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Little Kids, Big Worries

Little Kids, Big Worries

Stress-Busting Tips for Early Childhood Classrooms
Author: Alice Sterling Honig Ph.D.

ISBN: 978-1-59857-061-8
Pages: 184
Copyright: 2010
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Size:  6.0 x 9.0
Stock Number:  70618
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Research shows that stress in the crucial early years of a child's life can pose dramatic, lasting challenges to development, learning, and behavior. This is the practical book early childhood professionals need to recognize stress in young children—and intervene with proven relief strategies before pressures turn into big problems.

Developed by celebrated early childhood expert Alice Sterling Honig, this guidebook helps readers address the most common causes of stress in a young child's life, including separation anxiety, bullying, jealousy, and family circumstances. Educators and childcare providers will

  • understand key factors that influence a child's stress level, including attachment, temperament, developmental and learning challenges, health issues, and family pressures
  • become a keen observer of the varied and sometimes subtle ways that children express stress
  • choose from a wide range of stress-busting techniques—all innovative, time-tested, and clinically validated
  • personalize stress-busters to meet the needs of individual children
  • skillfully use stress-reducing strategies with groups of children from diverse backgrounds
  • harness the power of storytelling to model solutions to problems and help children address negative feelings
  • avoid burnout by handling the stresses in their own adult lives, from challenging interactions with parents to issues with co-workers

Memorable stories inspired by Dr. Honig's 30+ years of experience show readers how these stress-busters can make a real difference in children's lives, and the questions at the end of each chapter are ideal aids for self-study or professional development courses. Packed with down-to-earth, easy-to-use ideas, this empowering book gives professionals the tools they need to conquer stress in any early childhood setting—so children can develop the early social and academic skills they'll need to succeed in school.

Learn how to use these proven stress-busters:

  • making environmental adjustments
  • redirecting rather than reprimanding
  • supporting a child's self-soothing methods
  • teaching problem-solving strategies
  • taking the child's perspective
  • providing verbal reassurance
  • soothing through gentle physical contact
  • using open-ended questions to pinpoint a child's fears
  • and much more!

A featured book in our Better Behavior Kit!

See how this product helps strengthen Head Start program quality and school readiness.

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Review: Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education

"A book that will challenge assumptions about children's behavior and emotional development, while also challenging assumptions of the role of emotional learning in today's early childhood classrooms, an aspect that is far too often cast aside in favor of more academic pursuits."

Review: PsycCRITIQUES, December 2010

"Gives early childhood educators a tool box of ideas . . . on supporting children living in stressful situations. A summary of best practices in early childhood education."

Review by: Gail Perry, Young Children

"...underscores the need to recognize and alleviate worrisome stressors in the lives of young children as early as infancy...This book provides practical and sensitive tools to address this compelling concern. "

Review by: Bernard Spodek, Professor Emeritus of Early Childhood Education, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

"A book to help teachers understand and deal with stress among young children, parents, and teachers themselves . . . should find a place in the libraries of both veteran and novice teachers."

Review by: Edward Zigler, Sterling Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, Yale University; Director, Emeritus, The Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy; Former Chief, U.S. Children's Bureau

"This highly respected scholar presents a valuable antidote to the current academic emphasis in early education. Using an appropriate whole child approach, she provides practitioners with those tools required to reduce young children's stress which we know to be a major barrier to children's optimal education."

Review by: Virginia Buysse, Senior Scientist, FPG Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"Finally, an authoritative resource that offers parents and professionals a wealth of information about how to recognize signs of stress in the lives of young children, and more importantly, practical suggestions for what to do about it."

Review by: Edna Ranck, President, OMEP-USA, The World Organization for Early Childhood Education, Washington, DC

"Amazingly practical advice on understanding how family, school and public events and relationships influence children's behavior. The stress-reducing strategies will really benefit both children and the adults who care for and teach them."

Review by: Richard Lambert, Professor, University of North Carolina, Charlotte

"Offers very helpful resources to teachers including a framework for recognizing, understanding, and supporting children displaying stress in the classroom."

Review by: Sue Bredekamp, Early Childhood Education Consultant

"Strikes the perfect balance between reducing stress and protecting children from harm while also promoting their coping skills and resilience. This powerful book is packed with practical strategies for teachers."

Review by: Bettye Caldwell, Professor Emerita, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

"Anything Alice Honig writes is a treasure, and this book is no exception."

About the Author

  1. Understanding Stress in Children's Lives
  2. Sources and Signs of Stress
  3. Insights About Stress: Reflecting and Reframing
  4. Choosing Stress-Busting Techniques to Help Children
  5. Personalizing Stress-Reducing Strategies for Children
  6. Using Stress-Reducing Strategies with Groups of Children
  7. Using Storytelling to Relieve Child Stresses
  8. Adult Stress Busters in Care Settings and Schools: Working with Parents, Personnel, Home Visitors, Supervisors, Mental Health Professionals, and Consultants
  9. Personalizing Stress-Busting Ideas for Adults Caring for Children


Children's Book Bibliography

Internet Resources


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.


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.


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 greeting song.


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 they wish.

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.