following: "Good morning little
yellow bird, yellow bird, yellow bird. Good morning little yellow bird
who are you?" Each child answers, singing out his or her name ("My name
is . . . ," sung in a sing-song voice), as you go around smiling in turn into
the eyes of each of the seated children participating in this morning
TAKE THE CHILD'S PERSPECTIVE AND PROVIDE OPPORTUNITIES AND SPACES FOR SELF-SOOTHING
Children with high self-esteem are less likely to be overwhelmed by perceived threats or stresses in their lives. When you genuinely show your
pleasure in the child's sources of interest and pleasure, the child feels
validated as a person. It is helpful to tune into a child's wondering
curiosity to enhance a child's self-esteem. The resulting self-assurance is a protective factor to ameliorate the effects of stress. This adult
respect is especially important for a child who has caused more than a
fair share of upsets in the group. Kaiser and Rasminsky (2003) provide
a lovely example.
Sixteen 4-year-olds were running to the oak tree at the far end of the
field with one teacher at the front and the other at the rear. Everyone
but Michael, that is. He ran off to the right. Instead of yelling at him to
join the others, the second teacher followed him. When she reached
him, he was smelling some small purple flowers. The snow had finally
melted, and spring was just beginning. He had caught a glimpse of
purple and wanted to investigate.
The teacher called the other children to see what Michael had
found. Everyone started to talk about the flowers, their color, and
spring. They decided to continue their outing looking for signs of
spring. The other children asked for Michael's help, and he had a great
time playing outside. Had the teacher insisted he join the others without showing any interest in his find, his self-esteem would have been
bruised, and he would have been frustrated. To get the acknowledgment he needed, he probably would have behaved inappropriately.
Instead, seeing things from his perspective turned events around. Not
only had this become a wonderful spontaneous science lesson, but the
other children all thought that Michael was pretty smart, and he ended
up feeling very proud of himself. (p. 108)
Provide Unobtrusive Help When
a Task Is a Bit Too Difficult for a Child
Children can accomplish some tasks on their own after trying hard.
Others are too easy or too difficult. Children get restless and bored
when toys or tasks are too easy. They feel frustrated when tasks are too
challenging. The Russian child-development theorist Vygotsky (1978)
taught that teachers are priceless in supporting child learning and
accomplishment when a task is just a bit too difficult at the child's present level of development. Then a teaching adult provides just that bit
of help that will result in further child learning and satisfaction.
Vygotsky used the term the zone of proximal development (or ZPD) for
the difference between what a child can do on his or her own compared
with what the child can do with adult help. With the assistance of an
adult, a child will be able to succeed at a cognitive or social learning
task beyond what he or she could have accomplished alone (Daniels,
2005; Langford, 2005).
Tamar sat on Mr. Jonathan's lap. She was trying to build a
tower of small nesting blocks but was having trouble getting them to stay put so that she could add another block
on top. Mr. Jonathan steadied her elbow unobtrusively
with his hand. Tamar relaxed and smiled happily as she
was then able to arrange the stacking block so it fit just
right on top of the lower block.
Decide how much help is needed and how to provide that help in such
a way that the child succeeds without the adult doing the task.
Accept a Child's Self-Comforting Needs
Have you noticed how beautifully some young children find ways to self-comfort when stressed? They pop a thumb into their mouth. They rub
their treasured blanket on a cheek. In a pew at a religious service, a mom
kept gently shushing her vocalizing 15-month-old, who was sitting on her
lap. The little girl looked down, rummaging in the sack her mom was carrying, and drew her pacifier out of its plastic case. Triumphantly and happily she popped the pacifier into her mouth, while her whole facial
expression brightened cheerfully. She solved the problem her own way!
Be generous in allowing "lovies" (special blankets or plush animals)
at naptime. Some children have a really difficult time with separation
from parents when they attend child care. Even when children adjust
fairly easily, when they are tired or perhaps coming down with an illness
they feel more stressed and need the comfort of their lovey. Make sure
that each child has a safe place in a cubby for the special lovey that helps
the child relax when out of sorts or upset.
If you feel uncomfortable with using lovies for preschoolers, try to
focus on the child's needs for now, rather than on worries that a child
will be carrying his special blanket off to college years later! Surely we do
not expect an adult, nervously preparing for an important business presentation, to take along a blanket for comfort. Research shows that caregivers are indeed sensitive and aware of infant and toddler needs for
their pacifier or lovey for comfort when distressed (Honig, Kim, Ray, &
Yang, 2006). But often a preschool-age child still needs his or her comfort object to feel calmed. Keep each child's special comfort object in a
cubby for use at nap times. Just as many children suck thumbs well into
the preschool years when they feel nervous or anxious, many children need their special lovey, whether it is a soft animal or small blanket, to
cuddle with at naptime. Group care often means learning to share. But
a lovey is a special tension-reducer that each child has cognitively created
with awesome creativity for his own special self-soothing. Reassure the
children that at naptime each can indeed settle into rest with a lovey if
Sometimes a piece of a loved teacher's clothing can calm a distressed child who is prone to sudden aggressive actions. In a center,
while the teacher was reading a story to a small group of preschoolers,
Sandy suddenly bent down and bit his neighbor hard on the arm. The
teachers had talked about what they might do. But Sandy's sudden,
impulsive hurtful actions continued and became very frustrating and
scary for the children. Sandy's mom shrugged off the teachers' concerns
and said that her boy was a real "he-man." The solution to this classroom
stress was found in the relationship Sandy had developed with Mr. Lars,
one of the teachers. Sandy, whose daddy had abandoned the family
before his birth, was deeply attached to Mr. Lars. Sandy seemed able to
master impulses to hurt others and remain quietly attentive when Mr.
