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The Powerful Impact of Stress

by Victoria Tennant

All children will experience stress, sometimes significant amounts of it, in their lives. Adults ordinarily fail to recognize the incidence and magnitude of stress in the lives of children. For example, studies have shown that "parents perceive children as having lower levels of stress than children perceive themselves as having." (Humphrey, Helping Children Manage Stress, 1998, p.8) This is confirmed by a nation-wide survey that concludes "parents underestimate how much children worry" (Witkin, KidStress, 1999, p.11).

Our complex modern society has greatly increased the amount of stress adults and children are exposed to. Children are experiencing more stress at younger and younger ages. Even in the womb a child picks up the mother's stress – stress chemicals such as adrenalin and cortisol cross the placenta.

Young children may experience stress from:

  • disrupted homes, blended families, both parents working outside the home;
  • increased exposure to violence, both real and on the screen;
  • excessive screen time;
  • being over scheduled;
  • feeling pressured to perform or behave beyond their ability. (Witkin, p.2)

Common stress producers for teens (in addition to the above):

  • failing an exam
  • physical appearance
  • judgment or evaluation by others
  • unrealistic classroom demands
  • the future
  • problems with peers
  • problems with a boyfriend or girlfriend
  • any situation that threatens self-esteem
  • disagreements with teachers, parents or other adults (Feinstein, Secrets of the Teenage Brain, 2004, p.94)

The following quotes illustrate how some children view stress:

"Stress is when your father's moving halfway across the country, and you're staying here"
"Stress is when I don't see my parents 'cause they're working all the time."
"Stress is my parents fighting all the time."
"Stress is when you're having a rough time."
"Stress is pressure."
(Lewis, survey of children ages 6 – 12-years-old, Stress-Proofing Your Child, 1996, p.19)

"Every time we have to chose up sides for a game, they never pick me, even last. They don't want me on their team." (9-year- old)

"I can't never do the part with the take-away numbers. I did all the problems real fast and she put big red X's on them and said I wasn't trying. And I started crying inside but I couldn't because they would all see." (8-year-old) (Allen & Klein, Ready-Set Relax, 1996, p.3)

Teachers and administrators are experiencing an increasing amount of stress with the pressures from No Child Left Behind and state testing. Yet, they often fail to recognize that this stress filters down to the students.

It is essential that adults understand the damaging effects of stress on children's health, behavior and learning and in turn, value the benefits of a calm, relaxed state. Adults must learn positive ways to manage stress – both for themselves and for the children with whom they live and work.

This document presents some of the negative consequences of stress, followed by the benefits of a calm mind and body. Examples of calming strategies that can be applied in the classroom are offered in the last section.

The Negative Consequences of Stress

Stress is neutral – it is a person's perception of the event that determines their response.

Stress is positive when the person feels stimulated and able to manage the situation. This positive response prepares the body for action and activates the higher thinking centers of the brain. A positive response to stress can provide the energy to handle emergencies, meet challenges, and excel.

Stress is negative when a person feels threatened and not in control of the situation. These feelings instigate a powerful reaction – affecting both the brain and body in ways that can be destructive to physical and mental health.

The Stress Reaction: Fight-or-Flight

Regardless of the cause – our perception of threat triggers the fight-or-flight reaction, a potent mind-body phenomenon designed to save our lives. The fight-or-flight reaction was first proposed by Walter Cannon in 1914. He described it "as an emergency reaction that prepares an animal for running or fighting." The fight-flight reaction is now expanded by some to include "freeze" (e.g. become immobilized) and "faint" (e.g. to space-out).

The stress reaction begins with the amygdala, an almond shaped structure deep in the brain's emotional center – the limbic system. The amygdala scans incoming signals from the senses for anything that could cause distress. If a threat of any kind is perceived, the amygdala acts like an alarm system, instantaneously sending a message of crisis to all parts of the brain (Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, 1997, p.16). The sympathetic nervous system releases general stimulants such as noradrenalin (also known as norepinephrine) into the brain and adrenalin (also known as epinephrine) into the body. This release of chemicals does the following:

  • Increases muscle tension, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and blood flow to our muscles. Presumably we're going to need to fight off danger or run for our lives.
  • Raises our metabolism so our body works at the highest levels of efficiency.
  • Slows our digestive process to direct our energy to the emergency at hand.
  • Dilates the pupils of the eyes for maximum light; directs the eyes peripherally to see danger or locks eyes into tunnel vision.
  • Turns up our hormonal temperature.

This is why long after a stressful experience has ended your heart is still pounding and you still feel upset. Cortisol, a stress hormone, is secreted to do the following:

  • Releases glucose (from liver) and breaks down tissues to release fat into the blood stream to supply muscles with nutrients
  • Inhibits protein uptake by 70% while breaking down protein (reduced muscle mass) to supply energy to muscles.

