Enabling children and young people to better regulate stress is integral to the Thrive Approach. In support of Stress Awareness Month, we’ve produced a brief guide on how stress develops, common stressors, and how Thrive Practitioners support those in their care.
Stress and the brain
For children to be successful in their learning environments, we shouldn’t let them feel overwhelmed by stress. They need to have suitable support in place to remain emotionally regulated. In other words, they can recognise how they are feeling and face this in a reasonably calm and rational way. They are ready to learn.
An optimally functioning emotional regulation system allows a child to manage the inevitable stressors of their everyday lives. Being able to cope with these events helps to develop an authentic sense of resilience.
In education settings, we describe the emotional regulation systems of challenging or vulnerable pupils as ‘trigger happy’. Fight, Flight or Freeze survival responses are generated by stressful experiences. These children tend to have systems that are shaped to expect life and learning to be stressful and they are recurrently put into survival mode.
Take a look at this video describing our physiological responses to Fight, Flight or Freeze.
It is not just vulnerable pupils who can be badly affected by stressful events. Those who have been so far equipped with ‘good enough’ emotional regulation systems could experience a traumatic event or be negatively affected by an ongoing set of circumstances that trigger a stress response. Resilience-building is also crucial for these children as experiences such as these can result in a susceptibility to chronic anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress.
Adverse Childhood Experiences – the impact of toxic stress
The Adverse Childhood Experiences study (referred to here as ACEs) presented in the film, ‘Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope’, shows the impact that toxic stress can have during childhood and adolescence. In the study, the 17,000 participants were asked to record how many ACEs they had gone through. These are categorised as abuse (physical, emotional and sexual), neglect (physical and emotional) and household dysfunction (mental illness, incarcerated relative, violence against mother, substance abuse, divorce). All of these ACEs can bear a significant impact on health and wellbeing in adulthood and generally speaking, the risks increase as the number of ACEs increase. Health problems can range from depression and anxiety to physical health issues, such as STIs, diabetes, and even cancer.
The study also highlights the effect of ACEs harboured by young people in education. Stress inhibits and interrupts learning. It affects concentration, focus, memory, recall and access to higher executive functioning.
A paper from the University of California has reported that students with more than three ACEs are three times more likely to fail academically, six times more likely to experience behavioural problems, and five times more likely to have poor attendance. Find out more about the film here and calculate your ACEs score here.
Signs of stress
There are plenty of common anxiety disorders, such as phobias, PTSD and separation anxiety, that occur during ‘normal’ childhood and adolescent development. They can overcome these fears with the help of a trusted adult. The process can even help build capacity for resilience. However, if the child is not given the right level of support, or is teased or ridiculed for their fear, they are likely to be triggered in the future by something resembling the initial stressor. It is therefore important to provide support during such experiences as exam periods, bullying, family changes, moving home, etc.
There are plenty of behaviours that you may notice in children who are stressed. These can range from bad dreams or bed-wetting to irritable or low moods.
The neuroscience of stress
We are well-adapted to deal with unexpected threats. We release hormones to help our bodies prepare and cope. Energy is delivered to our thigh muscles, our blood pressure increases, and everything non-essential to the present moment is halted. However, non-life threatening stressors also trigger adrenalin and other stress hormones, the most recognised being cortisol, which can negative health consequences.
How does the Thrive Approach address stress?
With all of this in mind, how can adults support children to help them minimise their stress? Practitioner training, supported by an additional Stress and Anxiety CPD session, will enable you in your setting to work alongside children experiencing varying levels of stress. Find our Practitioner training options here and the Stress and Anxiety CPD here.
Revisiting those three levels of emotional regulation mentioned at the start may reveal certain holes in development. These gaps could be affecting the child’s ability to handle certain stressors. They could, in turn, lose their ability to remain regulated and ultimately damage their long-term health.
Those trained in the Thrive Approach are able to notice signs of stress, work alongside children using suggested strategies and activities, and create a future sense of resilience to help them cope in future stressful or triggering situations.