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Back-to-school stress can dramatically impair learning

Last Updated Sep 6, 2018 at 5:45 am PDT

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Try to turn back-to-school stress into excitement, says psychiatrist

Start with the basics, like ensuring everyone is getting enough sleep and cutting back on sugary drinks

It's tempting to swoop in and be a helicopter parent, says an expert

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Heading back to school can be a stressful time for students of all ages, but parents can do a lot to help their children get through the first few weeks of class in a better frame of mind.

“It is really about reducing the stress and turning that into excitement,” says psychiatrist and author Dr. Shimi Kang.

“We all have to recognize that students are going back to learning, and stress actually completely blocks learning. When we are in a stress mode, we have cortisol in our body. It shuts down our ability to gain information and remember things, it is really counterproductive,” she tells NEWS 1130.

To counteract that, Kang suggests parents ensure their kids are getting back into school-friendly habits.

“Try your best to take care of the basics, first of all. Make sure everyone is sleeping enough and there are back-to-sleep routines. Get back to drinking water, not pop and juice. We have to get bodies back into a bit of a healthy rhythm.”

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But Kang notes parents may have their work cut out for them.

“You really want to balance telling them what to do — pushing them to get ready and micro-managing — with getting them to do it for themselves. It’s tempting to swoop in there and be that helicopter parent and do it for them but that really interferes with the learning, life skills, communication and problem-solving that students need for the entire year.”

Kang says parents should let older kids work things out, buy their own supplies, pick their own courses, and struggle through their own schedules.

“But be there for them, be present. I call that being the ‘authoritative dolphin parent.’ You’re side-by-side with them, shoulder-to-shoulder. You’re firm in the sense that you need to get stuff done with school starting but you’re flexible in that you talk to them about what they want to do on their own and where you can help.”

Kang says it is also important for parents to not project their own stress on their children.

“It is quite dangerous for a couple of reasons. It’s not good for our bodies. Stress hormones really impact our immune system and heart rate. It’s not good for our minds in that it shuts down learning. In neuroscience, we say neurons that fire together wire together — meaning we associate emotions with experiences.”

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If the emotions of going back to school are tense, negative and stressful, that is what is going to be wrapped around the idea of returning to class.

“You want to separate that. Turn it into excitement, turn it into gratitude, turn it into a sense of curiosity about the year and wire positive emotions with the experience of school. That leads to more lifelong learning.”

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Kang adds the world has changed — kids used to go to school to gain knowledge, but now that knowledge and much more is very accessible on digital devices.

“There’s a new skill level required to succeed. Whether it’s university or the workplace, you need communication, collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity. By backing off a bit, parents are really allowing their child to gain those skills. Those are what will really lead them to success in this new world.”

 – With files from Dean Recksiedler