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How Kids Can Cope With Stress in Our Unpredictable New Reality

In the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, six of the largest school districts in the United States closed, and 1.7 million American students missed school. This figure doesn’t take into account school interruptions after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and elsewhere where officials have no clear timeline for school re-openings for over 350,000 students.


According to some experts, such school closings could have disastrous consequences the likes of which we’ve seen only after Hurricane Katrina. I worry about the students in Texas, Louisiana, Florid, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands who have been displaced by these recent storms, because they may experience the kind of stress my New Orleans students had to handle in 2005 and 2006. Officials on the ground are already reporting a mental health crisis in Puerto Rico. And, as if the hurricanes aren’t enough, scenes of assault weapons spraying bullets on a crowd in Las Vegas pop up in our children’s news feeds and cause more anxiety.

After Hurricane Katrina forced evacuations and devastated New Orleans, I returned home and volunteered to teach creative writing in a public school. My plan was to help children write stories to express their emotions and creative voice. I quickly discovered, however, that many of my students had high levels of anxiety and poor academic success. They had difficulty focusing in class, following my instruction, and sitting still to write. They also fought with each other on the playground. As I got to know them, I learned why.

Many of these children were growing up in poverty, and their families had limited resources to evacuate during the storm. Some had stayed in New Orleans and witnessed trauma. After Katrina, their families moved to other cities – often living in shelters – and my students had missed school. Like many displaced children, they exhibited depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders. Some also faced other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including abuse, neglect, exposure to unsafe environments, and a broken family structure.

Research has shown that children who experience stressful events at an early age may have behavior problems and below-average academic and literacy skills. They are also at increased risk for developing health problems as adults. The good news is that children often respond well to interventions, including classroom mindfulness activities. With a mindfulness program, teachers have reported improved classroom behavior of their students especially in the areas of paying attention, self-control, participation, and respect for others. As a long-time practitioner of mindfulness, I decided to teach my students mindful techniques at the start of each writing class.

Mindfulness is a method of paying attention – on purpose, with kindness and patience – to what’s going on inside and outside of you in each moment. This practice gives adults and children strategies for developing self-awareness and acceptance, improving mental focus, handling difficult emotions, and increasing kindness and empathy. In my writing class, I taught my students many of the mindfulness exercises I still use today as a way of preparing them for the day, and for writing. Here is a sample:

Mindful breathing

Feel your breath come into your nose or mouth, into your lungs, and into your tummy. Feel your lungs release each breath before you take another. Put all of your attention on the air going in and out. If you start thinking about something, shift your attention back to your breathing. This exercise helps you focus on where you are and what you are experiencing in your body in the moment.

Squeeze and release

After taking three mindful breaths, focus your attention on your feet. Squeeze all the muscles tight and then release. Move your attention up your body, squeezing and releasing all your muscle groups until your reach your head. End with three more mindful breaths. This exercise, too, brings your awareness to the physical sensations in your body. You can try it lying down to help you relax.

Mind bubbles

Try this one as a way to release the stressful thoughts that are bothering you. Think of your worries as bubbles that pop. Take three mindful breaths and imagine holding a bubble wand. Breathe in and notice your worry. Breathe out and blow your worry through the wand to form a bubble that floats away and pops. This is a way to see your thoughts as temporary and release them. Repeat the visualization until you feel ready to continue your day. This exercise may not take away immediate problems, but it gives you a tool to release troubling thoughts so you are better prepared to face your life.

Finding the pause

Breathe normally, and at the end of each breath, notice the short pause before you breathe in again. Relax a different part of your body during each pause. Continue as long as you wish, relaxing your whole body a little more with each pause. This exercise helps you handle your emotions and problems with more confidence.

I taught my students these or similar techniques, which we used before writing. In the absence of a controlled study, I can only report that I saw many changes in my students over the school year. At the start of my class, the majority of my students could not write a complete grammatical sentence much less a story with an intact narrative thread.