Stress Takes a Toll on Health

Although these responses can save our lives when we're jumping out of the way of an on-coming car, most stresses are not life-threatening. The stressful moments in the day -- mom is running late and snaps at her son, the child takes it out on his brother and forgets his homework -- trigger the cascade of reactions brought on by the fight-flight response.

Stress isn't always destructive. It can provide energy to handle emergencies, make changes, meet challenges and excel. But even though some amount of stress is useful, indeed even helpful, the long-term consequences of constant stress are damaging to our mental and physical health. If stress is constant and unrelieved, the body has little time to relax and recover. The stress button keeps getting pushed, continually releasing stress hormones when we don't need them, putting the body into overdrive. Scientists call this state "hyperarousal": blood pressure rises, breathing and heart rates speed up, blood vessels constrict, and muscles tense up. Stress disorders can result such as: high blood pressure, headaches, reduced eyesight, stomachaches and other digestive problems, facial, neck and back pain. High levels of the major stress hormone, cortisol, depress the immune system. A number of studies found that high levels of cortisol are implicated in AIDS, MS, diabetes, cancer, coronary artery disease, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease (Lewis, p.4).

"Stressed children are vulnerable to these disorders as well as: sleep disturbances (including nightmares and bed wetting), skin diseases, and infections. Like adults, they become more accident prone. Research suggests that even physical conditions with a genetic basis—like asthma, allergies, and diabetes—can be adversely affected by childhood stress" (Lewis, p.4). We carry the patterns we learn as children into adulthood. Dr. Reed Moskowitz, founder and medical director of the Stress Disorders Clinic at New York University Medical Center says "Stress disorders exist at all ages. The physiological consequences of stress build up over years and decades. The earlier we learn to deal with our stress, the better our health and energy will be as adults."

Stressed Brain

©Victoria Tennant Consulting

Many Behavior Problems are the Result of Stress

Frequent symptoms of stress such as low impulse control, difficulty concentrating and irritating behaviors often match the definition of A.D.D./A.D.H.D (Armstrong, The Myth of the A.D.D. Child, 1997, p.28). Understanding a child's behavior in the context of the brain's reaction to stress can provide an adult with insight, empathy and expand their behavior management repertoire to include calming strategies.

Behavior is regulated by the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain acts as CEO, the Chief Executive Officer, and controls all higher brain functions such as impulse control, emotional regulation, reasoning, judgment, decision making, planning and problem solving. Research by neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux at New York University, determined that when a threat is perceived, the amygdala "hijacks" the slower responding CEO. This puts the fast-acting survival brain in charge, and momentarily overwhelms rational thought. When our survival brain is in charge, we impulsively react with defensive behaviors. These limited behaviors are primarily shaped by old patterns based on past experiences that have caused pain or fear. When the survival brain is in charge a person may react aggressively, fight, refuse to cooperate, throw a temper tantrum, withdraw, or space-out (Goleman, pp. 17-26).

Stress and depression cause brain integration to break down. The two sides of the brain need to work in sync to keep emotions in balance. The right prefrontal lobe is activated by negative feelings and the left prefrontal lobe controls positive feelings. If the amygdala signals danger, the right side registers the emotion and the left side signals back ("Yes, this is a problem. Calm down, you can handle it"). If communication between the left and right sides of the brain is not working properly, "the amygdala runs wild. Feelings of helplessness, despair and anxiety run amok" (Feinstein, p.109).

Growing up in a Persistently Threatening Environment can Interfere with the way a Child's Brain Develops

  • Research on traumatized children by Dr. Bruce Perry, Provincial Medical Director of Children's Health, found a greater concentration of brain cell growth in the mid-brain (emotions, survival) at the expense of the prefrontal cortex area (higher level thinking). There is an underdeveloped capacity for empathy (also regulated by the prefrontal cortex). Perry found a tendency for traumatized children to be overly sensitive to cues of perceived threat, creating a 'quick trigger' for survival behaviors. As a result, these children have a predisposition to impulsive, aggressive behaviors or withdrawal and depression. (
  • "Inescapable stress lowers serotonin (a calming neurotransmitter). Low levels of serotonin are linked to aggression, obsessive compulsive behavior and depression. Low serotonin leaves a person overwhelmed with life until ultimately the system shuts down with depression or explodes with aggression" (Bailey, Conscious Discipline, 2001, p.47).
  • Research has found that neurons in the brain of a chronically stressed individual may have fewer and shorter dendrites (pathways for sending information). This deficiency impairs communication with other dendrites, reducing the brain's ability to process information effectively (Allen & Klein, p.20).

Hans-Selye: Performance-Stress Relationship Curve

Negative Stress Impedes Learning, Memory and Performance

A child in a constant state of unmanaged stress is primarily focused on survival. "Continual emotional distress can create deficits in a child's intellectual abilities, crippling the capacity to learn" (Goleman, p.27). In addition to a general stressed state, specific events can create anxiety. In the classroom this often relates to performance anxiety. Most of us can recall a time when the anxiety felt before a test, presentation or other performance caused the mind to "go blank" and all our studying or rehearsing went out the window. When the anxiety passes, information and skills come flooding back.

