What Do You Do with the Stress that You Feel?

Hedda SharapanI was thrilled to once again be able to present -- and to learn from others -- at the annual NAEYC conference last week. It’s such a great opportunity to network with colleagues from all over the country! There’s so much we can learn from each other.

The pre-conference session that our Professional Development Specialist Annette Santella and I presented was on reducing stress. We called it “What Do You Do with the Stress that You Feel? Building on Fred Rogers’ Approach.” To join us, we invited a colleague of Fred’s and ours, Dr. Bruce Rabin, a physician, researcher and professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Dr. Rabin has dedicated his work to helping people learn to reduce stress and develop a healthy lifestyle. It was probably the first time an psycho-neuro-immunologist presented at a NAEYC conference!

Based on his extensive research, Dr. Rabin insisted that if we want to help reduce stress of the children, we have to start by finding ways to reduce our own stress. In his presentation, he told us about the research on the effects of stress. Then he gave us the opportunity to experience stress-reducing techniques like deep breathing, meditation, and guided imagery, so we could feel their effects, practice them and work on using them in our everyday lives.

Talking with Dr. Rabin, I was intrigued by the way his work connected to the Neighborhood series. Over the years people constantly told us how calming Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is for children – and for adults. So we started our session with the video of a typical opening, asking people to think about what’s creating that calming atmosphere. I wonder what you see and hear in it that makes it stress-reducing?

Here are some key points that Fred offered in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that can help us reduce our stress:

1) Being mindful:

We live in a multi-tasking society, but Fred helped us slow down and focus on just one thing at a time. He made the beginning of each Neighborhood program exactly the same, so we could get ready to look closely at that one new thing that he brought in to show us. Do you remember how good it felt to slow down and take the time to focus on the snow globe in the above video?

Only one thing to focus on – now there’s a luxury! Or maybe not a luxury, but something we have to reimind ourselves to work on. Think about how calming it can be when you take a moment to notice and appreciate the sky or a tree on your way to work or to focus on the texture and taste of the food you’re chewing.

2) Building relationships:

I thought it was interesting that when I was filling out my medical history form at my annual checkup last month, one of the questions was how many people I could count on if I needed something. Doctors today are beginning to understand that relationships are key to a healthy lifestyle.

Fred often said, “It’s through relationships that we grow best and learn best” – and that’s not just for children! He created his television program around a “Neighborhood,” and through every aspect of the program, he showed us that working on a relationship with our “neighbors” can help us deal with the ups and downs of life. Look how he started each program, welcoming us all with the invitation “Won’t you be my neighbor?, essentially saying “I will be your neighbor, no matter who you are…no matter what you can or cannot do.”

3) Having realistic expectations of ourselves –

We all fall short of the mark sometimes. That’s just because we're human. Here’s one of my favorite Fred quotes: " The greatest loss we have to deal with is the loss of the image of ourselves as a perfect person." Fred didn’t edit out those moments on camera when he buttoned his sweater wrong or couldn’t learn the hand movements for Ella Jenkins’ song. That’s something we don’t usually see on television. But Fred intentionally left those “mistakes” in to help us remember everyone has moments like that.

Considering all that goes on during a day in a roomful of children, it’s impossible to notice everything…or to always be there before an incident erupts…or even when it erupts! Fred often reminded us there are no perfect teachers, parents, or children – just human ones.

These days I hear a lot about people who are introducing children to yoga techniques, or even having children take a few deep breaths at the start of circle time. We could have focused our NAEYC session on the children, but Dr. Rabin, with his years of experience and research, insisted that we focus on ourselves first and foremost. We have to experience the value of those techniques, like deep breathing, guided imagery and meditation, so that we can appreciate them and believe in them, before we bring them to the children and help reduce their stress as well.

Best wishes for Thanksgiving…we all have much to be thankful for.

P.S. If you need some calming “Mister Rogers” moments, you’ve come to the right place! There are short video clips as well as 26 full-length episodes video-streamed on our PBS kids site.

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