By the end, every student contributed at least one complete story to our classroom collection, which we printed and bound. They also performed on stage, many reading their writing aloud to a packed auditorium. They also improved in paying attention and controlling their behavior. We simply got along better by the end of the year, and my students were calmer, at least in our classroom.

For the teachers and school administrators who have been affected by the 2017 storms, I wish them courage as they face the challenges of returning to school. They too had to evacuate or shelter in place and may struggle to create a safe environment for their students who could be traumatized. I hope they can put interventions in place that allow for healing and growth during this tough time.

No matter how bleak or surreal our daily reality becomes, our kids don’t deserve to fall into a desensitized-yet-anxious funk we often feel, especially after a series of crises. We owe them a way to cope. Mindfulness is a helpful tool.

For more on mindfulnes, visit Barefoot Books. Whitney Stewart is the author of “Mindful Kids: 50 Activities for Kindness, Focus, and Calm“.

 

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Unstructured play is play without predetermined rules of the game. There are no organized teams, uniforms, coaches or trainers. It is spontaneous, often made-up on the spot, and changeable as the day goes on. It is the kind of play you see when puppies chase each other around a yard in endless circles or a group of kids play for hours in a fort they created out of old packing boxes.

Unstructured play is fun—no question about it—but research also tells us that it is critically important for the development of children's bodies and brains.

One of the best ways to encourage unstructured play in young children is by providing open-ended toys, or toys that can be used multiple ways. People Toy Company knows all about that. Since 1977, they've created toys and products designed to naturally encourage developmental milestones—but to kids, it all just feels like play.

Here are five reasons why unstructured play is crucial for your children—

1. It changes brain structure in important ways

In a recent interview on NPR's Morning Edition, Sergio Pellis, Ph.D., an expert on the neuroscience of play noted that play actually changes the structure of the developing brain in important ways, strengthening the connections of the neurons (nerve cells) in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain considered to be the executive control center responsible for solving problems, making plans and regulating emotions.

Because unstructured play involves trying out different strategies without particular goals or serious consequences, children and other animals get to practice different activities during play and see what happens. When Dr. Pellis compared rats who played as pups with rats that did not, he found that although the play-deprived rats could perform the same actions, the play-experienced rats were able to react to their circumstances in a more flexible, fluid and swift fashion.

Their brains seemed more "plastic" and better able to rewire as they encountered new experiences.

Hod Lipson, a computer scientist at Cornell sums it up by saying the gift of play is that it teaches us how to deal with the unexpected—a critically important skill in today's uncertain world.

2. Play activates the entire neocortex

We now know that gene expression (whether a gene is active or not) is affected by many different things in our lives, including our environment and the activities we participate in. Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D., a Professor at the University of Washington studied play in rats earning him the nickname of the "rat tickler."

He found that even a half hour of play affected the activity of many different genes and activated the outer part of the rats' brains known as the neocortex, the area of the brain used in higher functions such as thinking, language and spatial reasoning. We don't know for sure that this happens in humans, but some researchers believe that it probably does.

3. It teaches children to have positive interaction with others

It used to be thought that animal play was simply practice so that they could become more effective hunters. However, Dr. Panksepp's study of play in rats led him to the conclusion that play served an entirely different function: teaching young animals how to interact with others in positive ways. He believed that play helps build pro-social brains.

4. Children who play are often better students

The social skills acquired through play may help children become better students. Research has found that the best predictor of academic performance in the eighth grade was a child's social skills in the third grade. Dr. Pellis notes that "countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less."

5. Unstructured play gets kids moving

We all worry that our kids are getting too little physical activity as they spend large chunks of their time glued to their electronic devices with only their thumbs getting any exercise. Unstructured play, whether running around in the yard, climbing trees or playing on commercial play structures in schools or public parks, means moving the whole body around.

Physical activity helps children maintain a healthy weight and combats the development of Type 2 diabetes—a condition all too common in American children—by increasing the body's sensitivity to the hormone insulin.