It's normal to have a touch of apprehension and butterflies in the stomach before a test. This is the positive side of the stress curve that actually enhances performance. However, when the anxiety gets out of control and crosses to the other side of the curve, performance plummets. Recently a fourth-grader who had just finished taking a state math test said, "The worst part was dividing fractions. I got so anxious I thought I would faint." D'Arcy Lyness, at the Nemours Foundation of Pediatric Research, states "High anxiety disrupts students' concentration and results in low test scores" (Black, "Test Anxiety," American School Board Journal, June 2005).

When we are emotionally upset we say we "just can't think straight". This is because unmanaged stress shuts much of the thinking brain down. Accompanying this are heart and brain patterns that create chaos in our brain's ability to process information.

Heart Rate Variability

(Childre & Martin, The HeartMath Solution, p.37, 1999)

The degree to which the heart rate changes over time is referred to as heart-rate variability or HRV. Rather than beating at a fixed rate all the time, our heart speeds up and slows down as it responds to different emotions, usually in small, imperceptible ways. Researchers at the HeartMath Institute have measured the impact emotions have on HRV. Their studies have shown that when we are stressed, our heart rate patterns are chaotic, disorganized and non-coherent (Childre & Martin, The HeartMath Solution, 1999, p.37). A non-coherent heart pattern produces non-coherent patterns in the brain. This decreases the brain's ability to process information and recognize patterns – things don't make sense. The ability to problem solve and learn is greatly reduced. (Hannaford, Awakening the Child Heart, 2002, p.3).

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that acts as a stimulant and sensitizes brain cells to look for patterns. Strong dopamine levels are reflected in sharper thinking and focused behavior. However, stress can cause an overproduction of dopamine resulting in anxious, hypervigilant and/or perfectionist behavior. Stress can also cause an underproduction of dopamine if the person's defensive behavior is to tune out and withdraw. Low levels of dopamine are associated with inattentive, unmotivated behavior (Bailey, pp. 46, 47).

Many studies have confirmed that both working memory and long-term memory are inhibited by stress. Working memory is a term for the "capacity of attention that holds in mind the facts essential for completing a given task or problem. Stress sabotages the ability of the prefrontal lobe to maintain working memory" (Goleman, p.27). That's why a stressed adult may have difficulty remembering her address and a stressed child may have difficulty remembering the words on her spelling test. Research has shown that chronically high cortisol levels released during stress can lead to the death of brain cells in the hippocampus (located in the limbic system), which is critical to forming long term memories (Allen & Klein, p.20).

The Benefits of a Calm Mind and Body: The Relaxation Response

People have natural ways to regulate their response to stress. Fortunately, each of us possesses a natural and innate protective mechanism against over-stress, which allows us to counter the effects of the fight-flight reaction. We do this naturally when we relax – we play, laugh, go for a walk, get a massage or take a soothing bath. This activates the opposite response to stress – what Dr. Herbert Benson, a professor at Harvard Medical School and president of Mind/Body Medical Institute, calls the relaxation response. By using simple stress-reducing techniques, such as deep breathing or muscle relaxation, we can purposefully activate the relaxation response.

When we are relaxed, our body's parasympathetic nervous system counteracts the harmful effects of stress in the following ways:

  • releases tension in tight muscles;
  • lowers blood pressure, decreases heart rate and breathing rate;
  • stabilizes blood flow to muscles;
  • slows metabolism;
  • turns hormonal temperature back down to a "normal" setting;
  • strengthens the immune system;
  • releases dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters associated with feelings of pleasure and well being;
  • possibly liberates nitric oxide. One of the actions of nitric oxide is to directly counteract the actions of the stress hormones in the brain and body. (Hypothesis published by Herbert Benson, The Mind/Body Medical Institute website) (Benson, Relaxation Response, Revised Edition, 2000)

A calm heart releases tranquilizing hormones that promote feelings of harmony toward others. One of these hormones is ANF (atrial natriuretic factor). This is called the 'balance hormone' – it plays a major role in balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. In a balanced state the SNS speeds us up for action and the PNS slows us down for contemplation. In addition, ANF inhibits the release of stress hormones such as cortisol (Childre & Martin,The HeartMath Solution, 1999, p.15).

Calm Brain

©Victoria Tennant Consulting

When Calm, a Child is Better Equipped to Behave in Positive Ways

Being calm turns on more circuits between the feeling and thinking brain, and integrates the right prefrontal lobe's direct responses to emotions with the left prefrontal lobe's ability to regulate these emotions. This allows the brain's CEO to do it's job. When the CEO is "on-line" it makes it possible for a person to:

  • reflect on their emotions and better control their impulses;
  • manage negative emotions such as fear, frustration, and anger;
  • soothe oneself;
  • consider consequences, make thoughtful decisions and plans;
  • move out of defensive survival behaviors;
  • relate to others in more empathic, compassionate ways.

