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Learning Matters: Reducing childhood stress is a balancing act

November 15, 2013|By Joylene Wagner | By Joylene Wagner

Educators are caught in a circular conundrum. Students are stressed, and their parents, grandparents, mental health professionals and educators themselves all worry about the effects of that stress on student health, well-being, and, yes, on academic and career achievement.

It seems we're all realizing what perhaps we've always known, but haven't put into practice: health and well-being affect learning, and attitudes toward learning affect health.

When I told a friend I was working on a column about child and adolescent stress, she replied, "That's a huge topic."

I agree, and with so many places to begin and no clear answers myself, I'll start with what I've gathered from speaking with friends and attending some programs hosted recently by the Crescenta-Cañada YMCA and the Crescenta Valley Parent Teacher Student Assn.

First is the acknowledgment that student stresses today differ from those of their parents. While bullying has always been part of childhood, online bullying has not. Often anonymous, widely shared, and non-erasable online meanness keeps on hurting.

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Similarly, as explained by drug and alcohol counselor and therapist Lisa Vartanian, though drugs and alcohol have tempted teens for generations, never before have prescription and other drugs been so widely available from a friend or online from the "safety" of home. These stresses flourish and fester in an increasingly competitive environment in which so many students strive for the top grade, the top college and the top job.

But do the striving and stresses originate with our youth or even with our schools? Generally not, said Helen Morran-Wolf, a friend I know from workouts at Curves. She recently retired as executive director of Foothill Family Services.

"The stresses of children are the stresses of their parents. Families at all levels are working long hours, living more precariously," she said, many of them doubling up in houses and apartments to get by.

She laments the toxic stress students absorb when they witness domestic violence or any family strife. Not only do children struggle to cope with the emotional effects, but stress can stop their learning for 24 to 48 hours, adding to their troubles.

I spoke to two friends who taught our children at the Co-op Nursery school years ago and went on to careers as marriage and family therapists. Both Barbara Gomperts and Marilyn Hill agree that parents often play a big part in their children's stress levels.

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