Lars worked with him one-to-one on a puzzle or took him on his lap and
read him a story. Mr. Lars had noticed that Sandy adored his ties. What
worked to help Sandy gain inner control was his deep longing to wear
his beloved teacher's tie. Sandy learned that Mr. Lars would let him have
the privilege of wearing one of his ties as long as Sandy refrained from
hurting another child. If Sandy did lose self-control, then the tie was
taken away and put up on a shelf for the rest of that day. Finding personalized techniques to decrease stress and to increase a child's self-control
is a creative challenge for care providers (Honig, 2008).
Some children fixate on one toy or activity to comfort their inner
upset feelings. This may remind us of the way the comic strip character
Linus rubs his blanket against his cheek as he sucks his thumb for dear
life in order to reach a dreamy, peaceful state until, alas, Lucy or Snoopy
the dog comes along to snatch his blanket away!
The Children's Center, 5-year-old Robbie, upset by his
parents' screaming fights at home, used to lie on the
floor and turn the pages of Sendak's (2003) book Where
the Wild Things Are. He was able to calm his inner feelings of helplessness in his real life by turning the pages
over and over. The wild monsters pictured in the book are safely contained within those pages. In Where the
Wild Things Are, Max is a little boy who has defied his
mom. Sent to his room, he uses his imagination to sail off
to an island where a crowd of monsters dances in frenzy. Later in the story, Max feels strong enough to decide
to leave the monsters behind and sail home. Back in his
bedroom, Max finds that his mama has left his supper on
a night table right by his bed. Choosing this book over
and over, Robbie gained reassurance to face his own
inner monsters without fear that he would be swept
away by their angers and frenzied antics. His compulsive
need to look at this book was his way of addressing his
stress. He chose this technique on his own, and his perceptive teachers noticed this and respected his strong
need and his solution.
Brief Bouts of Compulsive Behavior May Temporarily Soothe a Stressed Child
Freddy, a preschooler, stressed by tensions at home, chose to calm himself by pushing a miniature car through the first floor of a toy playhouse
set on a low table in the classroom. He watched carefully as he pushed
the car through the back door. The car crashed through the back door
of the cardboard house onto the floor. Then he would pick up the toy
car and send it hurtling through the house and crashing down. Over
and over, he reenacted the crashing experience that paralleled the experiences he was having at home. His insightful teacher realized that this
repetitive behavior seemed to calm his tensions. Should she have tried
to distract him? Should she have tried to lure him into a less solitary and
compulsive activity, or should she wait a while? Choosing ways to handle
and when to handle child stresses surely challenges our professional decision-making and expertise. In this case, the teacher wisely decided to let
Freddy continue. The repetitive play seemed to calm him as he concentrated on the game for about 5 minutes. Then she was able to call the
children, including Freddy, together for story time.
Primary school teachers comment that sometimes a child fixates on
a hand-held video game, such as a Game Boy, and seems to tune out
what else is going on. Children sometimes hunch over that type of toy as
if they are thus able to shut out the world of badgering adults. They act
as if their inner well-being depends on the electronic device. They cling to that toy, and the compulsive need for this electronic comfort object
may reveal underlying life stresses, although a teacher may not know
what those stresses are.
Wise adults recognize the variety of ways in which child behaviors
and interactions reveal their inner distress. Sometimes a comfort object
is symbolic, such as blocks a child arranges a certain way to represent a
special comfort object. Paley (1990) vividly describes 4-year-old Jason's
use of this technique to decrease his stress. Month after month in her
classroom, he arranged blocks as a helicopter. Then he determinedly
played at being a helicopter. His fixation on this role allowed him to
zoom away over inner troubles and ambivalences. His private fantasy
play about this precious possession helped him cope with ambivalent
feelings about separation and danger. Paley realized that Jason felt lost
at school away from home. She thought deeply about his determined
need to pretend to be, to repair, to find seats for, and to fly his imagined
helicopter. Insightfully, his teacher reasoned that this "will be his agent
of rescue, from school to home. The ultimate fear and loss, Jason's
[play] tells us, is separation" (p. 147).
Create a Cozy Retreat
A stressed child needs to know there is a safe, quiet space in the classroom to unwind. Some teachers, already sensitive to this need, have
placed a beanbag chair with cozy pillows in a quiet corner. They arrange
picture books invitingly on a low shelf nearby. Some teachers set a soft
mattress or a blanket in a quiet corner on the floor with pillows. One
teacher set up a canopy corner for children to unwind. She enlisted
parents to help set up sturdy, safe poles well anchored on the floor near
a back wall of the room. Over the pole tops they draped a gauze curtain.
They placed a light washable rug and some pillows on the floor below,
to signal a safe space where a youngster could go and rest when upset.
Enchanted with this new cozy space, the preschoolers suggested placing
small glittery sticker stars over the gauze. They all helped press the sticky
stars on the gauze. After the canopy was in place, when the children
were lying down to relax, they looked up happily at their "starry sky," the
gauze canopy overhead.
Store a Personal Photo Book in Each Child's Cubby
Enlist family support to provide pictures of each family member. Ask for
photos where the child is in a loving pose with a family member. If the family cannot provide photos, try to find community volunteers who can
come to the center and, with the family's permission, take photos of each
child with a family member at a special center event, such as a potluck supper. When possible, add photos from special family trips to the zoo or to
a family reunion. If a child is wandering aimlessly in the classroom, ask the
child to go get the special picture book. Sit snuggled with that child.
Slowly turn the pages with him. Seeing loved ones in photos cheers a
child. If the child is verbal, ask about each picture and let your genuine
pleasure at this sharing relax the child as you sit cozily reminiscing together.