With the brain's CEO at the helm, even in an upsetting situation a calm person is in control of himself. (Amen, Healing the Hardware of the Soul, 2002, 31-33).

It is important to note that the brain's CEO is not fully mature until late adolescence, around age 26 (Geidd & colleagues, National Institute of Mental Health, Nature Neuroscience, 2(10), 1999, pp.861-3). The above skills develop over time. However, each time a child goes from stressed to calm, neural pathways between the impulsive, reactive brain areas and the self-regulating areas are reinforced.

John Gottman, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, states that if children learn to stay calm under stress, they will be less likely to misbehave (Gottman, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, 1997, p.67). Gottman says this self-regulation skill "helps a child get along with others – to control his negative responses in a conflict, share, enter new playgroups, make new friends and handle rejection when peers turn away." "It helps him be better able to handle his own frustration and anger and be more responsive to and cooperative with adult guidance" (p. 33).

Heart Rate Variability

(Childre & Martin, The HeartMath Solution, p.37, 1999)

A Child Learns and Remembers Best When Calm and Positive

When one is calm and alert, the prefrontal lobes are free to engage in higher level thinking tasks. Positive emotions help a child to pay attention, concentrate, solve problems, be creative, learn and remember (Goleman, p. 85).

Researchers at the HeartMath Institute found that positive emotions such as feelings of love, appreciation, peacefulness, and playfulness produce an even heart beat rhythm. This forms a harmonious, coherent heart pattern that looks like a mathematically regular wave. Coherent heart rhythms create coherent brain waves. These harmonious rhythms allow the thinking brain to optimally receive and create patterns from incoming information (Childre & Martin, p.37). Recognizing and creating patterns enable us to make sense of the world, learn from our experiences and solve problems (Hannaford, p.3).

Feeling relaxed, alert and positive balances the dopamine system so we can pay attention, recognize patterns and think clearly (Bailey, pp. 45-47). Dopamine stimulates the brain's reward pathways. This drives motivation – it feels good so we want to repeat the experience. Serotonin is associated with feelings of well being. "Serotonin works hand in hand with dopamine. The dopamine system helps us focus, while the serotonin system keeps us from being overwhelmed with too much incoming stimuli. Serotonin is like calming music in the doctor's office" (Bailey, p. 47).

A Child's Experiences in Calming Himself may Help his Brain Develop the Ability to Self-Regulate his Response to Stress Throughout Life

Vagal tone refers to the ability to self-regulate our physiological response to stress. Vagal tone is a term that comes from the vagus nerve, which is a large nerve originating in the brainstem responsible for many functions of the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation). The vagus nerve carries information from and to the brain, heart and other areas of the body.

Just as kids with good muscle tone excel at sports, kids with high vagal tone excel at responding to and recovering from emotional stress. . . These children are good at soothing themselves, focusing their attention and inhibiting action when that's what's called for . . . Learning to be calm helps the child to concentrate in learning situations and to focus on the achievement of specific tasks. . . The experience children have with emotion while their parasympathetic nervous systems are still under construction may play a big part in the development of their vagal tone – and consequently their emotional well-being – later in life (Gottman, pp.38, 39).

Calming Strategies for the Classroom

It is essential that educators minimize stressful events in the classroom as much as possible. Basic needs must be met by providing a safe environment, structure, consistency and positive relationships. In addition to creating a safe, caring environment, educators can help students manage the stressful moments that inevitably come up in the school setting. Instead of viewing them as a disruption, stressful moments can be turned into opportunities to establish self-calming skills.

There are a number of well-researched techniques that break the stress cycle and activate the relaxation response to bring the body/mind system back into a healthier balance. These calming techniques may seem very simple, yet they can have immediate profound effects. Any calming technique, applied in a moment of stress, can be powerful. Students can redirect their scattered energy by doing even the briefest exercise. After focusing the student's attention on managing their stress, students can then be directed to focus on an academic or creative activity. For example, hyperactive children, as a result of training in muscle relaxation, have shown improvement in attention and concentration, behavior and self-concept (Chang and Hiebert, Medical Psychotherapy, 1989, p.2).

With that said, self-calming is a process that ultimately requires mastery of specific skills. "Take 5" offers a framework for five calming skill steps. Once learned, this framework provides a powerful template for managing stress throughout life. "Take 5" is presented in the next section with suggestions about how to teach the process to students. The final section includes specific calming techniques – deep breathing, muscle relaxation, positive images, positive self-talk, and integrated movements.

"Take 5" Calming Steps ©Victoria Tennant Consulting

Step 1: I notice how I feel.

Step 2: I accept myself.

Step 3: I calm myself.

Step 4: I notice how I feel now.

Step 5: I tell myself something positive.