It is tempting in today's busy world for parents and kids to fill every minute of their day with structured activities—ranging from Spanish classes before school to soccer and basketball practice after and a full range of special classes and camps on the weekends and summer vacation. We don't remember to carve out time for unstructured play, time for kids to get together with absolutely nothing planned and no particular goals in mind except having fun.

The growing body of research on the benefits of unstructured play suggests that perhaps we should rethink our priorities.

Not sure where to get started? Here are four People Toy Company products that encourage hours of unstructured play.

1. People Blocks Zoo Animals

These colorful, magnetic building blocks are perfect for encouraging unstructured play in children one year and beyond. The small pieces fit easily in the hands of smaller children, and older children will love creating their own shapes and designs with the magnetic pieces.

People Blocks Zoo Animals 17 Piece Set, People Toy Company, $34.99

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This article was sponsored by People Toy Company. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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As we head into cold and flu season, parents are once again looking down at their little ones and wondering, Is this symptom serious?

One British mom, blogger and broadcaster Charlie O'Brien, has accidentally ensured that many parents can now identify a very serious symptom after a video of her daughter Luna (shot last year) went viral.

In the video Luna (then four weeks old) is breathing in a funny way. "Her breathing was quite fast and her nostrils were flaring," O'Brien explains in a statement to Motherly. With her onesie open, you can see that her ribs seem to be sucking in further than they should be. O'Brien says she now knows that Luna was showing signs of serious respiratory distress.

Experts who've viewed the video for Motherly agree.

"The breathing pattern shown in the video is known as retractions. This occurs when a baby has to use muscles between the ribs or in the neck to breathe and is a sign that a baby is having to work harder than normal to breathe," Dr. Kristin Dean, Associate Medical Director at Doctor On Demand tells Motherly.

O'Brien didn't know exactly what was going on with her daughter when she shot the video, but she knew something wasn't right. Two days earlier O'Brien had noticed Luna wasn't feeling well during a newborn photo shoot and had taken her to the hospital.

She was "concerned about Bronchiolitis as our son had previously had it," she says, adding that the medical staff "kept us in for a few hours but then discharged Luna without treatment as she was much better."

Two days later, the day the video was taken, O'Brien noticed that Luna had been uncharacteristically quiet all day. When she unbuttoned her outfit she saw the sucking in at the ribs, and knew it wasn't right. "I was watching her sleep next to me and realized it didn't look right. I unbuttoned her [outfit] and this is what i saw," she wrote in the caption for the video.

In her statement to Motherly, O'Brien explains why she took the video in the first place. "I called 111 [a telephone service provided by Britain's National Health Service to help people with medical issues] and awaited a call back and during that time I took the short video clip, to show the doctors in the hospital if necessary. In hindsight we perhaps should have called 999 [similar to 911 in the United States] or gone straight to A&E [the accident and emergency department, or ER] without waiting for a call back," she explains.

Because of her mother's call Luna was given priority admission to the pediatric department, where she spent the night on oxygen. She made a full recovery and is now a healthy 1-year-old.

Courtesy Charlie O'Brien



Experts say O'Brien was right to keep a cool head when she noticed her baby's strange breathing. "Although retractions should be taken seriously, it is best for parents not to panic if this is noticed. Instead, parents should take their child to see a doctor immediately. Retractions can occur between the ribs, below the sternum or in the area surrounding the collar bone and appear as a sucking in of the skin as seen in this video," says Dr. Dean.

Diana Spalding is a pediatric nurse and Motherly's Digital Education Editor. She agrees that parents should not panic, and suggests that "for serious respiratory concerns, like severe retractions or wheezing, gasping, or color changes, call 911."

Spalding notes that O'Brien didn't just keep calm and listen to the medical professionals she called, she also listened to herself, which is so important. "The mom trusted her gut," says Spalding. "Parents have a deep and trustworthy sense about when things are off with their children, and I always encourage them to act on that intuition."

Since posting the video, which has now been viewed more than 2.6 million times, O'Brien has heard from parents who have noticed similar symptoms in their own children, and trusted their gut as she did, seeking medical help quickly because they remembered O'Brien's video.

