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Acting Out Could Be Sign of Stress


Children today live with more uncertainty, stress, and trauma than those of a generation ago, leading many to act out in school. Teachers need to differentiate between kids who are disobedient and those who are anxious, says child trauma expert Barbara E. Oehlberg. Included: Ways to help stressed kids.

Children who bully others or act out in class may be reacting to trauma rather than a lack of self-discipline, according to Barbara E. Oehlberg, an Ohio-based education and child trauma consultant. Youngsters today are growing up with more stress and uncertainty than in the past, and if they have no other outlet for their anxiety, they tend to misbehave, according to Oehlberg. Not only that, but stress and anxiety prevent these students from doing well in school.

Oehlberg discusses some approaches teachers can use to help students release stress in her book Reaching and Teaching Stressed and Anxious Learners in Grades 4-8: Strategies for Relieving Stress and Trauma in Schools and Classrooms. Too often the root causes of a childs anxiety is not addressed, so both behavior and learning suffer, she maintains.

Oehlberg talked with Education World about ways teachers can help stressed children, not by trying to be therapists, but by incorporating activities into their lessons that allow for self-expression.

Barbara E. Oehlberg
Barbara E. Oehlberg

Education World: What are some ways teachers can assess the stress levels of students in their class?

Barbara E. Oehlberg: Classroom assessment of stress levels in students by teachers is through the informal interpretations or labeling of children's acting-out behaviors: Is it misbehavior or stress behavior?

Neurological research over the last decade provides educators with the opportunity to gain insights into the root causes of disruptive behaviors rather than drawing assumptions from observing external presentations of anxiety commonly categorized as misbehaviors. In addition to gaining understandings that fears and stress are the underlying cause of disruptive behaviors, the research affords teachers and schools alternative approaches to prevention and interventions that increase productive outcomes. What has become evident is that the most common protocols and responses to student stress alarm behaviors increase their anxiety and make them more symptomatic; profoundly affecting their ability to achieve academically.

Students who have developed a neurologically-sensitized stress alarm system, as the result of early experiences of witnessing violence or experiencing maltreatment, are unable to deal with threats, perceived or real. Such threats cause them to downshift from their neo-cortex to lower areas of the brain for survival purposes. The only area of the brain that can participate in cognitive learning is the neo-cortex. This is why many students can present acting-out behaviors and why they cannot learn up to their potential.

"Children haven't changed, but childhood has, and children are making adaptations, albeit maladaptations, in order to live in a world in which they clearly sense adults cannot guarantee safety.
EW: Why does it seem more difficult these days for children to resolve the stress in their lives?

Oehlberg: The reasons for children's under-developed abilities to exercise stress management and self-regulation are multiple and complex. Children haven't changed, but childhood has, and children are making adaptations, albeit maladaptations, in order to live in a world in which they clearly sense adults cannot guarantee safety.

The majority of these perceptions and experiences occurred before reaching school age. Some of the changes are: Incomplete attachment and predictable nurturing, unavailability of a biological parent or extended family, lack of safety in family or neighborhood, images of violence in electronic entertainment, or tragic national disasters. Any of these can alter critical brain development during the first three years of a child, plus the impact can be cumulative.

Because today's children are neurologically-wired differently than students a generation ago, their requirements from teachers and schools are different from what seemed to work in the past. Unfortunately, this neurological research has yet to be fully integrated into teacher trainings or school policies.

EW: What about the current school climate, if anything, makes it harder for children to deal with the stress they have or do encounter?

Barbara E. Oehlberg

Oehlberg: Current school climates are focused almost exclusively on academics with heightened pressure to achieve on tests. Much of this focus has come at the expense of teaching the whole child. Many schools have dramatically reduced, if not cut totally, art, music, and life skill development; even recess in some cases.

Increasing the pressure to achieve with students who were not afforded the opportunity to experience safe and secure early childhoods is resulting in increased explosive behaviors by students. Bullying behaviors have dramatically increased despite conflict management programming.

Youngsters who were not afforded the opportunity to complete secure attachments during early infancy miss out on critical brain development, reducing their lifetime capacity for self-regulation, stress management, and empathy, unless they receive intervention.

EW: What would you say to someone who said it is asking too much of teachers for them to help students sort out these types of issues?

Oehlberg: I will admit that expanding the role of teachers/educators at a time when they are already over extended may seem irrational. However, my sense is that most educators entered our profession because of a noble and personal commitment to making a difference in student's lives, not because of the wage scale.

Today all teachers are mandated, through the No Child Left Behind Act, to increase the academic achievement of all students. But stressed and anxious learners are not able to reach their full potential until they have processed the memories of fear from earlier experiences. Teachers may be the only adult some students ever have access to that could provide the tools for bringing relief and hope. We don't resolve these issues for students; we give them the tools to do so through art and creative writing.

My concern is for the students who will never get an opportunity to benefit from a therapist. We, as educators, are required to provide a meaningful education that works for all learners.

EW: What are some classroom assignments that can help all students be more introspective?

Oehlberg:Youngsters cannot access horrific memories cognitively because they is not stored in their neo-cortexes. The only way they can connect with such a memory, release it, and process it in order to experience relief is through the psycho-motor process of body or hand movement.

"Because today's children are neurologically-wired differently than students a generation ago, their requirements from teachers and schools are different from what seemed to work in the past.
Play activities are applicable for grades K-3. Art and creative writing exercises fit into the core curriculum topics of language arts and social studies for grades 4-8. Journaling is especially productive when seed ideas are suggested, allowing students to symbolically address an injustice or a challenging situation as they provide a resolution for a fictional character that reinstates safety and fairness.

Here is an example of a journaling topic: Write about a youngster who has found a way to make shoes that have the ability to make adults walk in children's shoes and sense their hurts, loneliness, or invisibility. Expand on how this changes a child's life or their neighborhood.

EW: How should teacher training programs address the problem of many children coming to school stressed and anxious?

Oehlberg: The opportunity to include an awareness of how stress and the anxiety of trauma can effect students would have to begin with adding the neurological research on brain development to college courses and their text books. Neurological researchers do not integrate their data into professional implementations; educators have to do that.

This e-interview with Barbara Oehlberg is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

Published 01/03/2007