Step 1: I notice how I feel.
Body signals might be:
tight muscles, shallow breathing, fast breathing, hot face, pounding heart, sweaty hands, stomach or head ache, fuzzy brain.
Emotions might be:
nervous, anxious, scared, upset, frustrated, mad.

Step 2: I accept myself.
Say out loud: Even though I. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .I am. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Even though I feel angry, I am a good kid.
Even though I feel frustrated, I am an awesome kid.
Even though I feel nervous, I am a smart person.
Option: Say the statement 3 x while tapping the Karate Chop point.

Step 3: I calm myself.
Choose something from your calming menu:
Take deep breaths.
Tense and relax your muscles.
Imagine something positive.
Do a Brain Gym movement.

Step 4: I notice how I feel now.
Body signals might be:
loose muscles, slower & deeper breathing, cool face, quiet heart, dry hands, no more stomach/head ache, clear brain.
Emotions might be:
relaxed, calm, peaceful, quiet, happy.

Still stressed? Go back to Step 3!

Step 5: I tell myself something positive.
"I am relaxed and do my best."
"I am calm and remember what I learn."
"I am calm and make good decisions."

Teach students the calming steps of "Take 5" separately before putting it all together

Steps 1 and 4: Noticing

Self-calming is a skill that is built on noticing. Noticing creates connections between the body, feeling brain and prefrontal lobes (CEO). One must tune into the body and emotions to notice:

  • stress signals,
  • what calming activity would be best to break the cycle,
  • a shift to a relaxed, calm state.

This is a skill that can be taught and developed through coaching and practice. Noticing is built into the calming techniques offered in the last section.

Step 2: Acceptance

This step helps to overcome resistance to change. "When you are upset, you always focus on what you don't want" (Bailey, p. 95). Gary Craig, creator of Emotional Freedom Techniques® (EFT), calls this resistance factor psychological reversal. "Psychological reversal is caused by self defeating, negative thinking which often occurs subconsciously and thus outside of your awareness (Craig, EFT Manual, 2004, p.21)." To correct this, Craig proposes a neutralizing statement. The first part of this statement acknowledges the problem (Even though I feel mad); the second part affirms self-acceptance (I am a good kid).

EFT maintains that upset feelings cause disruption in the body/brain's electrical system and that this disruption can be balanced by tapping certain energy meridian (pathway) points. Craig recommends tapping a specific point on the hand while saying the acceptance affirmation to aid in it's effectiveness. With the pointer finger and third finger of either hand, firmly but gently tap the Karate Chop point of the other hand – this is the fleshy part of the outside of the hand between the top of the wrist and the base of the baby finger. Say the statement out loud three times. (Craig, p.21). For more information about EFT and using it with children, go to

Introduce and practice this step when students are mildly to moderately stressed (if the stress level is too high, learning will not occur). Use opportunities such as frustration over doing a math problem, or feeling nervous about taking a test.

Step 3: Calming Techniques

The techniques offered here are examples from classic stress-reduction strategies – deep breathing, muscle relaxation, positive images, and positive self-talk. The benefits of these are well documented in stress-reduction literature, thus specific references are not cited. (References are included for The Integrated Movements from Brain Gym™, as these are newer strategies and not as well documented).

Introduce and practice calming techniques when the students are calm. Transition times, or whenever your students need a quick break, provide opportunities to teach and practice these techniques. The Calming Techniques provide a menu from which to choose – you do not need to do them all. Add your own favorites.

Recommended resources:

  • Jeffrey Allen and Roger Klein. Ready, Set, R.E.L.A.X, A Research Based Program of Relaxation, Learning and Self Esteem for Children, Inner Coaching, 1996. (applicable to all ages)
  • Tennant, Victoria. Calming Ourselves in Stressful Moments, Helping Young Children and their Caregivers Manage Stress, Comprehensive Health Education Foundation, 2003. (for ages 3 - 7)

Step 5: Positive Self-Talk

This is addressed in the section on Calming Techniques and includes other examples of positive statements.

Putting it all together: The "Take 5" Calming Steps

Once you and your students are familiar with each of the five steps, introduce the Take 5 framework. Ask students to use the fingers on their hand to memorize five calming steps. Tell them to "Make a fist to represent feeling stressed. Release a finger each time you say a step – thumb: "I notice how I feel"; pointer finger: "I accept myself"; third finger: "I calm myself", ring finger: "I notice how I feel now", little finger: "I tell myself something positive." Say "You now have an open hand to represent feeling relaxed and calm."

Practice as a group. Be proactive and ask students to "Take 5" in situations you know will have the potential to create stress. Examples:

  • transitions – at the beginning or end of the day/class period changing from one activity to another
  • before taking a test
  • before student presentations
  • during a frustrating part of a lesson
  • when students are tired and need a quick break
  • whenever the energy is chaotic

Always give the student the choice in participating in any of these activities. If a student does not want to participate, give the option of just sitting quietly. If you push it, you will end up in a "survival brain" power struggle and will create more stress. Remember the purpose of the activities is to relax!

