Stress is an inevitable part of life. Human beings experience stress early, even before they are born. A certain amount of stress is normal and necessary for survival. Stress supports children in developing the skills they need to cope with and adapt to new and potentially threatening situations throughout life. Unfortunately, the beneficial aspects of stress diminish when it is severe enough to overwhelm a child’s ability to cope effectively. Intense and prolonged stress can lead to a variety of short- and long-term negative health effects. It can disrupt early brain development and compromise functioning of the nervous and immune systems. In addition, childhood stress can lead to health problems later in life including alcoholism, depression, eating disorders, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases (Middlebrooks & Audage, 2008).
Positive stress results from adverse experiences that are short-lived. Children may encounter positive stress when they move to a new city or country, attend a new school, or meet new people. This type of stress causes minor physiological changes including an increase in heart rate and changes in hormone levels. With the support of caring adults, children can learn how to manage and overcome positive stress. This type of stress is considered normal and coping with it is an important part of the development process.
Tolerable stress refers to adverse experiences that are more intense, but still relatively short-lived. Examples include the death of a loved one, a natural disaster, a frightening accident, and family disruptions such as separation or divorce. If a child has the support of a caring adult, tolerable stress can usually be overcome. In many cases, tolerable stress can become positive stress and benefit the child developmentally. However, if the child lacks adequate support, tolerable stress can become toxic and lead to long-term negative health effects.
Toxic stress results from intense adverse experiences that may be sustained over a long period of time—weeks, months or even years. An example of toxic stress is child maltreatment, which includes abuse and neglect. Children are unable to effectively manage this type of stress by themselves. As a result, the stress response system gets activated for a prolonged amount of time. This can lead to permanent changes in the development of the brain. The negative effects of toxic stress can be lessened with the support of caring adults. Appropriate support and intervention can help in returning the stress response system back to its normal baseline.
Support from parents, teachers and/or other concerned adults is necessary for children to learn how to respond to stress in a physically, socially and emotionally healthy manner. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines Social Emotional Learning (SEL) as “the processes through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions” (CASEL, 2013, p. 4). CASEL has developed a valuable resource for educational leaders and teams aspiring to implement research-based approaches to promote students’ social-emotional development. The CASEL Guide (http://casel.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/2013-casel-guide-1.pdf) provides a systematic framework for evaluating the quality of social and emotional programs and applies this framework to identify and rate well-designed, evidence-based SEL programs with potential for broad dissemination to schools. The Guide also shares best-practice guidelines for district and school teams on how to select and implement SEL programs.
Effective SEL programs include multi-component school-based interventions involving classroom-based curricula that focus on teaching students skills to enhance social and emotional competencies as well as academic learning. Children can learn to recognize and manage their emotions, establish healthy relationships, set positive goals, meet personal and social needs, make responsible decisions, and solve problems. Through SEL, children can learn to exhibit pro-social behavior and character skills that will appropriately guide them not only in school, but also throughout their lives. Implementation of SEL programs in schools provides a foundation for creating a safe learning environment where all students can succeed.
Middlebrooks J.S. & Audage N.C. (2008). The effects of childhood stress on health
across the lifespan. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
Weissberg, R. P., Goren, P., Domitrovich, C., & Dusenbury, L. (2013). CASEL guide:
effective social and emotional learning programs: Preschool and elementary school edition. Chicago, IL: CASEL.