It was the morning of the test, and Layla (her name changed for privacy) was ready to shine. She’d actually been ready for weeks — but today was extra exciting. Layla felt confident and relaxed, and for her, that was a big deal. On test days, Layla would often become so nervous that her scores inevitably did not reflect her preparation or understanding. She had been working with the School Psychologist at SA Harlem 4, Traci Ritterband, to learn stress management techniques — and was starting to notice a real difference in how she felt.
When Ms. Ritterband arrived at Layla’s class to give her an individual pump-up speech, Layla knew exactly what she wanted to do. She asked Ms. Ritterband if she could join her on the rounds to offer encouragement to other scholars. Since finding her own confidence, she wanted to help her peers realize that they were capable of anything. Together, she and Ms. Ritterband made sure everyone felt relaxed, ready to go, and equipped with important stress management techniques.
Layla’s story is one of Traci Ritterband’s favorite examples of the difference healthy stress management can make in a child’s life. Every school at SA has its own psychologist, who works closely with scholars to help them thrive. Traci at SA Harlem 4, and Alexandra Franklin at SA Bronx 2 Middle School, are two such experts who make it their mission to provide dedicated support for our scholars.
Here, they come together to discuss what healthy stress management looks like and offer suggestions for supporting scholars at home.
Stress seems scary — why do we experience it?
As Alexandra explains, stress is how we respond to negative or challenging circumstances. This could be anything from physical danger, trying out for the school dance team, getting into an argument with a friend, or taking a high stakes exam. It is actually normal for people to experience stress. At times, short-term stress can even be positive if it provides an opportunity to overcome challenges or if it motivates us to practice or prepare for an important event. Stress becomes a problem when there is too much of it, or if it goes on for too long.
If stress is the body’s natural reaction, can it be controlled?
At both our schools, we help scholars learn effective coping strategies to manage stress. At SA Harlem 4, butterflies in the stomach and shaking hands can be managed by relaxation strategies including deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. Counseling sessions additionally focus on cognitive-behavior therapy approaches, such as recognizing and reframing negative, untrue, or worrying thoughts. If there are “worry monsters” in scholars’ heads who sometimes say things that are not true — “You are going to fail” — scholars learn to challenge the monster with positive or more realistic thoughts.
SA Bronx 2 middle schoolers build upon these techniques, continuing to use learned coping strategies, but also focusing on stress prevention. Our older scholars are given more responsibility, so organization and time management skills are emphasized so that they have strategies to use if they are feeling overwhelmed. During counseling sessions, scholars might create stress scales, learn to identify stressful situations, or select the intensity level of their stress. We emphasize the importance of reframing stress so that scholars can feel more positive and in control.
Are there any steps that can be taken at home to reduce stress — especially for tests?
At both the elementary and the middle school levels, it’s important that parents focus on scholar growth rather than on test scores. We ask that parents set positive and realistic goals with their scholars and convey confidence in their ability to achieve what they’re setting out to do. There are also day-to-day things that can play a big role in ensuring scholars are relaxed, healthy, and happy. Getting a good night’s sleep — at least 8 hours — and exercising and eating well can do wonders for mental health.
Establishing and keeping to routines and finding a balance between work and play is also important in preventing and easing stress. Families should make time for fun activities like reading together, cooking, watching a movie, or simply going for a walk. There are targeted stress management strategies that parents can practice at home, which is especially helpful for younger scholars who are still working on identifying and managing strong feelings. Parents can narrate their feelings and model how to cope. They can also use checklists and create schedules so scholars know what’s on for the day ahead — and feel ready to take it on.
Cover Photo: Traci Ritterband spends each day at SA Harlem 4 ensuring scholars feel supported, loved, and capable.
SA Bronx 2 psychologist Alexandra Franklin helps scholars practice identifying emotions and other coping strategies to manage stress.