The end goal is to help students manage their own stress when it comes up. Give an angry student "Take 5" as a cool down option; suggest to the student having a hard day to "Take 5." If the student is resistant, let it go and try it another time. Continue to practice as a group – "This is frustrating, let's all "Take 5." Demonstrate using the process yourself, "I'm having a hard time staying calm right now, I need to "Take 5." You are a powerful role model . . . children learn by watching what adults do.

Calming Techniques

Technique: Deep Breathing
When we are under stress we often "hold our breath" or breathe very shallowly, lifting only the rib cage. Taking slow deep breaths is a quick way to break the stress cycle, it automatically shifts a stress reaction (sympathetic nervous system) to a relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system). Slow, deep abdominal breathing expands the lower lung area to take in more air and allows the diaphragm to expel stale air from the lungs.

Noticing: Recognize when breathing is shallow (stress) versus slow and deep (calm).

Deep breathing is a skill that must be learned. For many, shallow breathing is a habit. If possible, ask students to lie on their backs when you introduce this process. This keeps the shoulders from rising up with the inhale (bringing air only into the upper lungs) and helps focus on the movement of the diaphragm. In a sitting position, always keep the back straight. Breathe in deeply through the nose – breathing in through the mouth triggers the gasping reflex and can cause hyperventilation. Breathe out through the nose or mouth. It's helpful for students of all ages to have a concrete image to focus on, as in the example below.

Balloon breathing: Say "Close your eyes or softly focus on something in front of you. Put your attention on your breathing. Notice if it is fast and shallow or slow and deep. "Put your hands on your stomach. Imagine you are a balloon, notice what color you are. . . Take a slow deep breath in through your nose Feel yourself fill with air as your hands on your belly move up. . . Now let the air out slowly and gently through your mouth. Feel yourself getting flatter as your hands move down. . . "

Establish a rhythm. Slowly say: "Breathe in round and full . . . hold . . . breathe out flatter and empty. . . "Do this three times. Then ask the students to "Imagine a sky full of beautiful colored balloons (pause). Now notice your breathing. Is it different from the beginning of this exercise? Is it slower and deeper?"

Deep Breathing procedure for preschool and primary:
Introduce the concept of deep breathing by blowing bubbles. Give the child bubble liquid and a wand and let him experiment. Ask him what he needed to do to get the best bubbles. . . take a deep breath, blow slowly, gently, etc.

Benefits of deep breathing:

  • More fully circulates blood and oxygen to the body.
  • Relaxes the body, calms the mind and emotions.
  • Reduces pain and fear.
  • Cleanses the blood of toxic stress chemicals.
  • Helps to focus attention and promotes clear thinking.
  • Increases physical and mental energy.

Technique: Muscle Relaxation
The emphasis is on sensing the feeling of tension in order to get the feeling of relaxation. Tensing and relaxing the muscles releases stored tension in the body.

Noticing: Recognize when specific muscles are tight and how it feels to release that tension and relax.

Ask students to notice how specific muscle groups feel. Tell them you will ask them some questions to think about silently.
Say "Focus your attention on the muscles in your face – notice how your forehead feels. Are the muscles tight like a frown? Notice the muscles around your mouth and jaw. . . is your jaw clenched and your mouth tight? Now squeeze all the muscles in your face tight, making a face as you do. . . tighter. . . .tighter. . . .Now let your face relax. . . .How do your muscles feel now?"

If you have the time and students' attention, you can progress down the body. Noticing, tensing and relaxing muscle groups in the neck and shoulders/arms and hands/chest and back/legs and feet.

Muscle Relaxation procedure for Preschool and primary:
Use concrete images and guide the children to act them out. Example: "Be a frozen snowman and make your muscles tight and hard. Notice how that feels in your body. . . Now the sun comes out and you start to melt. . . there goes your head slipping down to your shoulders." Slowly continue down the body until the child melts into a puddle. "How does your body feel being a puddle?"

Benefits of muscle relaxation:

  • Develops an awareness of the body and related vocabulary.
  • Releases tension stored in the body, decreases anxiety.
  • Balances the bodies fight-flight responses.
  • Increases the ability to focus and concentrate.

Technique: Positive Images
Our imagination is especially vivid when we worry. When we worry we create possible scenes of "what might happen if . . . " that can easily get out of control and turn into scenes of disaster. Because our bodies respond as if these images were real events, just by worrying we set off the stress response. By anticipating the worst, such as telling ourselves we'll fail – with the talk we're about give, the test we're about to take, or the game we're about to play – we may actually create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our body is so pent up with stress by the time we actually perform, that even if we are well prepared, it's hard to think clearly. In addition to making it difficult to do our best, constant worrying makes us vulnerable to stress-induced illness. Rather than letting our imaginations run wild with worries, we can use the mind to short-circuit the cycle by replacing stressful thoughts with comforting and relaxing images. Because our muscles respond to our imagination, we have a powerful tool to relax the tension our body feels whenever we are stressed.

