What strategies do you share with students to help them deal with stress?
I once found my daughter at midnight sitting in the middle of her bedroom floor in tears. She was working on a project and refused to go to bed until it was complete, even though it wasn’t due for several days. She cried, sharing a list of things she had to do that week, including numerous rehearsals for her dance company’s upcoming performance and various school-related assignments that had, ultimately, sent her to the floor.
She was ten.
The Stress Comes from Within
The pressure my daughter felt came from her own core belief that anything less than perfect was unacceptable. She would come home on some days lamenting that she made a 96 on a test. Then she would list the people in her class who made 97 and above. Her life was a competition.
Both my children were identified as gifted learners, and they were two very different kids. One was driven to do and be the best, competitive on every assignment and stressed over every project and due date. The other was happy-go-lucky and took school work in stride, rarely worrying himself over a grade as long as he got the work done. These invisible standards my daughter had were many times difficult to address since they resulted from her own expectations; my words of comfort were never as loud as her “inner voice.” For some students, this extreme pressure comes from within.
Over the years, I’ve taught students with similar behaviors. I once had a student sobbing in my classroom because as a seventh grader, she had just made her first B on a report card…in art. One point away from an A, that B was not a reflection of her work ethic or intellect; her talents merely lay in other places. But she believed she had let her teachers and her parents down. And she couldn’t forgive herself for being less than perfect.
In her article “Chill Out! Helping Gifted Students Deal with Stress,” gifted expert Terry Bradley says, “It is highly important that educators and parents acknowledge the added complexity of stress in gifted individuals and specifically teach these adolescents some stress management skills to combat stress.” Bradley suggests that we serve as models for kids by acknowledging, not ignoring, our own experiences with stress and recognizing it as a “universal emotion.”
Making Lists Helps
As a teacher, I share with students my own favorite stress-busting strategy: list making! The “I Am Overwhelmed List” helps children and adults alike prioritize and feel more in control of their activities. It gives them a hands-on way of attacking their “to-dos.” Dr. Carrie Barron, a psychologist at Columbia University, indicates that listmaking is not only organizational but can also encourage creativity. In her article, “How Making Lists Can Quell Anxiety and Breed Creativity,” Dr. Barron shares that incorporating color and design onto lists “decreases the sense of drudgery” and makes work more like play, a perfect outlet for gifted creativity!
Teach Balance and Prioritization
Offering a “Stress Buster Mini-Lesson” is helpful for students, and I have even shared this activity with teachers.
- First we brainstorm a list of “relaxers” which are personal to each person (reading for pleasure, a bubble bath, a bike ride) and schedule a specific time to actually do them.
- Then we make our “to-do” lists.
- Once our lists are complete, we sketch a timeline, including our listed items and any “due dates.” Looking at our timelines, we revise our lists, items now ranked in order by priority, and use highlighters to categorize: school work, extracurricular activities, family obligations, etc. Getting our tasks on paper and assigning some as priorities while moving others down the list enables students (and teachers) to feel in control and less overwhelmed.
- I tell my students, “It’s all there…on one piece of paper! You can do it!”
For more activities like these, see Terry Bradley’s activities such as the Teen Inventory and the Stress-o-Meter log.
Honor Their Feelings
I also encourage my students to write about their worries. I share my own creative writing with them as an example. Journal entries, letters, and poetry can all enable students to put their feelings on paper instead of holding them inside. My former student, Robin, now an elementary school teacher, found writing to be a cathartic way to deal with the stress related to the death of her mother; her letters to her mom enabled Robin to use her creative writing talents as a way to work through grief.
What Can Parents Do?
A pediatric psychologist shares some tips for teachers to share with parents of stressed, gifted children.
- First, we must give students an opportunity to talk through their feelings, and it’s important to understand that they may feel more comfortable talking to a teacher or a counselor instead of a parent. Gifted learners can be very sensitive to “letting their parents down.” A teacher opening up the dialogue can give students a space they don’t permit themselves to have at home.
- Supportive communication from parents, even just leaving a sticky note, a lunchbox note, or sending a text, can provide encouragement while setting the stage for open dialogue.
- In addition, she suggests that teachers and parents work together to ensure that there is no external pressure placed on children since the internal pressure they place on themselves can be debilitating. Reinforcing that grades are important but aren’t representative of the “whole” child helps kids understand that “grades don’t make you a good person.”
- Last, provide creative outlets for students in ways that don’t involve competition. Activities that bring joy, without outside pressure, can be positive diversions for kids.
And the pediatric psychologist I consulted? Once she was a ten-year-old sitting on the floor crying over a project.
She’s my daughter.