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Got stress? Experts provide tips for back-to-school

Published August 30, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – Have you noticed any new behaviors in your children since you sent them back to school? Sleep disturbances, acting out, or mood swings? These behaviors and others may be signs of stress, according to experts at the University of Illinois.

“Often you’re not going to hear a kid say, ‘I’m stressed out’, so as parents we need to look for signs they are communicating to us through their behaviors,” says Chelsey Byers Gerstenecker, family life educator at U of I Extension.

Once they are aware of their kids’ stress, parents can help them manage it by introducing effective coping skills early in life. According to Gerstenecker, stress management starts with getting kids into healthy routines with plenty of exercise and sleep. And she says parents should encourage kids to talk to them early and often about things that are worrying them.

“We’re teaching our kids it’s better to come tell us about it and not sit on it, so together we can brainstorm how to overcome whatever’s troubling them. It’s just being a family and helping them learn coping strategies that will serve them well throughout life.”

Back-to-school isn’t just hard on kids. Most teachers experience stress on a daily basis, whether it’s from managing troublesome behavior in the classroom or from meeting expectations of administrators.

Erica Thieman, assistant professor in the Agricultural Education Program at U of I, is a teacher educator whose research focuses on stress management. She says the high attrition rate in the first five years of teaching can be attributed in large part to stress. But teacher stress doesn’t just contribute to attrition; it can affect the stress levels of students.

“You can quickly watch a stressed-out teacher turn an entire classroom into a bunch of stress balls just by walking around the room,” Thieman says, due to something called communicative stress. Thieman explains that when the human heart beats, it emits an electromagnetic signal that can be felt by others within a 3 to 4 foot radius. “When we’re stressed, our heart emits a very erratic signal versus when we’re calm, it’s very regular. That erratic signal can be picked up by other people.”

The good news is that there are plenty of strategies for teachers to manage stress. One that Thieman endorses is both free and easy: breathing. “It’s really powerful to take three deep breaths. Cortisol lowers instantly; there’s an instant response in the body to those three deep breaths.” She also strongly recommends a good night’s sleep.

“Ensuring proper sleep – 8 hours for adults – is one of the best stress-management techniques I can offer, especially during the back-to-school time when people are adjusting to new routines and typically more difficult work is required of their brains,” Thieman says.

Not going back to school? Fortunately, Gerstenecker and Thieman say these stress-management tips apply to everyone.

To hear more from these experts on the topic of stress management, listen to the #askACES podcast at https://soundcloud.com/aces-illinois/managing-stress.