Noticing: Be aware of negative images and thoughts. Break the worry cycle by intentionally creating positive images and thoughts. Notice the difference in how you feel and what you experience.

Lead students through guided imagination activities as a way to help them create their own positive images. "Imagination vacation" example: "Close your eyes and notice how you are feeling. Notice if you have any thoughts that may be upsetting or uncomfortable. Now take 3 deep breaths. Imagine any thoughts you don't want drift away as you breathe out. . . Think of a place that makes you feel happy. . . Imagine it with all of your senses. . . what do you see, hear, feel, smell?. . . Allow yourself to enjoy being in this special place (pause 1 minute). Gently let this image go. . . Notice how you are feeling now. . . Bring your attention back to the room, slowly stretch and open your eyes."

Positive Images procedure for Preschool and primary:
If the child is still upset after you've helped her process her emotions, ask her to take some deep breaths and imagine she is blowing her (mad, sad, frustrated) feelings out into bubbles, where they gently drift away and pop. Suggest images that use fantasy to emphasize positive attributes. Ask the children to sparkle like a bright star; shine like the sun; be gentle like a bunny; quiet like a mouse.

Benefits of positive images:

  • Reduces anxiety and depression.
  • Develops positive attitudes, feelings and behavior.
  • Stimulates the prefrontal lobes – the CEO is the seat of imagination.
  • Develops self-control.

Technique: Positive self-talk
Words are powerful. Self-talk determines how we perceive and respond to the events in our world. Negative thoughts create muscle tension, negative chemistry, maladaptive feelings and behaviors. Positive words and images strengthen corresponding positive chemistry, good feelings and successful behaviors.

Noticing: Notice the positive and negative words that dominate your vocabulary – both in your thinking and speaking. Structure your sentences in a positive light. Acknowledge that this can be difficult in the beginning until it becomes a habit. Catch yourself in the act of thinking or speaking negatively and make a commitment to change.

·Speak to students in a positive manner. Express what you want to have happen, versus what you don't want – e.g. "please walk" versus "don't run."
·Affirm the positive qualities of students often. Encourage students to think and say good things about themselves.
·Post positive words, sayings and intentions in the classroom.
·Use positive language to re frame negative experiences. Ask yourself and the student. . . .what is the opportunity or gift in this situation? What can we learn from this?
·Help students set intentions – positive words that state how they want to feel, think, behave. These statements do not need to be true in the present, they are suggestions to the subconscious mind of how we want to be. Do this after a calming activity – the subconscious will be more receptive and will absorb the messages deeply. The following intentions are from Ready Set R.E.L.A.X.

Examples of intentions for stress management:
Movement helps me feel better.
I breathe out tension and breathe in calm.
Positive thoughts help me when I am nervous.
Releasing tension relaxes me.
I let go and relax.
I feel peaceful.
I am filled with energy.
When I am relaxed my mind and body work well.

Examples of intentions for learning:
I am relaxed, alert and ready to learn.
My mind holds many ideas.
I easily remember what I learn.
I enjoy learning new things.
I clearly express my ideas in writing.
I am a good listener.
Reading helps me learn wonderful things.
I am confident when taking a test.
I have the patience to keep trying.
I am filled with good ideas.
I enjoy using my imagination.
Numbers are my friend.

Examples of intentions for self-concept:
I am happy being me.
I feel good about who I am.
I am an awesome kid.
I always look at the positive side of things.
I am important to myself and others
I am lovable and capable
I enjoy playing and working with others.
When I am down I bounce back.
I feel love and joy in my life.
I make the right decisions because I care about myself.
I feel positive about my future.

Benefits of positive self-talk:

  • Children learn that their words are tools for positive self- direction.
  • Helps children to speak and think in a positive way.
  • Empowers children to cope with stressful situations by re framing (seeing things differently).
  • Encourages hopefulness and the belief in one's ability to meet challenges and succeed.
  • Improves self-concept, attitude, behavior and achievement.

Technique: Integrated Movements – Brain Gym
When the stress level increases the level of brain integration decreases.
Brain Gym, a program developed by Paul Dennison uses simple integrative movements which focus on specific aspects of sensory activation to facilitate integration of brain/mind functions. For more information and exercises, refer to:

  • Dennison, Paul & Gail. Brain Gym, Revised Teacher's Edition Edu-Kinesthetics, Inc., 1994.
  • Hannaford, Carla, Smart Moves, Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head, Carla Great Ocean Publishers, Revised Edition 2005. (Neurological research that supports Brain Gym)

Noticing: Be aware of physical, emotional and mental states before and after doing an integration exercise. Example: Notice how you feel before taking a test. "My stomach aches, I feel nervous and my brain feels fuzzy." Do an integration exercise. Check back in and notice how you feel now: "My stomach doesn't hurt, I feel calmer and my brain feels clear."

