TODAY   |  August 29, 2011

Helping kids deal with back-to-school stress

TODAY’s Ann Curry talks with psychiatrist Gail Saltz and Dana Points, of Parents magazine, about what you can do to help children cope with back-to-school stress and gain confidence as the school year starts.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> this morning on back to school "today," helping your child cope with stress, knowing the right way to handle it can be the difference in success and failure in the classroom. the university of chicago dana point issed the or of chief of "parents" magazine. dr. gale saltz is a "today" contributor. good morning, you guys.

>> good morning.

>> great to have you back. this new study really kind of gives us a deeper sense about what's happening to our children when it comes to stress. it basically says that cortisol, which we all know is release, hormone released when under stress, can either be a positive or negative depending on the student's attitude, what the student is expecting going into, for example, a test. isn't that right?

>> basically, exactly right. cortisol released by the aadrenal gland when you feel stressed. when you are well prepared and go in with a positive attitude with i think i will do well, i can handle it, the high ter cortisol went, the better fer form mans they got. if you go in and say, i don't do well at mat, i won't do well with this, if you predicted that, the worse you did on the december it.

>> one thing it tells me is that when we're raising very young children, dana , we've got to really try to create the opportunity for these kids to have a positive experience when it comes to their ability to handle learning.

>> everyone as young as the first test in the elementary school years you can help make your child prepared with good study habits and a good environment, largely tech-free where they can really focus and get ready. and help them understand that any individual test is not a ruling on whether they're good or bad at everything. it doesn't mean they're a good or bad person. it's one test in a life of tests.

>> you also don't want them to be in a position, you said this earlier, where they are being tested or put in positions over their heads because they creates this kind of attitude that they may be failures, they may not be good enough or smart enough.

>> exactly. you want your child to be challenged but i think sometimes the parents have the tendency to sort of put them in an area that's out of their area.

>> you don't want to swarm them but you want to challenge them because you can see you can help them develop this idea that there's an optimum stress. you see this athletes and out kinds of performers. a certain amount of stress can help you perform even better, at your peak.

>> that's the other factor, moving from young kids to older children who have experience with testing, have experience in school, and sometimes those experiences are very bad and sometimes those -- so then how do we sort of help these students who are not testing well, maybe are smarting than they're testing, how do we help them rethink their attitude so that when this cortisol rise happens, they can be better effected, more effective as in test taking in the student.

>> obviously we want to make sure we're talking about a kid that has the ability, you know they're basically reasonably intelligent kid. you want to make sure they're well prepared. sometimes kids say, i just -- i choked. i didn't know. really, they didn't study. they really didn't prepare. we really have to talk about somebody who has spent the time, put in the time and you want to help your child to do the preparation ahead of time. but then there are tricks that you can help them with if they turn out to be anxious kids who are, in fact, exactly that, choking. oh, i'm not going to make it, and then they blank out and they can't retrieve the memory. so if we're talking about test taking, one thing that's helpful is have them write down shortly before the test on a piece of paper all their negative thoughts. and basically the idea of this is offloading. you take your negative thoughts and you're going to put it in your pocket so it won't be in your mind. it's concrete. it does work for kids. during the test if they get that feeling again, it's coming back, i'm not going to make it, i'm not going to make it. help them focus. have a memory picked out of a time they did well on a test. those two cognitive things really help. it's been shown to help in study to actually help them. performance is a little bit different. there's test taking and performance like i'm going to be watched on the field doing a sport. i'm going to be watched in a play, i'm going to be watched in a speech. if that's what you're trying to help them out, help them distract themselves from the thought they're having i'm going to screw up. they can do that right before they take the speech, humming a tune to themselves, or something that's completely other, because, in fact, if you have already memorized or already got that sports skill you can do it as long as it's not interrupted.

>> it sounds like some of these suggestions you're making tell us some of our kids don't know how to relax, don't know how to get rid of the negative thoughts. almost self love , you know. it's almost like that they talk about the record spinning in your head, you know. i'm not good enough. i can't do that. sort of being a better friend to yourself. open your child be a good friend to yourself and say, yeah, i can do it. you can do it. be your own cheerleader.

>> you do have to start as a parent from modeling that at a very young age. we ased a duts are often really critical of our own performance and critical of ourselves and our bodies and all sorts of things. you need to let your child see you in a point where you're maybe not as confident and then see you rise above that. see you prepare. see you feel good. maybe work on visualizing a moment when you succeeded and share that with your child . don't keep that inside. don't hide that.

>> excellent point. you can even say, maybe, you know, i have been hard on myself. i don't want you -- there's talk about it in the open. really good suggestions. dana and gale, thank you. hopefully these will help some of our students as they move now into the school year. thanks so much.

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