"I'm so pleased I shared the clip - if it means just one baby or family is helped," she says.


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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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If you've got hamburger in your freezer you might want to check it before making dinner.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Cargill Meat Solutions is recalling approximately 132,606 pounds of ground beef products for possible Escherichia coli O26 (aka E.coli).

The beef was sold at various retailers, including Target, Meijer, Safeway and Sam's Club, as well as Save Mart in California. This comes after a previous recall involving ground beef sold at Publix.

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service notes the recalls are the result of an investigation into 17 illnesses and one death in recent months, and that children under 5, older adults and people with weakened immune systems are the most at risk for a type of kidney failure common in people with E.coli infections.

"It is marked by easy bruising, pallor and decreased urine output. Persons who experience these symptoms should seek emergency medical care immediately," the agency notes.


Cargill has issued a statement on its website that reads, in part: "We were distressed to learn a fatality may be related to an E.coli contamination of one of our products. Our hearts go out to the families and individuals affected by this issue."

The recalled beef products were produced and packaged on June 21, 2018. They have a use or freeze by date of July 11.


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To my firstborn baby,
We were overjoyed when we found out we were pregnant with your brother. We were so excited to give you a sibling to play with; someone to love and grow up with. Someone who will be your buddy for life.

But our excitement quickly turned to worry as we thought about how this would affect you. You were the only grandchild, on both sides. The only nephew, on both sides. Basically, the king of the castle. And you relished in that title.

We took special care to wait as long as possible to tell you. We waited until 20 weeks when we knew you were going to be getting a brother. We felt it would be easier for you to wrap your head around and also shorter for you to wait for his arrival.

I still watch the video of you cutting into the gender reveal cake. You were SO excited to see blue—because that meant you were getting a brother. You were overjoyed with telling everyone the news because you were the first to know.

From there your love for him grew every day. YOU too had a baby in your belly. I was carrying YOUR baby. You told everyone who would listen that you were going to be a big brother. We wondered if your love for him would quickly fade when he was actually here. When you realized that you would have to share time and attention...

But we were wrong. Your heart grew a million times bigger the day your brother arrived.

You came to visit me in the hospital wearing your doctor uniform, to check on both of us. You made friends with the nurses. You wanted to make sure I was okay. You wanted to take care of me and were so proud to wear your "Big Brother" shirt your aunt made you.

You were such a trooper during his two-week stay in the NICU. You were too young to go in to visit him. So, for you, it meant you had this mysterious brother you could only see in pictures and videos.

You drew him cards and colored pictures for his isolette (which you so playfully called his aquarium). You told everyone at school you had a new brother and that he would be home soon—even though you didn't know when exactly. Your heart ached as much as ours did. You wanted him home as much, if not more, than we did. You wanted your new family of four.

Sometimes I feel like you are wise beyond your years. A little old man trapped in a pint-sized body.

You were the best helper for Mom and Dad in those first days and months of welcoming your baby brother into our family. You would tell everyone to use hand sanitizer, and check to see if anyone was sick before they walked through the door to our house.

You would tell everyone how to hold your baby. And then them the proper way. You would tell everyone to line up their shoes at the door. You just wanted to keep your brother healthy and safe, ever the protector.

I worried the honeymoon period would wear off, that you would wonder how long he was staying here.

But, I was wrong. It's almost a year later and you are still so in love with your brother. Truly in love. On your obligatory "first day of school sign" you listed your favorite things as: Star Wars, basketball and my brother.

You tell everyone that you love him more than anyone. The way you both laugh hysterically together during peek-a-boo in the back seat of the car literally makes my heart explode into a million pieces, in the best way possible. It is a joy and an admiration I never knew possible as I watch my two precious boys interact and love each other.

My wish is that you will always be best friends. That you always look out for each other. Continue to be each other's biggest fans. Root each other on, even when it's hard, or you don't want to. Because, my sweet, sweet boy, I want you to remember—your brother looks up to you. You are his role model for life. And I thank you for taking that role so seriously.

Love,
Your Mommy

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