Benefits: The overall purpose of the following Brain Gym exercises is to reintegrate systems in the body and brain to work together harmoniously.


Tell the student that they will be marching in place while tapping their opposite knee. Directions:
1. Stand with your feet slightly apart, arms at sides. Lift your right knee toward your chest as you cross your left hand over the midline of your body, placing the hand, palm open to the outside of the right knee.
2. Return to the starting position, and repeat with your right hand and left knee to complete 1 set.
3. Continue in a rhythmic fashion. Go slowly for optimal brain integration. Option: use music to set the pace.
4. Vary the types of cross-lateral movements.


  • This cross lateral movement facilitates balanced nerve activation across the corpus callosum and engages large areas of both brain hemispheres simultaneously (Hannaford, p.131).
  • Cross-crawl is an excellent exercise to do when overwhelmed by too much information or when there is performance anxiety.

Lazy 8's
This activity is done by training the eyes on a moving thumb that is making the shape of an infinity sign. Directions:
1. Ask the student to hold either thumb at eye level in the mid-field of the body at approximately an elbow length from the eyes.
2. Using their thumb, student slowly traces in the air the shape of a lazy eight lying on it's side (infinity sign). Start at the center and go up. Ask students to follow the motion of their thumb with their eyes, keeping their head still, but relaxed. The movement should be slow enough for the eyes to easily track.
3. Do several times, varying the size of the 8. Switch hands – notice any difference.
4. Join hands, making an X with the thumbs. Do Lazy 8's with eyes on the X.


  • Releases stress stored in muscles of eyes.
  • Integrates left and right brain functioning.
  • Helps the eyes to cross the midline – an important eye-tracking skill in reading.
  • Lazy 8's are good to do prior to reading, or as a break from reading or computer work. (Hannaford, pp. 139,140)

This is a position that can be done sitting or standing. Directions:
1. Cross an ankle over the other.
2. Cross a wrist over the other, extend the arms and put palms together (thumbs down), lace fingers.
3. Bend the elbows out as you gently rotate the hands under, turning the fingers in toward the body until they rest on the chest.
4. Close eyes and put your tongue on the roof of mouth.
5. Relax and breathe deeply for a minute or two.


  • "This complex balanced configuration equally stimulates both hemispheres of the brain, the entire motor coordination system and the vestibular system, thus stopping the survival reaction by bringing the system into coherence, and assisting focus, learning and memory" (Hannaford, p.134).
  • Hook-ups is a powerful anger management tool – it helps the student shift from survival mode and reconnect with the thinking brain. Offer it as a cool-down option.


Allen, Jeffrey & Klein, Roger. Ready Set R.E.L.A.X., A Research Based Program of Relaxation, Learning and Self-Esteem for Children, Inner Coaching, 1996.

Amen, Daniel. Healing the Hardware of the Soul, The Free Press, 2002.

Armstrong, Thomas. The Myth of the A.D.D. Child, Plume, 1997.

Bailey, Becky. Conscious Discipline – Brain Smart Classroom Management, Loving Guidance, 2001.

Benson, Herbert. The Relaxation Response, Updated and Expanded Edition, Harper Torch, revised 2000.

Childre, Doc & Martin, Howard. The HeartMath Solution, Harper, San Francisco, 1999.

Craig, Gary. Emotional Freedom Techniques Manual, 2004,

Dennison, Paul & Gail. Brain Gym®, Revised Teacher's Edition, Edu-Kinesthetics, Inc., 1994. 800-388-9898,

Feinstein, Sheryl. Secrets of the Teenage Brain, The Brain Store, 2004.

Geidd, Jay & colleagues, National Institute of Mental Health. Nature Neuroscience, 2(10), 1999.

Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence, Bantam Books, 1997.

Gottman, John. Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child, Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Hannaford, Carla. Awakening the Child Heart, Jamilla Nurr Publishing, 2002.

Hannaford, Carla. Smart Moves, Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head, Great River Books, Revised Edition, 2005.

Humphrey, James. Helping Children Manage Stress, A Guide for Adults, Child and Family Press, 1998.

Lewis, Sheldon & Sheila. Stress-Proofing Your Child, Bantam Books, 1996.

Tennant, Victoria. Calming Ourselves in Stressful Moments, Comprehensive Health Education Foundation, 2003,

Witkin, Georgia. KidStress: What It Is, How It Feels, How To Help, Viking Penguin, 1999.

About the author

Victoria Tennant, M. Ed. is an independent educational consultant. Her current workshops and curriculum materials reflect a synthesis of 25 years of studying and presenting implications and applications of brain/mind research. She is the creator and trainer of two interactive programs: Healthy Beginnings, Nurturing Young Children's Growing Minds™ and Calming Ourselves in Stressful Moments™ published by Comprehensive Health Education Foundation. Victoria is a licensed Brain Gym® instructor/consultant.

For presentations and school in-services contact Victoria at

©September 2005 Victoria Tennant

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