Many years ago, children from birth to four or five years of age exercised natural preschool stress relief. Training in preschool stress relief was both unknown and unnecessary. Stay at home mothers never worried about trying to increase self-concept in their preschool children. They did not work to instill artificial coping skills and specialized anger management skills in pre-schoolers. Common sense dictated preschool stress relief efforts.
In the twenty-first century, however, many who themselves mismanage stress are seeking stress relief techniques for a preschool child or children. I have been appalled, both as teacher and principal, to see the negative, detrimental changes since I began my career. While we struggle to instill greater measures of preschool stress relief, we actually increase stress on young children.
From my viewpoint as career educator of more than 30 years, I would like to address the issue briefly. What are – or should be – appropriate preschool stress relief techniques?
Defining Preschool Stress
Preschool stress is the response of a preschool child to physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual demands made upon the child. When the response is positive, the preschooler experiences eustress. When the response is negative, the child experiences distress. Both are stress: “eustress” is beneficial, happy stress; “distress” is unhealthy, miserable stress.
What Preschool Stress Is Not
1. Preschool stress is not the teacher’s demand that Sally come to the story circle and sit quietly. It is Sally’s response to that demand. Preschool stress relief must focus on the response.
2. Preschool stress is not the teacher’s demand that Bobby try again to count to 20. It is Bobby’s response to that demand. Preschool stress relief must focus on the response.
3. Preschool stress is not Mother’s demand that Sasha stop crying when left at preschool. It is Sasha’s response to that demand. Preschool stress relief must focus on the response.
Preschool Stressors versus Preschool Stress
The most prevalent error in attempts at preschool stress relief is the confusion of stressors with stress.
1. Preschool stressors, on the one hand, are always present. They are an inescapable part of life. Preschool stressors themselves should never be viewed as the cause of stress. Stressors are simply demands made upon the preschool child in one form or another: to cooperate; to learn; to share; to comply with rules; to exercise self control; etc.
2. Preschool stress, on the other hand, is the preschool child’s response to demands made upon him or her. If the child willingly accepts the demands, a feeling of eustress takes over. Endorphins are released and the child is cheerfully compliant. Preschool stress relief is not needed for eustress. If the child rejects the demands, however, distress takes charge. Distress, the fight-or-flight mechanism, releases adrenalin and the child becomes combative or fearful, and non-compliant. Distress does call for preschool stress relief.
Underlying Reason for Preschool Stress
The ultimate, underlying reason preschoolers experience “distress” rather than “eustress” is their inner response to relinquishing control or having no one in control.
Preschool children, like adults, want control in their lives. They want and need boundaries. On the one hand, they don’t want someone else controlling their lives. They want to steer their own lives. The term “terrible twos” originates in the preschooler’s desire to be independent of outside control. On the other hand, they want someone to exercise firm, loving control, and if the adult does not do so, the child will attempt it.
Basic Requirement of Preschool Stress Relief
Stress relief techniques for a preschool child must understand and build on the underlying reason for stress if they are to succeed. Preschool stress relief must focus on the child’s determination to exercise control, or have firm control exercised over, all 4 areas of his or her own life: emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual.
Weeding Out Stressors
Preschool stress relief should not concentrate on wedding out stressors. The stressor is seldom at fault. No matter how great, the stressor itself does not determine how the child responds to it.
It is an error to believe that any of the following 7 approaches (which I have witnessed often) will accomplish preschool stress relief.
1. Adults give commands, and let children comply or not, as they wish.
2. Adults let children roam the room at will.
3. Adults let children refuse obedience until the count of 5, 10, etc.
4. Adults separate children who refuse to get along together.
5. Adults ignore misbehaving children, hoping desire for attention will win.
6. Adults classify misbehavior as stress behavior, and permit it.
7. Adults teach preschool stress relief techniques that focus on relaxation, smiling, and deep breathing, but neglect the root cause.
Successful preschool stress relief has a proven formula, which we address in Part Two of this article.